Tips for Raising Bucket Calves
These animals are nicknamed bucket calves because they are fed with a bucket or a bottle with a nipple until they are weaned. According to the Iowa State University Extension, raising bucket calves is a great project for young children interested in caring for livestock.
Most bucket calves are from dairy stock because the dairy farmer needs to put the cow back into production as soon as she no longer produces colostrum. This means that the calf cannot nurse from the cow and must have a different food source. Some bucket calves are from beef cows. Usually the mother can't feed the calf for some reason. The mother might be sick or maybe she died, or can’t produce milk to feed her young.
It is best if the newborn calf is fed colostrum for the first few days. This is milk produced by the mother cow and has antibodies that the calf needs. Most dairy farmers will keep the calf until it has had colostrum from its mother. This will just be for the first few days of its life.
When choosing a bottle bucket calf to buy, you can either go to a dairy farm or a livestock sale barn. Most dairies sell bucket calves and don't let them go until they have had at least three days of colostrum. This is best for the calf and for the new owner.
By the time you take the calf home, the experienced dairy farmer will have watched for problems that might show up in the calf and will have a pretty good idea if the calf is healthy. Even though you may have problems later with calves, really try to avoid getting one that is sick already.
If you buy your calf from a sale barn, try to find out if the calf has been fed colostrum. Make sure it will suck your fingers. That is a good sign of a healthy calf. Also check the rear end of the calf to see if it is dry. If it is wet or has yellow manure on its back end or legs, that could be a sign of scours, which can be deadly for a young calf. If the eyes are runny, the rear end wet, and the ears drooping, do yourself a favor and leave the calf where it is.
There can still be problems when you have a healthy calf. The stress of moving a calf from one environment to another can cause scours, which may lead to pneumonia and, if not treated, will cause your calf to die.
As a preventative, try giving a calf just brought home two scour pills for the first two days and to watch their manure. That might sound awful, but you can tell a lot about a calf's health by watching their ears, eyes, breathing and manure. If scours do appear and don't clear up with commercial scour pills, call your vet right away. He will probably prescribe a medication that will clear up the scours fast, such as Protect.
If the calf has a cough or runny nose, take his temperature before calling your vet. He can better tell you what should be done for the calf if he knows whether there is a fever or not. The normal temperature for a calf is 101 degrees. The vet will probably prescribe penicillin for fevers and colds. Some vets use Naxcel for some problems, but again, that is a product name and you should use what your vet tells you.
If the calf has a temperature, he will dehydrate fast. It's important that you keep giving him fluids. Make water available to him at all times and if he won't drink on his own, you may have to use a stomach tube to get fluids and feedings into him. You should have your vet or an experienced cattle person show you how to do this.
One good thing to do with a very sick calf is to make sure he gets some fluid every hour and then as he gets better every two hours until he is strong enough to drink on his own. Start offering grain to the calf as soon as he will start eating it. Some will eat sooner than others. You have to just keep offering it to them. You can start offering hay early, but not very much at a time. The young calf can't digest it very well. You just want him to be used to having it offered.
In the beginning you can feed the calf two bottles a day. At first some will only drink a half of a bottle at each feeding, but will soon increase to two full feedings. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the milk replacer sack. As the calf gets to be about two months old, slowly cut the dry part of the milk to water until he is just drinking water. This should take about a week. From then on, keep water, grain and hay in front of the calf at all times.
At about this age, you can start breaking the calf to lead. There are several different ways to do this. One way is to fix a halter to a snug fit, not too tight, and lead him to water twice a day. Before long he will follow you. Another way, which will help the calf when he goes to the fair, is to tie him for about two hours every day. Begin grooming the calf and get him used to someone running their hands along his back, because the judge will do this during the show at the fair. It will help a little to cut down on the calf's fear in the show ring.