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Posted: 11/27/2023
Beef calf drinking from a bottle

What's Best for Feeding Calves?

Much like parents of a newborn baby make a personal decision to either breastfeed or bottle-feed their child, calves learn how to eat from buckets and/or bottles for different reasons. While many producers have a strong preference between the two options, we wondered – is one better than the other? Let's dig into the pros and cons of both bucket training vs. nipples/bottles for calves.

Factors to Consider when Feeding Calves

Here are a few factors to consider right off the bat that may make your decision between the two feeding methods an easy one. Think about:

  • Weak Calves: Bucket feedings work best with strong, healthy animals. Newborns that appear lethargic, cold, or have scours will most likely not be able to feed successfully from a bucket.
  • Accuracy: Because bottles have lids, it's easier to control the contents. That means there's less risk of spillage, and more consistent measurability of each intake compared to bucket feeding.
  • Time: Nipple feedings take more time and are more labor-intensive. Calves are able to consume milk at a faster pace with buckets, but the tradeoff with this speed is the risk of aspirating fluid with potential pneumonia to follow.
  • Instincts: Calves possess a natural urge to suck, but when they don't get to feed from (suck on) a dam's teat or a bottle, they tend to lick and/or suck other animals or nearby items. That can lead to poor udder development with the potential for future infections. Nipple feeding can allow for positive growth and development.
  • Maintenance: If easy maintenance is important to your operational plan, bucket feeding is the way to go. Worry about fewer materials with the added enjoyment of easier cleaning.

Dairy calf with bucket

The Advantages of Bucket Feeding

It's easy to point out the advantages to bucket feeding calves. While it takes more time and patience in the beginning to train the newborn how to eat from a bucket, once they get the hang of it mealtimes are far more efficient with a bucket than they are with a bottle. With buckets, you don't need extra hands for individual bottle feeding, and the calf can take in more milk quicker than it can through a nipple.

Feeding from a bucket also helps get the calf accustomed to eating within an enclosed container and bringing its head into the same space where it gets dry feed. This could mean earlier weaning and more rapid growth as the calf transitions to a ruminant. In fact, the rumen development tends to move at a more accelerated pace for bucket-drinkers because they often consume more water compared to their bottle-drinking herd mates.

Another big advantage to bucket feeding is the cleaning and maintenance. Buckets are far easier to wash, sanitize and dry than bottles, and there are no nipples to check on or replace regularly when the drinking holes expand. Just rinse the bucket, spray it down with sanitizer and hang it to dry daily. One solid bucket means fewer pieces to wash and dry and keep track of, and the bucket's general durability often makes for longer-term use.

How Long Do Calves Need Bottle Fed?

Bottle feeding can be exhausting several times per day, especially if you're feeding several animals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends feeding high-quality milk or calf milk replacer for at least 6 weeks before weaning. This is a critical time-management component to take into consideration when you decide to feed via bottles or buckets as it can be a big commitment to sit with a calf and deliver bottles each day.

That said, some producers prefer using bottles because they can slow the intake with different nipples. This slower feeding helps avoid milk overflow into the rumen compared to large quantities of milk available from buckets.

If they are healthy, calves likely need 2-3 feedings per day. If they're struggling, or the weather is cold, they may require more bottles to gain more nutrients and build stamina. Either way, the key to successful calf feeding involves routine. Create a schedule of feedings and stick to it! If the diet must change (when it's time to add new foods or cut out milk replacer intake), avoid sudden changes. Instead, work them into the schedule gradually across several days.

Do Calves Prefer Bottles?

Calves may take to the bottle easier for a number of reasons, and one of those is definitely temperature. Bottles can hold the temperature of their contents longer than open containers like buckets can. Even the hungry calves may fight you on drinking cool milk, and if it's in buckets, you have to make several trips to warm it up. That's why the temperature benefit makes a big difference.

Bottle feeding also gives producers the ability to track specific consumption for each calf. In the feedlot, open buckets can be contaminated and some contents can splash out which affects the animal's intake. There's no way to know what's mixing in with the milk, or how much escaped en route to the headlock. Bottles, on the other hand, give you the ability to confidently measure intake far more accurately than with bucket calf feeders. The contents are not only protected from contamination – they're contained from spillage, too. It's easy to measure intake because what's in the bottle stays in the bottle and gets to the calf.

Different types of calf feeders

Top 5 Calf Milk Feeders

Check out some of the many options available for calf bottle feeders, bar feeders, buckets, nipples and more. Here are the Top 5 feeder products here at PBS Animal Health:

  1. Looking to feed several calves without hand-feeding? This Milk Bar Portable Feeder might be the best of both worlds. Feed 6 or 10 animals at a time (with 9 gallon and 15 gallon capacity, respectively) using gravity-flow nipples that slow down gulping and prevent choking. To drain, simply hang the feeder upside-down using the fully adjustable "Ezi Lock" hooks.
  2. Made with impact-resistant, high-density polyethylene, this 5-quart Calf Hutch Pail holds its shape without wobbling or flexing. Choose from 4 colors, each with a strong galvanized metal handle.
  3. The 3-quart E-Z Nurse Snap-On Bottle with Nipple showcases a neck-to-base angle that relieves tension during calf feeding. The snap-on nipple includes an air-release valve and the nipple's upgraded material ensures a longer lifespan over other calf nipples.
  4. If you have a sick or weak calf, try the Peach Teats Single Calf Feeder. The black screw-in Peach Teats® nipple attaches to the 6-quart feeder that can stand flat or be mounted on a rail/fence. Peach Teats nipples function like a real cow's teat, moving all the time while the calf is suckling.
  5. The Peach Teats Calf Nurser Bottle with Nipple holds 2 quarts of milk and provides increased air flow for newborn or weak calves. The milk opening slits on each side of the nipple (instead of at the crown) to help prevent leaks. Replacement teats are available, too.

Is it Better to Bottle Feed or Bucket Feed a Calf?

Certainly you'll find advantages to both bottle- and bucket-feeding methods, but choose what makes sense for your operation and your cattle. Whatever you decide, PBS Animal Health is here with all the equipment and supplies you need for calf feeding. Shop now for fast, reliable shipping. Questions about these or other products? Reach out to our top-notch Customer Care team!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article, and all other articles by pbsanimalhealth is for informational purposes only. This article may have been prepared from multiple sources at the time it was written and is not intended to be used as a sole source of information in making any purchase or specific product use decision. We recommend you always consult with your attending veterinarian to properly diagnose any health-related condition before initiating any prevention or treatment program. Always read and follow each product’s current label instructions and Warnings before use.

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