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What is a Bottle Calf?

The last week has not been my favorite week.  It was filled with a lot of self-doubts, which I think as women we are extremely prone to.  Each member of our family depends on us in so many ways and ultimately we push on…ranching is no different.  Bottle calves are truly the hardest we work as ranchers.  


It’s one of my favorite times of the year, the Spring Calving Season.  I love to see a newborn calf running around the pasture.  Largely, they thrive with their mamas, but sometimes they do not.  Whether they are a twin, an orphan calf, or a mama dies; intervention with a newborn calf is a high-risk, low-reward game.  

Last week proved to be a no-reward situation.  Our bottle calf, Sunflower, unfortunately, did not make it.  It’s one of the harshest realities of ranch life, no matter how bad we will it, sometimes the babies just don’t make it.  It’s a lesson that gets no easier over time.  It crushes the kids (and mom and dad), but yet we still owe it to each animal to try our very best, every single time. 

While I am no expert on bottle-feeding calves, I can give you a peek into what we do with them, sometimes successful, sometimes not.  Our other bottle calf, Rosebud, has thrived.  She successfully grew and gained over the course of the last 4 months and is doing great!  My daughter has officially claimed Rosebud and largely did the work, something we are beyond proud of.  She is now a thriving, healthy calf!

What exactly is a bottle calf? 

A bottle calf is a young calf that has been orphaned or rejected by its mother and is being hand-raised by providing it milk from a bottle. Our preference is a bottle, others feed milk replacers using buckets.  Bottle calves tend to perform better when they get their first milk from mama.  In the event they do not, we do attempt to offer colostrum or a colostrum supplement. 

What exactly is first milk? 

Much like humans, colostrum is essential for newborn health.  Our preference is that the first feeding is always from mama. When that can’t happen, colostrum is offered, it is packed with antibodies and essential nutrients. We try to feed the calf colostrum or a colostrum supplement for at least the first 24 hours, and then transition to a milk replacer or cow’s milk.  In rare cases, sometimes the mama will claim the calf back once it is stronger and able to suck.  

How do we bottle feed?

When bottle-feeding a calf, we ensure that the milk is warm and that the nipple is the correct size for the calf’s mouth. You should also ensure that the calf is securely held in position for the duration of the feed and that the calf is not allowed to suckle for too long.  The biggest goal when bottle feeding is making sure the calf does not suck air down once finished, this can cause bloating.  

How often do we feed? 

We prefer our feeding time to occur twice a day.  As always, you should consult a vet regarding feeding times and frequency if this is new to you.  Oftentimes we begin with 2 pints and work up to 3 pints of calf milk replacer.  This just tends to yield the best start for our operation.  

What is calf milk replacer?

Think of baby formula….but for baby calves!  Calf milk replacer is a specialized milk protein formula designed for bottle-fed calves. It is typically composed of whey protein, vegetable oils, skimmed milk, vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. It should be used in place of cow’s milk to ensure that the calf is getting all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and ensure proper growth rates. 

When do we introduce solid food?

When bottle-feeding a calf, it is important to also introduce dry feed at around 4 weeks of age. The dry feed provides the calf with essential nutrients and helps it to gain weight. The amount of dry feed a calf eats should be highly limited and increase gradually over time.  Too much dry feed intake too soon can give the calf scours and bloating.  

Do bottle calves drink water? 

Clean water is essential for the health and well-being of a bottle calf. We give our calves fresh, clean water daily, or as needed, and make sure that the water is at the right temperature. This can be tricky in particularly cold weather.  If frozen, it’s not uncommon for us to water up to 4 times a day.  You should also ensure that the water container is clean and free of debris.  Our bottle calves also love to kick over their water, so keeping clean water can be a challenge. 

When to call the vet? 

We monitor our new calf very closely, especially during the first week. It’s important to make sure that it is getting enough nutrition and water.  We always offer electrolytes first, but when that doesn’t work, a call to the vet is necessary.  

If our bottle-fed calf is showing signs of a respiratory infection, we call the vet immediately. Common signs of a respiratory infection include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, labored breathing, and lethargy. Pneumonia in calves is fairly prevalent and does require vet care.  

How do I take care of bottle calves?

1. Feed the calf regularly: Bottle calves should be fed at least twice a day. Feed the calf a high-quality milk replacer, using a calf nipple or bottle.  Add in quality calf starter as the calf grows. 

2. Provide clean, fresh water: It is essential to provide the calf with access to fresh water at all times. 

3. Monitor the calf’s health: Check the calf’s temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate daily. Watch for signs of dehydration and scours. 

4. Provide shelter: Make sure the calf is sheltered from the wind and sun. 

5. Vaccinate and deworm: Vaccinate and deworm the calf once the body weight is sufficient.

6. Clean the calf’s area: A clean environment prevents the buildup of bacteria and parasites. 

7. Socialize the calf: Spend time with the calf each day. 


We always want to ensure adequate calf health and proper weight gain in our bottle-fed calves.  Raising bottle babies is not for the faint of heart!  We always love it when we are able to release healthy calves back into the herd but it’s just not always the case.   When a newborn calf enters the world with a rough start, it’s just hard and takes a stroke of good luck to nurse back to health.  

But, as I said, we always try and will continue to try!   Farming and ranching are having faith in tomorrow, something we will always do.

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