Many ranchers have raised calves on bottles (a twin, a heifer’s calf that isn’t accepted by its mother, or a calf whose mother died) and it’s very easy with a newborn or young calf.
The main thing is to make sure the calf had colostrum within the first hours (from its own mother or another cow) to ensure a good start in life. The antibodies from colostrum provide temporary immunity to many of the diseases the calf might encounter. After a bottle or two of colostrum, the calf can be switched to regular milk or milk replacer.
More challenging is the one- or two-month-old calf that’s been out with the herd all its short life and suddenly loses mom. Freak things happen, such as finding a dead cow on her back in a ditch, dying from poisoning or bloat, killed by predators or some other misfortune. This leaves you with an orphan that might be semi-wild (not ready to accept you as mom) but too young to go without milk or high-quality feed.
Some of those calves are good enough robbers to survive with the herd — sneaking up to suck alongside the calf of another cow. They are comfortable with their herd mates and seem to manage, though they might be a little smaller than the other calves when it’s time to wean.
If they are only a couple of months old when they lose mom and you can find a way to get them home from the range or in from the pasture, they can probably do all right without mil if you can put them on good-quality hay and a concentrate like grain or calf pellets. The rumen isn’t developed enough yet in a young calf to handle all forage, but the calf can digest grain or a more concentrated feed like calf pellets.
Milk replacer is expensive, and it can also be a hassle to get a calf that age sucking a bottle, especially if it skittish around people. Instead, you might put the orphan with an older animal in a small pen so the calf has a buddy and give them some good-quality feed. Once the calf learns to eat dry feed by following his buddy’s example, you could then create a creep situation — if you don’t want the older animal eating all the calf feed and not letting the smaller one get its share.
If the orphan is very young and needs to be bottle-fed, hopefully you can find a way to capture that calf without the stress of a chase. You might be able to bring that calf home with a small group of cattle and get your hands on it in the corral. The last thing you want is stressing the calf too much by trying to catch it or it might get pneumonia. If you’ve already lost the cow, you don’t want to risk losing the calf as well.
Depending on when the calf lost its mother, it may have already been vaccinated. But if there is any doubt about immune status you could give that calf another vaccination with one of the seven-way clostridial vaccines for adequate protection. Keep that calf in a clean environment because it will be vulnerable to diseases like coccidiosis or calf scours. Sometimes if you don’t have a really clean place to confine that calf, you are better off leaving it out at pasture with the herd rather than in a pen where there has been a lot of contamination. Just monitor it closely to make sure it stays healthy.
Voice of experience
Our family has been raising cattle for 63 years, and we’ve had several experiences feeding orphaned calves. One of the first was a calf whose three-year-old mother was butchered out on the range by a cattle rustler when the calf was just two months old. My daughter and I rode for days trying to find that calf and didn’t find him because he’d gone through several fences into another range. He came home with the neighbour’s range cows that fall. He’d survived but was stunted and unthrifty and it took all winter to nurse him back to health and get him growing again. He was too young to go without milk and needed better feed than dry bunchgrass.
Over the years we had a few cows with fatal problems (one was dying of intestinal cancer, and another was dying from an impacted abomasum). The pregnancy was far enough along that we were able to take the calf out by C-section before euthanizing the cow. Those calves we had to feed on bottles until we could “graft” them onto another cow that lost a calf or have our milk cow raise them.
One spring we lost two cows within a few weeks. One got on her back in a ditch and we didn’t find her in time to save her. We brought her month-old steer calf in from the field easily; he followed his dead mother as we dragged her body down to the gate with our feed truck. We cornered him in the barnyard and fed him a bottle. He wasn’t very wild, and he was hungry enough to suck the bottle.
Then a couple of weeks later another cow in their herd suddenly died leaving a two-month-old heifer calf. She was wilder and more scared than the steer. We had to bring several cows in with her from the field to capture her. When we finally were able to corner her to try to feed her, she was too scared to suck a bottle. She needed milk, so we finally used a nasogastric tube to get the milk into her stomach. At the next feeding she was still too scared to suck the bottle and had to be tubed again. It was the fourth feeding before she finally realized people meant food and decided to suck the bottle. After that it was easy. Those two orphans lived together in our back yard, and my six-year-old granddaughter enjoyed feeding them bottles.
They had good pasture in the backyard and grew nicely. When they got a little older we taught them to eat grain. The heifer gentled down and became a pet and is stayed in our herd until she was 15 years old.
What to feed an orphan
Calves can eat a significant amount of forage by the time they are 90 days of age. If younger they generally do better if they receive milk. If they are on good pasture they can do very well, but if it’s midsummer in a dry climate the pasture quality can be rapidly declining.
An early-weaned or orphaned calf can be raised to normal weaning weight in a drylot with good feed. If simply left with the herd, he may survive by stealing milk but has more chance for normal growth if he has access to creep feed.
According to one nutritionist, young calves need a ration that is highly palatable and highly nutritious (16 per cent crude protein and 70 per cent total digestible nutrients (TDN). There are many options for providing this, including a commercial calf starter or a corn-oats-barley mix with molasses. Commercial calf starter has fortification with vitamins and minerals and the option for medication to prevent coccidiosis. Because of the stress of sudden weaning off milk, make sure the calf is vaccinated for clostridial diseases and possibly respiratory disease.
At first, you can give the calf long-stem grass hay and top dress it with the grain ration for three to five days until he is eating the ration. Make sure calf has access to clean water at all times. During the heat of summer, also make sure it has shade.