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Bottle feeding a calf

Getting a calf started on the bottle is not easy.  At first they are scared and miss their mum, so they don't cooperate at all.  When little Trevor first came home with us he was only a few weeks old.  We struggled with him for days, my husband standing over him to hold his head still and me trying to get the teat in Trevor's mouth. Eventually he worked it out and we were greeted each morning at sunrise with hungry mooing as he paced up and down his pen waiting impatiently for his bottle.  Those days when he wouldn't feed were very stressful though, we didn't know if he would die of hunger and we were seriously considering loading him back in the ute and taking him back to his mum!  Molly was exactly the same, but after a few days, just like Trevor, she got hungry enough to work out what we were trying to do and then she was waiting for her bottle after milking morning and evening and finishes it with no trouble.

eight acres: how to bottle feed a calf
Trevor working out the bottle after a few days
 - when he was hungry enough!

We use a Speedy-feeder that we bought when Trevor was being so difficult.  It has different speed settings and a nice big handle.  Its not really necessary, a teat on a soft-drink bottle is a cheaper option, but we were willing to try anything when we thought Trevor was going to die, so we spent money on a fancy bottle!

After a few weeks, when Molly was big enough, we started leaving her with Bella during the day and only separating them at night.  We started feeding Molly calf pellets and grain in the afternoon and leading her into her pen with her bucket.  Now she recognises her bucket of food and we can easily lead her anywhere.

eight acres: how to bottle feed a calf
Molly knows that grain comes in a bucket.
Starting a young calf on grain is also difficult.  When you start reading about the complicated processes that occur in the stomachs of ruminants, such as cattle, it can seem quite daunting!  To put it simply, ruminants need bacteria in their stomachs to help them to digest grain and grass, but they don't have any of those bacteria when they're first born.  They need to nibble on a bit of grain and grass so that they slowly build up some bacteria, but they can't have too much at first until the bacteria is established.  This was very confusing with Trevor, as we had to try to give him the right amount and build up his system so that he could be weaned (at $100 for 20 kg, you don't want to buy any more powdered milk replacer than you have to!).  With Molly having free access to milk and wandering around with Bella and nibbling on whatever Bella is eating, we have been able to let nature take its course.  We probably won't wean Molly until Bella is ready for her next calf, so she shouldn't have any trouble with digestion.

Have you bottle fed a calf?  Any tips for getting them started?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy


  1. Sounds stressful! I always wondered about how it works when calves are left with there mums, since dairy cows do produce so much now. Interesting.

    My only tip for getting calves to feed (which you probably already know), is to put your index finger and middle finger upside down in their mouth so you can pull them by their top teeth and, once they start sucking on your fingers, guide the teat in between your two fingers into their mouth).

  2. We are ranch hands on an enormous working ranch in the Pacific Northwest. I get to deal with all the 'leppies' or orphan calves. THere are about 30 or so a year I have to put on a bottle. Most of them do like your Trevor...they fight it for a couple of days until they are hungry enough to take a bottle. Only if they are very poor or dehydrated do I worry, then I use a gastric tube to feed them. Sounds like you are doin great with yours! My own calves I halter break early and share milk with mama like you are doing with Molly. Good luck! THey are pretty girls!

  3. We leave our jersey calves on our cows and they have never had scours. For the first month they are together all the time, cows getting milked 2/day. At a month old we separate them at night and cows are milk in the morning. At two months they get to nurse after morning milking and after evening milking. Our nine month old calf still nurses occasionally and never has a problem. By a month old the cows milk has adjusted to the amount that the calves need, we still bring in at least two gallons/milking/cow, which is the normal amount she would produce for her calf(engorgement has work its way out, just like in a human lactation cycle).

    We have never had a problem with them being unfriendly and untamed either,(we feed square bales and spend quite a bit of time with them, we also have a barn so we can get them in and play with the calves after they are first born, also known as imprinting).
    We have to be careful because they love to be brushed and scratched and think they can fit into your lap (which tends to be an even bigger issue with our Highlanders, who we milk too). We often joke that they should wear signs that say "Warning, I may lick you to death" They flock to the gate, pushing and shoving to get their morning scratches. This spring we bought a two year jersey and it took about a month but she has figured out the program and is friendly now, not as tame as the others, yet.

    Our cows get a token amount of grain when milking, its all pasture for them (no spray alfalfa/upland mix in the winter months)

    Molly is a beautiful cow, she looks a bit like our Caroline :)


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