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Cattle Chat: Orphan Calf Care

On a cow-calf operation, the goal is always to have a calf be raised by its birth mother until weaning, but in a situation when the cow won’t claim the calf as its own or she dies in calving, producers can be left with an orphan calf that needs immediate care.

How to manage these calves was the topic of a recent Cattle Chat discussion with the veterinary and nutrition experts at the Kansas State University Beef Cattle Institute. Joining them was Amelia Woolums, veterinarian and professor at Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

After the calf has received colostrum either from the cow that has been milked or via a colostrum replacer, the next step is to select the right type of milk replacer, said nutritionist Phillip Lancaster.

“I recommend giving the calf a milk replacer that is formulated with whey protein rather than a plant-based protein because the whey protein is much more digestible in the first three weeks of life,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster recommends that producers aim to feed the calf 10 to 20% of its birth weight divided into 2 equal feedings per day.

“In time, I try to get the calf to consume four quarts per day before I gradually step it down from the milk as it eats more feed,” Lancaster said.

He begins to offer the calf a starter feed at two weeks of age and increases that in time.

“When they are two weeks old, I put a handful of starter feed in a raised pan for them to nibble at,” Lancaster said. “That feed should be a textured feed, not pelleted, and should have some molasses added to make it appealing.”

He also suggests making long stem hay available early on even though the calf’s rumen (one of the four compartments to its stomach) won’t be able to digest that initially.

“When a calf is born, the rumen is sterile but over time as it is exposed to the environment and scratches from the feed and hay, it will develop the papillae to have an absorptive capacity,” Lancaster said.

From a health standpoint, these young calves are prone to respiratory infections and diarrhea that can make them very ill, said veterinarian Brad White. However, Woolums offered one tip to help improve the calf’s immunity.

“I suggest to my clients that they add a little colostrum replacer into the milk replacer because it will help coat the calf’s intestines and decrease the likelihood of infection from the bacteria that cause diarrhea,” Woolums said. “As much as 10% colostrum replacer can make a difference as we know that if the diarrhea agents can’t attach to the intestine because of the antibodies in colostrum binding to them they won’t be able to make the calf sick.”

She said one of her clients puts colostrum replacer in an ice cube tray and then drops a few cubes in when they mix up the milk replacer.

“It is also important to mix the replacer correctly because if there isn’t enough water mixed in, it can lead to some serious health problems,” Woolums said.

Additionally, to keep the calf healthy veterinarian Brian Lubbers stressed proper sanitation of the equipment used to feed the calf.

“Bacteria can reproduce quickly in a bottle that isn’t properly cleaned,” Lubbers said. “Producers need to make sure the milk and every piece of equipment used in preparing and feeding that milk is cleaned with hot water and even a bit of diluted bleach before it is used again.”

To hear the full discussion, listen to the Cattle Chat podcast online at or through your preferred streaming platform.

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