Bottle Feeding a Calf With Goat Milk

Bottle Feeding a Calf with Goat Milk

By Kassie Dwyer

When you raise dairy goats, you will soon find that even if you have a large family and you are consuming all of the delicious milk, cheese, and yogurt you possibly can (and so are all of your friends and relatives), your milk pail will still runneth over. What is one to do with all that milk? One solution that not only uses up that extra dairy and offers external benefits? Raise a calf! 

Why Bottle Feed a Calf?

You may choose to bottle feed a calf for several reasons. As a cow/calf producer who also happens to operate a goat dairy, I have bottle fed calves with goats’ milk in the past when I have had cows abandon their calves, or if I wanted to sell a cow shortly after calving.

Depending on your homesteading goals, you may choose to raise a calf to use up that surplus of milk while providing a source of healthy beef or veal for your family. Or, perhaps you want to raise a larger dairy animal to provide milk to sell. Maybe your child would like to grow a show steer for 4-H. You could lend a hand to a local cattle producer who has an orphaned calf and return the animal when it is weaned. 

Got Milk?

If you are a dairy goat producer, the natural choice of fluid milk to feed your calf is goats’ milk. This is an excellent choice as the two are nutritionally similar and goats’ milk is easily digestible to the calf.

However, if goat milk is unavailable, there are some other options to get your calf the nutrients it needs in its bottle. Milk replacer is available at most commercial feed stores and is a dry powder that is mixed with warm water for feeding. Another choice is to use milk from a local cow dairy. 

Regardless of what option you choose, it is essential to ensure that the calf gets colostrum on its first day, ideally one gallon in its first twelve hours. No matter how healthy its diet is after that, if a calf misses out on the key antibodies colostrum provides, they will be behind the eight ball throughout their young life in terms of health and growth opportunities.

If colostrum from the dam or another cow is unavailable, powdered colostrum replacer can be purchased and is an appropriate backup. However, ensure that you are buying and feeding colostrum replacer, not colostrum supplement, as they are two different products of varying strengths.

Choosing a Calf to Bottle Feed

It is best to get a calf as young as possible, so that it does not have to transition between multiple types of milks. However, if a calf loses its mother, for example, and must be transitioned to goat milk or replacer, it is best to make this transition slowly over a number of days. Locate some cows’ milk and mix it with the new food source, gradually increasing the percentage of the new milk until it is 100%. I have found it helpful to add probiotics to the calf’s diet during its early days, and this is especially true during a transition to new foods.

Walter the Calf drinking goat milk
We raised Walter to weaning, then he went to a 4-Her who raised him as a market steer. He ended up winning his class then placing third in his weight division at one of the largest shows in the state!

The sex of your calf will depend on your goals. A male or a female may be raised for beef, but a male will be ready for slaughter faster due to increased growth rates. If you don’t plan to use a male for breeding, it is best to castrate them, as bulls can be unpredictable, particularly as they grow.

If you do plan to breed or milk, choose the sex of your calf accordingly. The breed of the calf you select will also depend on your goals. A dairy breed calf such as Holstein or a Jersey is just fine for beef production on the homestead, but will produce a leaner beef in smaller quantities than a comparably sized calf from a beef breed such as a Hereford.

Dairy calves, particularly males, can often be procured very cheaply from local dairies as the resale value for them is generally low. However, a beef breed calf is bred for the purpose of beef production and will most efficiently do so. Crossbred calves are another option to consider!

Keep in mind that some breeds of cattle, such as the Chianina, tend to mature later. Known as European breeds, these tend to be fast growing calves, but they are larger framed and need time to fill out those frames with muscle (beef). If you are bottle raising one of these calves for beef, keep in mind it will take longer for them to be ready for the freezer, similar to a dairy calf.

It may be tempting to purchase a calf cheaply at auction, but buyer beware-when purchasing at an auction. You have no idea of the animal’s background, disease status, or current health. You are better off purchasing from a local farmer that you can speak to about these very important topics.

This is particularly important if you have other animals that could potentially be affected by you introducing a new ruminant herd member. For example, you will want to ensure that your new calf is from a Johne’s-free herd if you are a goat producer, and you will want to quarantine your calf just like any other new addition.

How Much Do I Feed a Bottle Calf?

While it may be tempting to feed your new calf all your extra goat milk, too much of a good thing can result in a sick baby. Your bottle calf should receive approximately 10% of its birth weight in milk daily, split into two feedings. A quart of milk weighs approximately two pounds. Therefore, a calf who weighed 80 pounds at birth would receive two quarts of milk twice daily.

I won’t lie; I have cheated on this a little bit with good results. My calves average 70 pounds at birth, and my goat-milk raised calves receive three quarts of milk twice daily until weaning without issue. Whatever you decide to do, watch out for signs of tummy upset and scours (diarrhea-more on that in a bit). Most calf bottles come in either two quart or three quart sizes.

calf drinking goat milk from a bottle
Our current bottle calf, Saylish, started right on the bottle from birth. She picked it up quickly and with little resistance.

How Do I Feed a Bottle Calf?

Most newborn calves will start on a bottle pretty easily. Gently open their mouth with your hand and guide the nipple in. Once they taste the milk, they usually get the hang of it quickly. Make sure you are holding the bottle at a 45 degree angle or so to allow the milk to flow and mimic their natural posture while nursing from a cow. 

Calves that have already nursed from a cow and are older will be more troublesome to train to a bottle. You may have to clamp their mouth around the nipple, being forceful, but gentle. Keep trying and be patient! You can try a little honey on the nipple to sweeten the deal.

It may be helpful to have someone else stand with the calf so they don’t try to back up. You can also allow an older calf to “go hungry” for a few hours. When they are hungry, they are more willing to accept your offering of a bottle and learn quickly. However, this is not a safe option for a young calf that has not had adequate nutrition yet. 

Once your calf is trained, if you find holding a bottle to be too tedious, you can purchase bottle holders (or make your own!). Kids also make great “bottle holders”! There are also buckets with nipples on them, similar to a lambar, available. Using one of these will require no additional training, the calf should take to it just like their bottle.

However, a regular bucket like you would use for water is all you need to feed your calf hands-free! Bucket training can be done as soon as the calf is vigorously using the bottle and as long as it is healthy. I just tend to do it when I have time and I have seen the calf drinking out of the bucket of water I provide for them.  It can require more patience than bottle training, for sure!

Place the milk in the bucket, then using your fingers (the bottle trained calf should suck on them readily), guide the calf’s head downward into the bucket. It helps to hold the bucket up a little, as the calf is naturally going to resist the downward motion. To them, up and at an angle is the “right” way to eat! Keep guiding their head down. There will be some bubble-blowing into the milk and likely a little choking, but soon they will figure out that there is milk in there!

Remember, be gentle, be patient, and if you have a very resistant calf, walk away and try again another day. When the calf is first trained, I find it helpful to secure the bucket. In their eagerness to eat and newness to the process, they can easily get overzealous and spill. I simply clip the bucket to the gate. Calf hutches usually have handy bucket holders built in!

Saylish the Calf drinking goat milk from a bucket
Saylish is currently 9 weeks old and drinks 3 quarts of goat milk morning and night. She is half Hereford and half Aberdeen, both beef breeds and will be turned out to pasture with the rest of our feeder calves once she is weaned.

Feeding a Bottle Calf for Success

Milk is not the only feed your calf will require to grow up healthy. Cattle are ruminants and require proper forage. I offer quality hay to my calves from an early age, and notice that they start eating it vigorously at around a month old, thereabouts. You will be surprised at how early they start playing with it and nibbling it!

You may also choose to offer a quality calf starter to your bottle calf. Even if you are a grass-fed operation, you may consider temporarily offering starter grain to your bottle calves, particularly at weaning time. This will provide them with additional energy. Starter may be medicated or unmedicated, so read labels carefully to be sure the product meets your needs. Starter is also great for helping to stimulate the development of the ruminant digestive system. 

Clean, fresh water should be offered to calves at all times. 

Weaning a Bottle Calf

Typically, calves for beef are weaned around 6-10 months. If you are feeding a calf to use up extra milk, there is no reason to wean them early. Extended milk feeding won’t hurt them as long as they are eating other foods too.

However, if you are ready to wean, it can safely be done at 8 weeks of age. Gradually decrease the amount of milk the calf is offered over a 2-3 week period, ensuring that they are eating an adequate amount of quality hay (and potentially starter). Be prepared for some fussing!

What Else Do I Need?

Of course, there is more to rearing a bonus calf than just feeding. Calves need adequate shelter from the elements. A hutch or shed is likely sufficient if you don’t have a barn proper, providing it is draft free and protects from the weather. They are herd animals and even if you don’t have other cattle, will enjoy the company of other animals.

Though I personally don’t feel comfortable mixing my calves and goats together in pens due to the injury risk, I know some people do have pens of mixed livestock in their barns. Although they don’t share pens, my calves enjoy being near my goats (and between that and the goat milk, probably think they are goats!).

Your calf will enjoy access to the outdoors in nice weather. Many types of bedding are suitable for calves, provided it is picked or changed regularly and kept dry: sawdust, shavings, straw, and more.

Health concerns for bottle calves

The most common medical concerns to be prepared for with calves are scours and respiratory infections.

Scours in bottle calves

Scours, a broad term for diarrhea, can be caused by a number of bacteria, viruses, and other creepy-crawlies in the environment. If allowed to persist, they can quickly kill a calf through dehydration and failure to absorb nutrients, particularly if a calf is very young.

The best way to prevent scours is to ensure calves receive adequate colostrum. Some producers also vaccinate dams for common organisms that cause scours. Keeping feeding tools clean is also a must!

Treatment consists of rehydration, orally at first and then intravenously if necessary, and treating with antibiotics if a bacterial cause is determined.

Respiratory infections in bottle calves

Respiratory infections such as pneumonia are common with weather changes or during stressful times such as weaning. Listen for coughing, wheezing and observe any changes in feeding habits. Like scours, some of these infections can be treated with antibiotics, while others will simply require supportive therapy.

Other Considerations When Bottle-feeding a Calf

Just a couple more things to think about it before you run out and get your bottle baby! If you don’t already have cows, you may not think about the space that is required to house a growing bovine. Make sure you have adequate room for your calf to live and exercise not just when it is a baby, but as it grows into an adult. If you plan to keep your calf for a pet or breeder, this is even more essential!

If you are going to breed your cow, do you have access to a bull, or an A.I. (artificial insemination) technician?

Slaughterhouses in my area are booked approximately a year in advance. If you plan to raise your calf for beef, you might need to book right now! You will also want to consider how you plan to transport your animal to the processor, if you don’t have your own trailer. 

Raising a bottle calf, on goats’ milk or otherwise, can be a lot of fun and a great way to use up otherwise wasted resources! It may be an opportunity to explore new means of food creation for your homestead while promoting the cyclical nature of your production.

About the author

Kassie Dwyer owns Eden Farm in Athens, ME with her husband Joe & son Joey. They have a grass fed cow-calf operation and a goat dairy, exhibiting their ADGA registered does at shows throughout New England. Kassie is a freelance writer who holds a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture and Animal Science, an M.Ed. in History, an M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction, and is a National Board Certified Teacher. 

Bottle Feeding a Calf

1 thought on “Bottle Feeding a Calf With Goat Milk”

  1. What additional factors should you consider if you plan to raise the calf for beef production, and why is advance planning important when it comes to booking slaughterhouses?

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