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Tricks Getting a Calf to Drink from a Bottle

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A common way to raise calves that are orphaned or rejected is to feed them from a bottle. Dairy calves also need bottle-feeding, since they are typically taken away from their mothers shortly after birth so the farmers can collect the milk to sell. Teaching a hungry calf to drink from a bottle seems as if it should be easy, but it can take some time for them to figure it out. A few simple tricks can make the transition go more smoothly.

Getting Started

Let the calf start sucking on your fingers, something that comes naturally to almost all calves. As he sucks, slide the nipple of the bottle into his mouth and then slowly take your fingers out. It may take a few tries for him to accept the bottle, so be persistent. Try smearing some of the milk all over the nipple to give it flavor and help the calf get the idea. If he doesn’t suck your fingers, you may have to gently pry his mouth open and force the nipple in the first time or two.

Milk Flow

The nipple for a calf bottle is typically made of thick, sturdy rubber so that the calf can drink without damaging it. When new, these nipples tend to be very stiff and can be hard for a small calf to use. Enlarge the hole in the nipple slightly by cutting a small X in the center of it. The cut must go all the way through to be of any use. Don’t make it too big, or the calf could get more milk than he can handle and might choke.


It’s normal for a calf to butt his mom to get her to let her milk down so he can eat. This behavior can be a real problem if you’re bottle-feeding because he’s going to want to do the same thing to you. Many calves are big enough that it hurts when they hit you, and they’re strong enough to send the bottle flying. The easiest way to avoid getting butted while your calf is learning is to straddle his back so you are standing over and behind him as he eats.

Feeding Tips

To make it easier for a very young calf to eat, and to help him keep an appropriate body temperature, give your calf warm milk, served at about his body temperature of 100 degrees. Most calves can be fed twice a day, 12 hours apart, but small or weak calves do better if you feed them three times a day instead. Be sure that the first milk your calf gets is colostrum, which is not only rich but also an essential source of antibodies to start him off right.