A boost of Antibiotics can help a calf survive the first few days (1)

Raising a Bottle Calf. How to Choose, Buy and Keep it Alive


Bottle calves are at the highest risk of dying. There can be so many things that go wrong. Because of that, it can be super rewarding to raise a bottle calf. I’m going to cover how to choose a good bottle baby to purchase and how to raise it healthily. 

Questions To Ask When Buying a Calf

Buying a calf has a high degree of risk. Many calves die because they are more fragile. Bottle calves are usually not a cheaper way to acquire a cow because they die so frequently. Plus, they are usually more expensive to raise to a yearling than the cost of a yearling. 

A bottle calf should be able to stand and suckle. When you look at a healthy calf, it will probably suckle your finger. Calves should have been given colostrum. But there are many other things to watch for as well. 

Why Are You Selling It? 

Calves aren’t as profitable for farmers to sell and yearlings. So it’s important to know why they are selling the calf. There is a reason, and you want to make sure that you are ok with that reason. If you’re going to purchase a calf, the best chance you have is to buy a cow and calf combination

  • Reasons for selling
  • Did the mom abandon the calf? Or did the mom die while calving?

There are many reasons a calf might be bottle trained:

  • Many dairies bottle feed calves so they can use the milk
  • The mom may abandon or reject the calf
  • The mom might have something that can pass to the calf via nursing and contact
  • The calf might be struggling and need extra care

Bottle Trained Calves and Diet Questions

A bottle-trained calf will be easier to feed. There are two ways calves can be bottle trained. People can feed the calf with a bottle or set up the bottle for calf to feed itself. 

You’ll also want to know what the calf is eating. Is it eating commercial milk, milk from another cow, or something else? Sometimes you’ll get an off-the-wall answer. Make sure you understand its food intake. Never use a soy milk replacer, only bovine milk.

Calves should maintain the same diet, so you must understand what it’s eating. Plus, depending on the age, make sure it’s getting enough milk. Some sellers will wean a calf early to save money, which stunts its growth. 

Calves aren’t developmentally ready for hay and grain until they are four months old. They can eat some before then but aren’t ready to be weaned. 

  • Is the calf bottle-trained
  • What is its current formula?
  • What brand of milk supplement do you feed? 
  • How much milk is it getting a day
    • How frequently?
    • What feeding times?
  • What type of bottle nipples do you use?

Calves can die if they overeat milk each day. Never feed a calf more than twice a day. Make sure you don’t overfeed it. 

Colostrum-Related Questions 

Colostrum is vital for calves. Ashley has found that calves that don’t get colostrum never grow and develop, and calves that receive colostrum. She explained, “Even at a year of age, calves without colostrum will be smaller and still growing at a slower rate. Colostrum is vital.” 

Find out what kind of colostrum the calf received. They might have gotten it from the mama, received commercial colostrum, or previously saved colostrum. 

  • Did the calf receive colostrum?
    • From the mama?
    • From a previously saved cache?
    • From supplements?

Health-Related Calf Questions to Ask

Calves are especially susceptible to death. Find out if the calf had issues when it was born. Ask about its history with sickness. Observe how the calf looks. Make sure it’s alert and can move around easily. Look at the poo. Watch for an odd color. Bright yellow or orange poop is a sign of illness. Ask if the calf has ever had a pasty butt. If so, ask what they did to treat it. 

Find out if the calf has had breathing difficulties. Listen for a raspy sound when she breathes. 

Ask what the average cull rate is at the dairy or farm. Find out what reasons cause them to cull. This can give you an indication of the overall health of the herd. 

Find out what vaccinations the calf has already had. Check out its dam and grand dam. Make sure they look healthy. Ask if the dam and grand dam is an easy or hard keeper. Ask how many times it took for the mama cow to get pregnant. 

  • Has the calf ever been sick? How was it treated?
  • What vaccines has the calf received?
  • Ask to see her dam (and grand dam if on the farm.)
    • Are they healthy-looking?
    • Is the dam an easy keeper or a hard keeper
    • How many tries did it take for mama to get pregnant?
  • What’s the average cull age at the dairy?
  • Observe: how clean is the calf? Is she caked on with mud and dirt?

Guard against scours in calves (1)

Raising a Bottle Fed Calf (How to Keep Them Alive) 

Bottle calves should have a strong suckle. Make sure that day-old calves can walk and stand. 

1. Give Calves Colostrum

They should have been given colostrum. Be very cautious buying a calf that did not eat any colostrum. If you have a calf born that needs to be bottle-fed, make sure it gets 2 gallons of colostrum within the first day.

The highest death rate in bottle calves is for those who did not get colostrum after birth. Colostrum strengthens calves’ immune systems, helps them digest milk easier, and sets their gut up for good health. Gut health is highly essential for ruminant animals. 

Colostrum is so critical that I’ve even known people who have given week-old calves colostrum after purchasing them to help them be healthier. But, after the first 24 hours, colostrum won’t be as effective. 

2. Give A Boost of Antibiotics When You Bring it Home

Give your calf a boost of antibiotics when you bring it home. This will help it fight any bacteria already exposed. A boost of antibiotics makes a difference because calves don’t have many immunities. 

3. Keep the Calf Clean

Calves are particularly susceptible to illness. Keep your calf in a clean environment. Make sure you clean the umbilical cord and watch for any signs of infection. Do not allow the calf to be in any area occupied by a sick cow in the last year. Two years would be better because many types of bacteria can last in the soil for a long time. 

Don't overfeed calves too much milk (1)

4. Closely Monitor Your Calf. 

Some people think that a calf is like a puppy; you only need to feed and play with it. But, calves have a much higher mortality rate. One of the most important things you can do to raise your calf safely is to spend time with it and closely monitor it.

Watch for changes in eating, changes in waste, and behavior changes. Keep an eye on your calf’s overall health, energy, and coat. Often when a calf suddenly dies, it’s because its caregiver hasn’t spent enough time monitoring it for changes. 

5. Watch for Scours

Scours is diarrhea. It’s the most common cause of death in young calves. Scours dehydrates calves and makes it difficult for them to stay hydrated. There are many causes of scours. These causes can be gut bacteria, illness, or digestion issues. 

Apple Cider Vinegar

Treat scours by giving calves apple cider vinegar in their water. Don’t give 1-2 day-old calves vinegar as they should still drink colostrum. Calves can drink watcher with apple cider vinegar for the first month. 

The vinegar will help balance the PH in the calf’s stomach, making it a friendlier place for good bacteria. It also helps the calf’s immune system ward off harmful bacteria and avoid illness. 

Keep the Calf Hydrated

Make sure that any calf with scours is getting plenty of water. Some vets limit the milk consumption of scouring calves in favor of hydration support. If your calf appears to be dehydrating, immediately take it to a vet. Intravenous fluids might be the only way to save his life. 

Viral and Bacterial Infection-Caused Scours

If your calf has a bacterial infection, it will need antibiotics to get over scours. Viral infections are harder to treat. Make sure you support all other aspects of a healthy calf: adequate hydration, protection from other cattle, and shelter. 

Commercial Support for Scours

There are also commercial remedies for scours. Some of the recommended ones were Durvet Calf Scour Bolus, Spectorguard (2 TBS daily), and electrolytes. Pepto 1 tablet per feeding.

If a bacterial or viral infection is causing scours, then you’ll need to get additional support from a vet, which may include antibiotics.  

Resorb Electrolytes

Keeping a scour calf hydrated is critical. Resorb electrolytes is a powder you can mix with water to treat scours. It helps keep the calf hydrated. 

Keep calves warm and monitor temperature (1)

6. Feed Calves Enough, But Not Too Much

If you feed your calf too much milk, it can cause scours. Young calves will generally drink 2 quarts of milk two or three times a day (depending on the breed). After eight weeks, the milk can be increased to 3 quarts twice a day. 

At 8 weeks, the calf should be eating milk and calf starter, which will help their digestive systems prepare for grain. Calf starters are available in free-will starters, which you can leave out from the beginning. At 8-10 weeks, the calf should start getting increased calorie needs from the calf starter. 

7. Be On Guard for Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a main killer of young and older calves. Keep an ear for any raspy breathing or coughing cows. Spring and fall are higher-risk times of the year when calves get sick. 

Spring brings unstable weather that alternates between cold and hot, wet and dry. Spring and fall tend to introduce pneumonia in calves because of the frequent weather and temperature changes.

Listen for raspy breathing and act quickly with antibiotics to stop the advancement of pneumonia.  

8. Monitor the Calf’s Temperature

Keep a close enough eye on your calf that you notice if it gets a temperature. The average temperature for a calf is between 101.5 and 103. Fahrenheit. If you stick your clean finger in the calf’s mouth and it feels hot or cold, make sure to take the temperature. 

Fever or cold calf indicates that something is seriously wrong. You’ll want to treat a sick calf immediately because calves can die very quickly and without warning. 

9. Keep Calves Dry and Warm

Calves should be kept dry and warm. A wet calf easily becomes chilled and will catch sickness quickly. Healthy calves can withstand cold weather. Where I live, day-old calves are kept outside in January, even as temperatures drop below zero. 

And, they are usually fine. One of my farmer neighbors, Ashley says she loses fewer calves in the winter than in the summer because the winter kills the pathogens that make calves sick. Without those illnesses, calves thrive in the cold. 

Make sure your calf has a way to get out of the wet winter weather by providing a hut or stall for it to retreat to. 

Bottle calves should have bovine milk instead of soy (1)

10. Provide Individual Huts and Stalls for Calves

Calves are very prone to sickness. If you raise more than one bottle calf, give each one its own hut and stall. This can help to stop the spread of disease among your calves. Additionally, individual stalls help to ensure that each calf has access to food and water. It prevents bullying and power struggles. 

11. Don’t Change Milk Replacer or Feed Soy Milk

Calves don’t adjust very well to a change in milk. Keep bottle calves drinking the same kind of milk replacer from the beginning. Avoid changing brands or types of formula. The one exception is if you purchase a calf on a soy milk replacer. 

Soy milk is not good for calves and will not help them develop or grow well. Another name for soy is glycine max. Additionally, Land O Lakes and Purina milk replacers have soy in them. 

Make sure you use a bovine replacer if you need to change the feed of your calf to a healthy option. But, if it’s already eating a type of bovine milk or bovine milk formula, keep it.  

Milk should be 22% or higher milk or whey protein and 22% fat. 

12. Don’t Kiss Your Calf

Calves are cute and adorable because they are little. But, be warned. Your calf can carry many illnesses that are zoonotic and can pass to you. Don’t kiss or snuggle your calf and teach kids to wash hands after handling the calf. 

Pneumonia, TB, BLV, and other illnesses can all pass to people. Take care of your calf and take measures to protect yourself and your family from potential diseases. 

Supplies You Need for a Bottle Calf

Before you bring home your calf, you’ll want to have the following supplies on hand. This will make it a lot easier to keep your calf healthy and growing.

  1. Colostrum at Tractor Supply
  2. I like the Manna Pro because of Calf Milk Replacer (Bovine, not Soy). You can find it on Amazon https://amzn.to/3sxF9az. Here’s a smaller package that’s also good (it’s only 6 lbs, though) https://amzn.to/3uIhWW2
  3. Apple Cider Vinegar
  4. Two Quart bottle and nipple on Amazon https://amzn.to/3gEtscB
  5. Vitamin B Complex (Vit B gives a great boost when a baby is weak and can make the difference) https://amzn.to/3GElTgB
  6. Calf Drencher: When they won’t eat and are weak. Make sure you learn how in person from a vet or other experienced cow owner. On Amazon https://amzn.to/3BgqNPH
  7. Castrator (for bull calves). I haven’t found a quality one on Amazon yet. Check with your vet or local farm supply store.
  8. Dehorning Paste: It’s better than dehorning with an iron https://amzn.to/33ccQFY.
  9. Needle and syringes. I usually get them from my farm supply store, but you can also get them from Amazon (needles sold separately)
  10. Penicillin from Tractor Supply 
  11. Liquamycin (another antibiotic) from Tractor Supply


Raising a bottle calf is something you do for the love of the calf. You won’t make money off a bottle calf because a milk replacer will cost more than the yearling will be worth. But, it is rewarding to raise a baby calf and experience the bonding that occurs. 

Recommended Cattle Supplies (And Dairy Supplies)

This list contains affiliate products. Affiliate products do not cost more but helps to support BestFarmAnimals and our goal to provide farm animal owners with accurate and helpful information.

This shelter is pretty easy to put together and it shelters a good number of cows. It’s sturdy and can withstand our high winds and heavy snows. And it’s cheaper than a barn and easier to build.

Colostrum is critical for calves. If you aren’t able to get some from your cows, this is a quality supplemental colostrum.

Probiotic for cattle with digestion issues in a oral tube. It works for other ruminants and is safe for goats, but is formulated especially for cattle.

A halter to lead Bessie around. This show halter also works for kids showing for 4H.

All Stock Feed is on Amazon, but you’ll pay less if you find it at your local feed store. It’s a great feed for cattle.

Electrical rope for your fencing. This keeps cattle in, but goats, alas- not so well.

Dairy Cow Recommended Supplies

Disposable towels or wet wipes are the first step in cleaning the udders.

Teat Dip and a dip cup are essential for keeping your milk clean. It lasts a while. Mine usually lasts a year to a year and a half.

I use a stainless steel bucket when I milk because it’s easy to clean and carry. These are my preferred milk filters and I use them for cow and goat milk.

This large jar funnel stays much more stable than regular funnels and can handle larger milk volumes.

I like this grain feeder while milking and use this size for the cows and goats being milked.

Balm ointment for sore udders. This cream is popular for people but formulated and created for cows’ udders.

Mastitis Test detects mastitis.

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