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Tube feeding calves

Suggestions that calf care people tube feed sick or newborn calves are often met with cries of “Oh, no, I’m scared of doing that!”. Some calf raisers are afraid to tube calves in case they hurt the calf or get liquid into the calf’s lungs. While stomach tubing calves may not be the most exciting task it is a very necessary skill for dairy farmers and calf rearers to master.

Best practice

Tube feeders are a valuable tool in ensuring that neonates have the recommended amount of colostrum. Many farmers perceive that leaving a calf to suckle its dam is more natural than removing a calf from its dam as early as possible. The reality is that studies show that as many as 60% of calves left to nurse their dams fail to consume enough colostrum to provide adequate passive transfer. Ideally, calf rearers would offer newborn calves measured quality colostrum at the rate of ≥ 10% of birth weight. This means offering 40kg calves ≥ 4ℓ of colostrum measuring over 50g/ℓ of IgG (measured using a Colostrometer or Brix refractometer). Baby calves are often unwilling to consume this much, in which case it is recommended that the unconsumed portion be tube fed.

The best absorption of immunoglobulins from colostrum occurs when calves consume the colostrum through a teat. However, teaching some very young calves to drink from a teat can take ages. While bottle feeding newborns might be best practice, calving time is usually very busy, particularly in spring when fodder conservation is included in the schedule. Finding time to spend encouraging newborn calves to drink 4ℓ is difficult especially if there are 30 or 40 calves born each day. In these circumstances, it is better to ensure that calves have colostrum by tubing them, rather than aiming for best practice teat feeding but getting behind and missing the critical first few hours of life when absorption is at its highest. 

Sick calves

The other time stomach tubes are important is when dealing with sick calves that refuse to drink liquids. The main cause of death in scouring calves is dehydration, so sick calves must be given extra fluids to combat this. Electrolyte replacer mixes are useful to correct the fluid loss as well as the salt and mineral imbalances which occur as a result of the diarrhoea. Sometimes sick calves will still drink electrolytes but often it is necessary to tube feed them. Electrolytes provide almost no nourishment at a time when the calf needs high nutrition to fight infection. In most circumstances it is not desirable to stop feeding milk to scouring calves. Whilst tube feeding milk may not be ideal it is better than putting a calf into a negative energy balance because it refuses milk. 

A calf which will not drink its milk is giving a clear signal that it is not well. Do not just tube the calf with its milk and forget about it. Evaluate the calf and make a decision about appropriate treatment, part of which is likely to be extra fluids. These extra fluids may need to be tube fed too. 

Training staff members

It is important that all staff members who ever handle calves are trained in the correct method of tubing calves. It is best to do this before the peak of calving, so that you have more time to spend explaining the methods and letting staff members practice. It is very helpful to have stomach tubing protocols laminated and taped to the wall in an appropriate area.

Step by step instructions for stomach tubing calves

  1. Select the calf to be fed – check the tag number to make sure you have the right calf. This step is particularly important if you are administering anything containing antibiotics, e.g. Scourban. 
  2. Measure the length of tube needed – this is done by measuring from the tip of the calf’s nose to the point of its elbow. Mark the tube with a tag marking pen or piece of tape. 
  3. Restrain the calf – if the calf is standing, this is easiest to do by backing it into a corner and straddling the calf’s neck, with your left hand under the calf’s chin, extending its neck upwards. If the calf cannot stand, do the same thing but from a kneeling position. 
  4. Holding the bottle in your right hand, kink the tube so that colostrum cannot escape and run into the calf’s lungs. 
  5. Keeping the tube kinked all the time, gently open the calf’s mouth and slide the tube down the side of the calf’s mouth and into its throat until the tube is inserted up to the mark on the tube.There should be no real resistance – if you have to push to get the tube in, once the ball is past the calf’s mouth, it is possible you are not in the right place.  
  6. Keeping the tube kinked, check to see that the tube is not in the windpipe. Do this by keeping the bottle in the right hand, still with the tube kinked. Put the left hand down on the throat and between the thumb and forefinger, feel the windpipe (it feels like a stiff piece of hose, with hard rings around it). Now pull the tube up and down a little and you should be able to feel the ball on the end of the tube BEHIND the windpipe. This means that the tube is in the oesophagus, which leads to the stomach and you can go ahead and tube the calf. 
  7. Tube placement should be checked every time you tube a calf.
  8. Unkink the tube to allow the milk to run slowly into the calf’s stomach.  
  9. Kink the tube again before withdrawing it from the calf’s throat, to avoid having any residual milk run into the calf’s lungs as the tube is withdrawn. 
  10. Rinse the tube and bottle with warm water, wash with hot water and detergent, scrub the inside of both with appropriate sized bottle brushes, rinse in clean water and hang up to drain.


There are two situations in which calves should not be tube fed. One is when calves are so weak that they have little or no ability to swallow. Tubing calves in this state can result in liquid entering their lungs. A better option for calves in this condition is intravenous fluids; your vet should be able to teach you how to do this and to provide you with the necessary equipment.

The second situation is calves which have enterotoxaemia, caused by either E. coli or Clostridium perfringens. Diagnosis can be difficult, even for a vet, partly because the disease progresses very quickly. Calves appear to be in pain, kicking at their abdomen, restless and off their feed. The one readily observable sign that calf rearers might notice is that calves with enterotoxaemia often have a distended abdomen and “sloshy gut”. This is due to excess fluid and/or lack of gut motility. If this sign is noticed it is important not to give oral fluids, especially milk. Immediate intervention with intravenous fluids and antibiotic therapy are the only slim chance these calves have of survival.

Once people have subdued their fears and mastered the knack of tube feeding calves, they find it is very useful skill in helping newborn calves get off to a flying start in life.

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