Bottle Calves: 5 Survival Tips

Posted by Candice Johns, Mon, Feb 15, 2016

There are few things as adorable as a bottle baby...a bottle baby calf, that is.

It is hard to find a cow as sweet, affectionate and people loving as a former bottle calf. The little critters are hand-raised, loved and sometimes feel more like the family dog than the family heffer. If they weren’t so big and bouncy, I’m pretty sure they would be lounging in living rooms everywhere. 

These adorable little guys and gals have somehow ended up as orphans.

  • Some have lost their mommies
  • Some have ended up at a sale barn
  • Some have been separated from mama so the dairy can have the milk

There are calves everywhere looking for good homes. If you find yourself face-to-face with an orphan calf, you may want to say, “YES!” to the little fellow.

Why You Should Consider a Bottle Calf:

  • Bottle feeding is a great way to start your own herd
  • It is an excellent way to obtain your own non-GMO, organic, pastured beef (on the cheap)
  • Bottle calves will not only become future milk and beef cows, they will also be your companions and friends
  • Bottle babies will give you joy and love every day
  • You won’t believe how quickly they grow; before you know it, you’ll be calling the A-I (Artificial Insemination) technician for breeding or sending them off to become hamburgers

5 Survival Tips for Bottle Feeding

  1. Feeding Schedule
    • Most calves need only need 2–3 bottles a day. You won’t have to worry about middle-of-the-night feedings or early-morning waking; bottle calves eat during the day and sleep at night.
    • It is a pretty simple process:
      • Feed a bottle 2–3 times a day. They will need only two bottles a day if they are healthy and the weather is nice. If it’s particularly cold or your calf isn’t gaining weight, three bottles will do.
      • Watch for scours (more on that in a minute)
      • Provide pasture, water, forage (after weaning is most typical), good-quality hay and a clean environment
      • Provide a free-choice calf-starter such as Calf-Manna® by Manna Pro® (if desired) 
      • Offer a good mineral program
  2. Nonmedicated Milk Replacer
    • Every farm store within 45 miles carries medicated milk replacer, but nonmedicated can be a little more challenging to find.
    • Healthy animals do not need medicated milk replacer. I like to avoid the use of unnecessary medications and antibiotics. Using medicated products for healthy animals can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Additionally, just as they do in people, antibiotics remove good bacteria from the gut. When a healthy animal is given un-needed antibiotics, it can cause imbalances and problems. It can even make a well animal sick.
    • In order to keep our society and animals healthier, be sure to consider a nonmedicated milk replacer such as NurseAll® from Manna Pro
  3. Scours
      • I’m pretty sure our bottle calves would literally eat themselves to death if given the opportunity. This voracious appetite of theirs can result in what are known as calf scours, or scouring.
      • Calf scours are basically baby cow diarrhea. This condition is dangerous and can be fatal. Be sure to watch your bottle calves closely (especially their stool) to be sure everyone is healthy.
      • If your bottle calf has access to a lactating dairy cow, they could face a higher probability of overfeeding. Some mama cows will be happy to “adopt” your new calf.
      • Even when our calves are being well fed (three bottles a day), they may still run to the milk cows in search of a free meal. Don’t count on a full belly to tell your little one to stop eating. Manna Pro has a NEW product that supports digestive upset: Calf Care™.
      • If you suspect calf scouring in your herd, contact your veterinarian. Scours can be dangerous for calves (especially very young ones) and need to be treated.
  4. Fences are Friends
    • If you have ever watched a calf nurse from a mama cow, you probably saw them banging their head into her udder. This is normal behavior that stimulates the udder to “let down” additional milk for the hungry calf. This head-butting doesn’t hurt the mama cow, but during bottle feeding it can be annoying.
    • Calves don’t seem to realize that head-butting the bottle will not make the milk come out any faster, nor will it make any more milk appear. You may find it helpful to position yourself on the other side of a gate or fence while feeding, which can help minimize head-butting.
  5. When the Bottle is Empty, Make Your Exit—Quickly
    • ​​​​​​​When the bottle is empty and feeding time is over, give your little guy (or gal) a scratch, pat them and tell them they’re adorable, and then make your escape—fast. Especially if you did not listen to tip #4 and are standing in the field with them.
    • Why?
    • Feeding my little bottle calves can be the highlight of my day. They are so excited. They greet me with the sweetest “moooo” you’ve ever heard. They love their bottles and have the enthusiasm of a puppy. Calves may be the cutest animals in the world
    • Unless it’s raining, pouring, sleeting or icing outside. Then it’s not as fun. The calves are just as adorable, grateful and spunky, but I am not as enthusiastic about the whole thing.
    • This is why you may need to run after feeding them their bottle. As soon as our calves finish their bottles, they immediately start looking for an udder. If a lactating dairy animal isn’t in plain sight, the calves may turn to the person holding the bottle—nudging, bumping, and smearing their soaking wet, milky, slobbery heads all over the front and back of my jeans trying to find an udder.
    • Bang. Nudge. Bump. “There’s got to be one here somewhere.”
    • “No, Norman” (that’s the calf), “I don’t have an udder.”

Raising bottle babies is a fun adventure. If you have always wanted to get into the cattle business but get indigestion when you see cattle prices, a bottle calf may just fit the bill. It’s probably one of the easiest, most inexpensive ways to get into the cattle business. Raising bottle calves will not only get you a herd “on the cheap,” but you’ll also make some great memories.

If you’re worried about all those bottles you’ll have to make, don’t let that stop you. Before you know it, they’ll be all grown up eating pasture and hay and you’ll be looking for a new baby. The next time you find yourself at a sale barn, animal auction, or friend’s house and there’s a calf that needs a good home, consider saying, “Yes!” Raising calves is fun, rewarding and simple.

Candice Johns

Candi has spent many years growing and striving toward a more self-sufficient life. She grows vegetables, kills chickens, swims with pigs, milks a cow, and loves anything homesteading. She lives out in the country with her husband and 4 awesome children. She likes doing things the old fashioned way.


Sabrina Wilburn 02/16/2018, 10:43:17 AM

I have recently become a decision maker for the farm with the passing of my husband. Do bottle fed bulls grow up to be as effective as other bulls? Are there problems with a bottle fed bull that I need to know about?

Meghan Struttman 02/24/2018, 10:43:40 AM

Bull calves can be raised successfully on a bottle for any purpose. The key is to provide sound nutrition early in life to get them off to a strong start and introduce high quality dry feed as soon as possible. Bottle-calves can grow more slowly early in but often catch up with peers later in life. Also, due to the increased handling that the calves receive, bottle-calves are often more comfortable around people.

George Bundy Bundy 09/10/2020, 4:28:21 PM

Want to get about 6 bottle fed calves how much time per. day would it take for them any help would be great Thanks

In reply to by George Bundy Bundy

Philip 03/21/2021, 10:15:31 PM

Wow! You have to have a plan to manage feeling all those guys. Probably only going to work to feed one at a time though.

In reply to by George Bundy Bundy

Cowgirl 03/25/2021, 2:23:47 PM

I feed bottle calves and it takes me about fifteen minutes depending on how fast they eat. You can hold 2 bottles at a time if you get the right hold, but if you do it that way I would stay on on side of a fence that has gaps big enough for the bottle.

In reply to by George Bundy Bundy

Alicia 04/22/2021, 3:12:00 PM

We are currently bottle feeding four calves. We have bottle holders that slide on a wood plank which makes it much easier. Just be sure to take the bottles before they suck in air.

Willy 09/18/2020, 2:58:54 PM

My wife took a calf as her pet, it was born a month and a half early, it has severe front leg issues, but it has always ate very well. ( bottle 3 times daily ) but in the last three says, it cant/wont eat even tho it wants to. It has magor issues with trying to walk, and now the eating is something it just cant do, any suggestions?

In reply to by Willy

Thomas 03/28/2021, 8:41:38 AM

Sad thing is the older and larger the calf gets, the more pressure on its legs, and more pain it is in. Future is not bright for this little calf.

Peggy Gaddis 09/30/2020, 10:01:48 PM

I have a calf that is now 6 days old. I had to bottle feed , momma would not let him nurse.
He just doesn't want the bottle. I have tubed him a couple times. He will suck once or twice then stop.
I have used a turkey batter instead of keep tubing. I figure he has to swallow.
Can you give me any ideas on how to get him to stay sucking the bottle.
I don't want to give up on him.
He is a little brahman bull and very stubborn.
Any supplements I can give him to make him want to suck or make him stronger?
Thank you

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Debb 10/15/2020, 2:06:36 AM

We bought a 1 week old (alleged) brahman steer (black). He wouldn't drink from a bottle either. So we bought a u-beaut expensive plastic milk container-looking bottle with a spiffy u-beaut teat. Turned out the teat was way too hard for him to use. So, yes, he sucked a couple of times, then gave up. So we bought a free flowing teat & attached to soft drink plastic bottle. Cost $3.95 for the teat on a plastic bottle. He's downing them in minutes looking for more.

In reply to by Debb

brett d larson 10/25/2020, 1:46:49 PM

Use the bottle for a couple of weeks.Then take a pail put a finger in its mouth they will suck put its head down in the milk and after a couple times they will drink out of the bucket. Its a good way to do it I just did it to our calf.

In reply to by Debb

Earline 04/06/2021, 6:14:12 PM

I had to buy a goat nipple and bottle for my Longhorns bull calf to be able to suck. He couldn't suck on a regular calf nipple, it was too hard and big. I'm saving it for later.

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Ronald 02/09/2021, 8:09:31 AM

What is the best thing to give a calf if it gets scours,and how long do u keep them on a bottle and start giving them real food

In reply to by Ronald

Chuck 03/14/2021, 11:09:19 PM

Dilute the milk replacer with less powder and more water.

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Charles Mitchell 02/24/2021, 4:02:53 AM

Try putting syrup on nipple it works for us
And you will be off and running

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Kaydra Jaragoske 03/21/2021, 8:44:48 PM

Put your fingers in his mouth and sort of tickle he tonsils and back of his tongue and keep repeating this until he starts to take the bottle

I raise 800 head of cows and have had countless bottle calves and this works almost 100% of time

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Anonymous 05/01/2021, 7:44:40 PM

Add a little honey ,and egg to milk replacement. See if
It will drink out of bucket. They will not get milk in lungs and get sick. I have raised 30 calves or with a bucket. Do not feed to much.

In reply to by Peggy Gaddis

Lucy 09/22/2021, 3:38:25 PM

I know this is late but might help another person if they read this. I had a calf that would not drink used syrup, molasses this did not work. Took granulated sugar crystals and rubbed on his tongue. He started drinking like a Champ. He is now 7 months old plan on giving last bottle the end of month. Started out with three. It has been so much fun. Had a cow that had twins yesterday she rejected one. So here I go again. Hope this helps someone save a calf.

Anonymous 10/31/2020, 9:57:04 AM

its 3 months i need to start starter feed and she is not interesting in pellets give me what starter and any ideas!

Nancy 12/25/2020, 5:19:18 PM

My husband and I have been tubing a bull calf since he was born 12 days ago. He’s a twin and his mother rejected him, but not his sister.
In trying to switch him to a bottle ( He hasn’t freely sucked yet, so my husband puts his finger against the nipple to release the milk replacer. Tonight he accidentally got milk into the calf’s lungs, which caused the calf to struggle to breathe. Is there anything we can do to help him to get relief?

Jonathon Graham 12/27/2020, 8:32:40 PM

We have learned to mimic nature. A momma cow will lick on her calf and that will stimulate the nursing instincts. If you will rub around the tail set and on the back their hips they will nurse so much easier. It's a trick we found by cleaning the scour residue off. No more WWE moves to feed.

GREG ORGAN 02/09/2021, 11:19:37 AM


Melisa Mower 03/16/2021, 10:48:50 PM

My one month old calf lost his mother. There are 2 other nursing mothers in pasture should I pen and bottle feed or let him run with the heard. Tonight he his in a pen I am worried about the cleanliness of it now I feel like I am messing up. Please help. He did not take bottle tonight I left clean water and bucket sweet feed hay even milk in bucket.

In reply to by Melisa Mower

Cowgirl 03/25/2021, 2:38:33 PM

So I would get one nursing cow and the calf and put them in the barn together but don't let them meet each other yet. Then get some air freshener (Prefrebly rather strong) and with the same bottle of it, spray it on the calf and on the cow's nose a little but not up her nostril then let them meet each
other and supervise until they are okay with each other. Don't forget to check on them each day for a while to make sure they are getting along.

Anonymous 03/28/2021, 8:00:09 PM

Have week old herford hefer that won't take a bottle. What can you do ?

In reply to by Anonymous

steve skluzacek 04/01/2021, 8:03:52 PM

Try putting some honey on the roof of her mouth with your fingers, that should get her sucking. Put some on the nipple of the bottle too.

WindWalker Akaltee 04/03/2021, 8:18:03 PM

For calves that are too weak or dehydrated, hold their heads up so they don’t aspirate and slowly use a 50cc syringe without a needle.

Amy Sprik 04/05/2021, 8:24:43 PM

I was looking for concrete info on how much to feed a newborn calf based on wt so not to overfeed it. This just appears to be a fluff piece.

In reply to by Amy Sprik

joyce 07/05/2021, 1:22:50 PM

Amy , i just came across your question kind of by accident. the most important THING for any newborn calf is the colostrum milk. you can by this through your Vet. or a feed store. One carton will make 2 quarts. let him drink as much as he wants. than start him depending on the size,
if its a Jersey about a pint of milk. Beef , or bigger dairy like a Swiss two quarts of milk , than watch them close for scours , if they start to scour take the milk away, and replace it with electrolytes for at least one feeding ,might take two feedings, then start back with a little less milk , you can add electrolytes to the milk as well if you think he's still got a little scours ,just start them back slow and up the milk to what they were getting , being a little hungry isn't going to hurt them, scours will do a lot more harm. Main thing if the calf shows any sign of scour, start treating him right away , don't wait !!

Wayne Webb 04/10/2021, 7:55:20 PM

I have a longhorn cross bottle calf that I’ve been feeding since he was about 2 weeks and he is now about 3 months. He’s eating grass, alfalfa, and coastal hay very well. He’s been slow about calf grain but is coming along. He looks really healthy, great appetite and seems to be growing good. Do you think it would be okay to wean him off the milk replacement now ?

Morne 05/09/2021, 2:52:33 AM

What can I feed a 14 day old calf if I don't have any milk replacer on hand ?

Christina 05/09/2021, 10:03:31 PM

We've been bottle feeding a Brahman bull calf for 2 weeks. His mom abandoned him 3 days in, so we took on the feeding. My question is, how active should he be?? He had a respiratory infection, but we got rid of it with antibiotics. I figured he just didn't feel good, so he lays down alot. But I'm worried he's not up and walking around like he should. He follows me for the bottle, but he's just not active. Any thoughts??

Frances 05/10/2021, 11:00:48 PM

I am bottle feeding a Braham heifer because her mother walk away from her when she was a week old.
My question is did he get enough colostrum.
He eats very good with milk replacement but reading this site Is it really ok to give your calf raw eggs another thing I give him a water bottle.
How do I make her drink water from the bucket?
How and when should I feed her alfalfa hay.
I tried to put the alfalfa in her mouth but that was a problem
She sleeps in the trailer so that the coyotes.
Please help me
I want her to be as happy as she can
I forgot to mention she is blind
Sometimes I think she can see so how can I be for sure she is blind.
Thank you very much

In reply to by Frances

Brenda 06/19/2021, 5:30:26 PM

My vet told me they only have a 24 hour window of getting colostrum after birth, I had one that did not get colostrum it got all kinds of infection thru the umbilical cord, went blind and got bloat and eventually had to be put down

Brittany 05/12/2021, 9:07:25 PM

Just got a calf from the auction that needs to be bottle feed. He has been doing fine but I am curious about the bottle preparation. Is it safe (for people) that I mix the milk replacer in my kitchen? Might be an odd question but I would like to know if that would be an issue

matt 06/01/2021, 8:58:10 PM

i bought a couple bottle calvs one is 10 weeks and the other is 5 weeks.i cant seem to find the exact same milk replacer every time. (same protien,fat,fiber ratio). It doesnt seem to bother the older calf but the younger calf doesnt seem to eat a full bottle for the first few bottles of every bag. it seems obvious to me that the change is upsetting her stomach or something to that efect? Has anyone had any experiance with this? she seemed to do the medicated milk replacer but reserch tells me not to use too much medicated milk replacer as it often medicates what is not needed to be medicated(to many antibiotics)? any advice ?

In reply to by matt

K 06/15/2021, 3:00:30 PM

Buy 3 or 4 bags of the same stuff or whatever you need and you won’t have to change it

Brandi 06/12/2021, 6:10:54 PM

I have a 4 day old heifer calf that has been bottle fed from the start. She got a whole bottle of colostrum within 4 hours of being born. She was breach and we had to pull her out. Mama died.
I started her on 2 bottles a day... 8 oz of milk replacer in each bottle. Day 2, she was very constipated... would let out a painful beller with each push. So, I went to 3 bottles a day with 4-6 oz of milk replacer in each one... so she's still getting 16 oz per day. Now, day 4... she's got diarrhea and there's streaks of blood in it.
What should I do?

Shelby Lundy 06/23/2021, 5:07:13 PM

I have a bottle heifer calf we just recently bought and we have her in a feed lot by her self she is 1 1/2 weeks old and the first morning she was with us i went out there to give her a bottle and she was all hyper and she took the bottle very well and then later on i had went back out there to feed her the 2nd time she wouldn't take it. we had got her 2 days ago june 21st. and this morning i had went to try and give her a bottle she took not even half of it and didnt want anymore of it. she ahs been drinking a lot of water lately though, and it has been really hot too thought. Any sugggestion? I really could use a lot!

Anonymous 07/12/2021, 11:49:37 AM

How do you go from bottle feeding to bucket feeding and at what age?

Sylvia Gee 08/09/2021, 9:52:31 AM

Have a 7 week old yak calf. Been bottle feeding. Now she is lethargic and dropped from 700 mls 3 feedings a day to less than 300 mls. No diarrhea. Not sucking normally but seems to want food. I added electrolytes to last bottle but she only took few swallows. She is not meaty on her body but was active till yesterday afternoon. Now it seems I am losing her

Sarah 08/13/2021, 6:57:43 AM

Hello, I recently got a Holstein heifer she is maybe 5 weeks old. I am doing milk replacer medicated. Twice a day and a little in the middle of the day. Is there anything I can do extra to put weight on quick? I was wondering if calf manna feed would be good for her?

Jean B Speights 09/23/2021, 8:54:43 AM

NEVER dilute milk replacer! NEVER withhold milk or milk replacer from a scouring calf! Diluting milk replacer disrupts the osmolarity of the blood and can cause acidosis and be fatal. Give electrolytes in between bottle feedings for a couple of days until scours cease AND CONTINUE FEEDING MILK. Space out electrolytes about 4 hours after each bottle feeding. NEVER mix electrolytes with milk or milk replacer. The biggest mistake people make when a calf is scouring is to withhold milk or milk replacer. This only makes things worse, and the little calf has no food energy or calories. Sav A Calf electrolytes are the only brand my littles guys would take, and it is safe to continue feeding milk with this brand. Some brands, you cannot use in conjunction with milk, which is BAD!

Lauren 05/02/2022, 4:24:14 PM

We have 2 calves 2-3 months old. Mother died 2 days ago. We got them into a smaller pen with shelter, lucerne and have tied a bottle to a post as well as a bucket of milk tied to a post as they are too big to get close to with the bottle. Any tips on how to get them to drink milk?

Mandy 05/30/2022, 10:48:12 AM

I have a 10 week old bull calf that we are trying to get him to take a bottle for the 1st time. We can get the bottle in his mouth but he sometimes only seems to suck for a few seconds then doesn’t want it and sometimes it seems he is sucking for a while but the bottle isn’t going down like he is getting anything. We have had him for only a couple days but I’m worried because he obviously isn’t getting enough. Looking for some ideas to get him to stay interested in the bottle and to get him to actually suck the milk out.

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