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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

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?

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.

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.

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