Bottle Feeding a Calf

We got our bottle calf off Craigslist in September, 2016.

He cost me $60, and he was about a week old. Grady was a Jersey bull calf. Jersey’s are a dairy breed but since each cow must calve in order to produce milk, the dairy industry has a lot of excess bull calves. In fact, almost half the beef we eat in the USA is dairy beef, primarily in the form of hamburger. Dairy calves are born with very little body fat, so please keep in mind that in these photos Grady is a perfectly healthy calf - it is normal for some ribs to be showing at this age.

Picking up Grady was surreal – he was in an area that consisted of rows upon rows of calf huts, each with one calf – and every calf looked identical to Grady. At the farm, the calves were fed 1 qt milk mixed with 1 qt water, twice a day. Grady was already taking his bottle happily. We brought him home and started gradually increasing his milk. It’s very important to make changes to a calf’s diet very slowly, so you don’t cause diarrhea. Diarrhea, called scours, can be life threatening if the calf gets too dehydrated. I increased his milk by 4 ounces every couple of days, until he was drinking 2 qts milk twice a day, without any added water.

But he sure did drink a lot of water! Calves need access to fresh, clean water at all times. Unfortunately, they are also playful and love to nibble on things. Grady would knock over a full bucket of water within moments of my refilling it. I ended up picking up a 3 pack of cheap carabiners and using them to clip the bucket handles to the fence. He still loves to play with the bucket and sometimes manages to upset it, but it takes him longer and doesn’t end up scattered around the pasture.

For the first few weeks, Grady lived in my kidding pen with the last goat kids awaiting sale or introduction to the herd. Calves are fast growing little folks, and he soon began to outgrow the kidding pen and especially the small door that allowed access into and out of the barn.

After 4 weeks, satisfied that he was healthy, I moved him up to our East Pasture with our sheep. The sheep taught him to graze on grass, and I continued to feed him 2 qts of milk twice a day, plus many gallons of water hauled to him in buckets, and clipped to the fence. At this time I also introduced him to grain. I didn’t want grain to be his main food, but he got 2 cups of sweet all stock mixed with ½ cup calf manna every morning, after his bottle. Some of this was eaten by our sheep Baarley, who displays incredible acrobatics when grain is involved. At one point he used our other sheep, Baasil, as a ramp to get up to the (cow height) feeding tray. Baasil, for his part, shows similar enthusiasm for grain but lacks the athletic prowess of his herd mate. At 3 months (in December) I added soaked alfalfa cubes to his diet. Our pasture had mostly died back for the winter and Grady needed more high quality forage. The benefits of the soaked cubes were their price compared to a bale of hay, ease of transporting them (in a bucket instead of carrying leaves of hay that fell apart all over), and the fact that the sheep had no interest in eating them. (Keeping the sheep out of Grady’s food was the bane of my existence.) Around January I also added a larger water trough for him, that couldn't be easily turned over.

Grady loved to play with his tongue. There were days when I would catch him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, curling and tasting the air as if he had just found this new appendage in his mouth and was learning to control it. Many many many days I was licked, sometimes with great enthusiasm, by Grady. And you could guarantee that anything in his pen – including the shelter he shared with the sheep, would receive liberal licking. It’s important, if you ever decide to raise a calf, that you are aware of this and secure any small objects and comb the shelter/pasture for any nails, screws, or other indigestible items because the calf WILL find them and eat them.

I weaned Grady later than some folks. A lot of people will wean a calf at 3 months of age, but I wanted to make sure he grew well since he was going in our freezer, and since we were feeding him goat milk it wasn't such a hardship to keep giving him a bottle. However by February I knew I needed to have him off the bottle - thankfully weaning a bottle fed animal isn't as much of a nightmare as weaning an animal that is nursing from mom. The key is to do it sloooowly! Remember that changes to any ruminant's diet should be made very slowly, giving their system time to acclimate.

I started out by reducing Grady's morning bottle by half for 2 weeks. Then I reduced his night time bottle by half as well - for two weeks he was getting a quart of milk in the morning and evening instead of 2 quarts. Then I stopped giving him his morning bottle at all and substituted grain and alfalfa cubes as his treat instead, for another two weeks. Finally I switched to giving him his evening bottle every other day, then every 3rd day, and then not at all.

Once the pasture started growing again I transitioned Grady off grain using similar technique - just gradually decrease the amount of grain and hay given until you can stop it completely. All spring and summer Grady has been out on pasture, and he continues to be healthy and happy. Soon he will be ready for the freezer and will provide us with many healthy, responsibly raised meals.