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Bottle-Fed Babies | Spring 2015 Out Here Magazine

Help orphaned newborn livestock thrive by bottle-feeding them correctly

little girl giving a bottle to a calf
Out Here

Story and photography by Heather Smith Thomas


When you own livestock, you occasionally are faced with the challenge of a young animal that is orphaned or rejected by its mother, and needs immediate feeding. Likewise, if you purchase a young dairy calf, you'll need to bottle-feed until it is old enough to thrive on solid feeds.

If the baby is newborn, the first feeding must be colostrum. This "first milk" from the mother is rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and important antibodies to protect the baby from diseases that might be encountered in the first weeks of life.

If a foal or calf is having trouble nursing mama the first time, milk some colostrum from mama, and feed it to the baby with a clean nipple bottle. A foal will need 4 to 8 ounces, a calf, 1 to 2 quarts, depending on his size. The bottle-feeding will give baby enough strength and encouragement to keep trying to nurse his mother.

In other instances — if the mother has died or refuses to accept the baby, for example — you'll have to keep feeding the baby until you find a substitute mother, or simply raise it on a bottle.

If there's no way to obtain colostrum from the mama or from another new mother of the same species, use frozen stored colostrum, if you have it, or use commercial colostrum replacer — an antibody-rich powdered product you mix with warm water.

Be sure it's labeled as replacer rather than colostrum supplement, so that the baby receives adequate antibodies.

After the first few feedings of colostrum during the first day, you can bottle-feed the orphan using milk from another animal of the same species, or raise the baby on milk replacer. Some commercial milk replacers are designed specifically for foals or calves, while others are manufactured as a general replacer for all baby animals.

When feeding a newborn the first bottle, make sure the nipple size is appropriate, and that the hole is the correct size.

A lamb nipple works better for a foal or newborn calf than the bigger, stiffer calf nipples, which work better for a slightly older calf who already knows how to suck.

If the nipple hole is too small, the baby won't be able to suck enough through it and will be discouraged; if it's too large, milk will run too fast and choke him.

Hold the baby's head up in nursing position, and make sure milk is flowing through the nipple. Usually once he gets a taste, he'll nurse eagerly.

You can use a lamb nipple on a small-necked bottle, or a commercial plastic feeding bottle with matching nipple. Make sure bottles and nipples are very clean. Wash them in hot water immediately after every use.

When babies are young, they need to be fed smaller amounts more often, such as every two hours at first for a foal, and every eight hours for a calf.

Locate the daily recommended amount on the milk replacer label for size and age of the animal, and divide it into the proper number of feedings. Always mix each feeding fresh. After the animal is a little older you can go to four, then six hours for a foal, and every 12 hours for a calf.

You'll need to supply milk until the baby is eating nourishing amounts of solid foods such as grass, hay, and grain. In a normal situation, the baby mimics mama and starts nibbling whatever she's eating in the first few days of life, gradually eating more and more.

If the baby has no adult role model, you'll have to show him how to eat by putting a little grain, calf starter pellets, or alfalfa hay into his mouth, which he may not like at first.

Usually, a foal or calf should stay on milk or milk replacer until he is at least four months old. Don't wean him off milk until he is eating an adequate amount of high-quality forage, along with grain pellets.

Heather Smith Thomas, of Salmon, Idaho, is the author of several books on raising livestock.


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