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Tips on using tube feeders with calves

Whether in nose or throat, insert gently and make sure it’s in the right spot

Sometimes you must get fluid into a calf — a newborn that needs colostrum, or a sick calf that needs fluid orally. If a newborn is unable to nurse mama or suck a bottle, the quickest and safest way to get colostrum into him is by tube. A sick calf generally won’t suck a bottle, and again the only way to give him oral fluid is by tube.

There are two ways to “tube” a calf. You can use an esophageal feeding probe (a metal or plastic tube that goes down the calf’s throat and about 16 inches down the esophagus) which is attached to a container that holds the fluid, or you can use a smaller-diameter flexible nasogastric tube that goes into the nostril and down into the stomach.

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Years ago, before esophageal feeders were invented, a nasogastric tube was the only way to get fluid into a calf. Our vet showed us how to use the “nose tube” in 1969 when we were young ranchers treating calves for scours. Since then, we’ve tubed hundreds of calves. This handy tool made it easy to give fluids/electrolytes and oral medications to sick calves, revolutionizing our ability to prevent dehydration and treat serious illness. We still use a nasogastric tube; in some instances it’s more effective than the shorter esophageal probe. We also use a larger-diameter nasogastric tube for administering fluid (or mineral oil) to adult cattle.

For giving baby calves colostrum or electrolyte fluids however, the esophageal feeder is adequate and easy to use. Many ranchers today use this handy tool. When the calf is properly restrained and the probe carefully placed, it is an effective and safe way to give fluid. Both types of tube must be inserted carefully and properly to decrease the risk of injuring or drowning the calf.

Esophageal feeder

The feeder probes are non-flexible plastic or stainless steel tubes (about ½ inch in diameter) with a larger bulb on the end that goes down the throat. A container for milk or fluid is attached to the other end. Some have a valve that keeps the fluid in the container until you release it. Others have a bag that hangs down until you are ready to administer the fluid; you raise it up to send fluid into the tube.

The rounded bulb on the end of the probe protects the mouth and throat from being scraped or punctured and helps prevent backflow of fluids up the esophagus, acting as a plug. It also helps the tube bypass the larynx and small opening into the windpipe when inserting the tube into the throat. The windpipe is slightly below and alongside the opening into the esophagus. You must not get any fluid into the windpipe.

Make sure the feeding probe/container is clean — wash it thoroughly after each use. When administering colostrum or fluid, make sure its body temperature is not too warm or too cold. If the calf is lying down, lift his head up to insert the tube. If he struggles, lift his front end up so he’s sitting on his haunches; you can restrain him more easily that way while you lift his head to insert the tube.

If it’s a cold day, warm the tube in hot water before you insert it. Gently put the tube into the side of his mouth. Don’t try to force it into the front. Then aim it straight and slide it over the tongue to the back of the mouth and into the throat. The calf should swallow it as you move it back and forth and apply gentle pressure. Make sure the tube is not forced into the windpipe; the calf must be given a chance to swallow as it is pushed down. Stop pushing for an instant and place your fingers on the outside of the neck (front of the throat) to determine where the tube is going. You can feel or see the bulb end of the tube slip down the throat and into the esophagus.

If you can see or feel the bulb, you know it’s in the proper place and it’s safe to continue pushing the tube farther down. If you can’t see or feel it, or the calf is coughing, or there are puffs of air coming out your end, it’s in his windpipe. Take it out and start over. Be sure it’s in the esophagus and fully inserted (the bulb down close to the stomach) before you raise the container or release fluid into the tube. Hold the calf so he can’t struggle, or the tube may come part-way out and spill fluid into the windpipe.

Nasogastric tube

For calves, a flexible plastic or nylon tube about four feet long is adequate. It should be about ¼ inch in diameter. For adult cattle, you need a larger tube (about ½- to ¾-inch diameter) at least seven feet long.

This type of tube is better than an esophageal feeder if you are treating a bloated animal; it goes clear into the rumen and can let gas come back out before you pour in the mineral oil or other medications. It’s also useful to help a calf that has been eating dirt and become plugged up. You can put a small amount of water directly into the stomach, then let it come back out the tube, bringing dirt with it. By alternately putting water in and draining it out, you can clean a lot of dirt out of a calf.

You can make a nasogastric tube from any flexible tubing of proper diameter. Smooth or bevel one end (with knife, sander or grinder) so it won’t scrape the nasal passage and throat. Administer fluid by attaching a large funnel to your end of the tube after the smooth end has been put into the stomach via the nostril. To administer castor oil (which is thick and won’t run down the tube), use a large syringe to force warm oil mixed with a little warm water down the tube.

When tubing a calf in cold weather, keep the tube in a thermos of warm water until use to keep it warm and flexible, then blow any water out of it just before inserting the tube into the calf. If the calf is on his feet, back him into a corner and hold his head/neck between your legs. Tuck his nose downward toward his chest before inserting the tube. If his head is pointed up or stretched forward, the tube is likely to go into the windpipe instead of the esophagus. The esophagus is slightly above the windpipe and the tube will go into the esophagus if the calf’s nose is tucked downward. If his head is stretched forward the tube travels straight into the windpipe.

Once you’re sure it’s in the stomach, attach a funnel and administer the fluid or colostrum, or use a syringe to force down mineral oil or castor oil if you are treating bloat, a plugged-up calf or an acute toxic gut infection that’s shut down the gut.

If giving castor oil to a plugged or shut down calf, shake up four to six ounces of oil with an equal amount of warm water (in a small jar) and suck the mixture up into your syringe. If you keep castor oil warm enough it will go down the tube much more readily than if it’s cold and thick.

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