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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Basics of bottle feeding calves orphaned by wildfires

BUFFALO, Okla. – Wildfires that raged through the heart of cattle country in western Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas left a trail of devastation, including motherless calves in need of basic motherly care.

“Volunteers of all stripes have been stepping forth to render aid where and how they can, and among the most beneficial in terms of livestock production have been people hauling in hay to replace burned-up pasture for older cattle or giving of their time to bottle feed orphan calves,” said Loren Sizelove, Beaver County Extension Office agricultural educator.

In terms of maximizing bottle-feeding nutritional benefits, Sizelove said there are several schools of thought regarding frequency of feedings.

“A concentrated milk-replacement formula provides less volume but is nutrient dense,” he said. “Calves fed concentrated formula consume 2 to 3 liters per day, compared to 6 or more liters with standard milk replacer. This method helps the calf’s rumen develop quicker so the animal can eat solid food at an earlier age.”

Cattle possess four stomachs: the rumen, abomasum, reticulum and omasum. The abomasum is the only one fully functioning in a newborn calf, restricting the animal to a liquid diet until 10 to 12 weeks of age.

“We’re extremely grateful for the volunteers who are doing what they can, but many still have limited time to help out when it comes to specific activities such as bottle feeding calves so it is important for producers to remember basic management considerations,” said Darrell McBee, Harper County Extension Office director and agricultural educator.

For example, bottle feeding an orphan calf once a day may cause digestive upset or bloating. Feeding twice a day is a more preferred method, with calves consuming 8 percent to 10 percent of their body weight daily.

“If possible, divide the calf’s meals between morning and evening, feeding an equal amount each time, typically at a level between 4 percent and 5 percent of its body weight,” McBee said.

In essence, if the calf weighs 100 pounds it should receive about 10 pounds of milk daily or 1.2 gallons per day.

Some livestock studies recommend bottle feeding a calf three to four times per day, and for a very basic reason: consuming small, frequent meals enables a calf to better absorb nutrients.

“Volunteers may not be able to give that much time, so it is probably best to stick to a twice-a-day feeding schedule,” McBee said. “If using a milk replacer, be sure to follow the label instructions. Most milk replacers come with their own measuring cup.”

Sizelove reminds producers that diarrhea – usually referred to as scours in the livestock trade – is the number one concern with newborn calves, a condition that can often lead to dehydration.

“Frequent feedings provide a calf with greater water intake, helping to prevent dehydration during diarrhea,” he said. “Dehydration is associated with loss of essential body chemicals often referred to as electrolytes and the buildup of acid.”

Anyone seeking additional information about the care of livestock following a natural disaster such as wildfire should contact their county Extension office, typically listed under “County Government” in local directories.

The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is a state agency administered by the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.


Donald Stotts
DASNR News and Media Relations
Agricultural Communications Services
132 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4079
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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