Tube feeding a calf can be a daunting and scary practice, especially if you don’t have proper technique. It can be intimidating for employees and harmful to a calf if not done properly. Maybe that is why some farmers and their employees shy away from it, however, if you take the time to properly train and give employees refreshers from time to time on the proper procedures, it is a safe practice to deliver colostrum in a fast and efficient manner.

At the 2021 Central Plains Dairy Expo this spring, GCC owner Andy Beckel gave a break-out session on how to properly tube feed a calf. In this session, he discussed not only how to tube feed, but when and why tube feeding is important. He also discussed the anatomy of a calf and what you can/cannot feed via a tube feeder. He touched on the different types of tube feeders on the market as well as reminding everyone of the importance of cleanliness.

The 3 W’s of Tube Feeding: When, What, & Why

When and What to feed via a tube feeder: It is completely safe and effective to feed all newborn calves via a tube feeder for the first few meals of colostrum. However, after a calf is four days old, you should not be feeding calves colostrum or milk via a tube feeder. At that age, the only time it is recommended to tube feed water or electrolytes, if the calf is showing signs of sickness, otherwise you could be setting the calf back even further. 

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company

Why should you use a tube feeder: You should use a tube feeder, to get the colostrum into the calf as quickly as possible. Colostrum gives the calf the energy it needs back from the calorie burn it sustained during birth. Also, colostrum is filled with the necessary proteins and antibodies that a calf needs to achieve passive transfer. Also, the use of a tube feeder is critical when there is a sick calf who needs electrolytes. But remember to ALWAYS have a separate tube feeder for this, as you don’t want to accidentally infect a healthy calf with a tube feeder that you used on a sick calf.

The Anatomy of a Calf

Let’s review the basic anatomy of a calf: Inside of the calf’s mouth, on the back of the tongue is a ridge. Knowing where this ridge is on the tongue will help you when you are tube feeding. It will help guide you down the esophagus correctly. At the back of the throat, there are two folds that help the calf to swallow and prevent liquids from going into the lungs. The trachea is a rigid tube that leads to the lungs and the esophagus is soft and flexible and leads to the abomasum.

When you are using a tube feeder, it is helpful to know the basic anatomy, so you can place the tube feeder correctly without hurting the calf. Using the ridge on the tongue, guide the tube feeder along the left side of it and gently slide it into the esophagus. Thus, avoiding damage to the folds at the back of the throat and stimulating the calf’s swallowing reflex.

The Steps in Tube Feeding

Two critical things to remember when tube feeding: Take your time! A calf will not hurt itself when tube feeding, it is us who can hurt the calf when tube feeding. Second, ALWAYS wear gloves and have extra gloves on you in case your gloves get dirty before you insert the tube feeder.

  • The calf needs to be in the upright position with both knees supporting the chest or better yet, standing.
  • Ideally, you will want the calf’s butt in a corner of the pen.
  • Straddle the calf.
  • If your tube feeder is equipped with a flow switch, make sure it is in the CLOSED position or keep the bag of colostrum down to prevent the colostrum from entering too soon.
  • Keep the calf’s nose below the ears. When the nose is above the ears, you elongate the neck and the ridge on the tongue disappears and most likely you will damage the folds protecting the trachea and esophagus and injure the calf.
  • Slowly guide the tube feeder along the left side of the calf’s throat, use the ridge on the back of the tongue to help guide you, this will help to stimulate the calf’s sucking reflex and ease the tube feeder into the correct position.
  • Palpitate the throat, near the jugular for the correct position of the tube feeder. You should be able to feel the bulb tip in the esophagus, if you don’t feel it, then you are in the trachea. You must pull back out and try again.
  • Once you are in the correct position, insert the tube feeder fully to prevent backflow of the colostrum.
  • If your tube feeder is equipped with a flow switch, open the flow switch to all the colostrum to enter the calf. Or hold up the bag so the colostrum begins to flow.
  • Continue to hold the tube feeder in place while you are feeding the calf.
  • The calf may move around during the feeding process, gently keep the nose below the ears. If the calf goes from a standing position to a laying down position, you will need to move with the calf to ensure that the tuber stays in the correct position.
  • Point the tube feeder down when done feeding and removing it. This will prevent any liquid that may be left in the tuber from going into the lungs

Things to Keep in Mind & Common Challenges when Tube Feeding

There are a few key things to keep in mind when tube feeding to make sure that you or your employees are successful each time they have to use the tube feeder. First, is the size of the tip of the tube feeder. A bigger end isn’t always better, you can stretch the esophagus too much, causing damage. Also, if the tip is too small, there can be backflow and the calf could aspirate. You need to choose a tube feeder that has a tip that will have good contact with the sidewalls to prevent the likelihood of backflow. Remember to insert the tip slowly to prevent damage to the sidewalls of the esophagus.

Next, the temperature of the colostrum matters when you are tube feeding. If the colostrum is feed at too hot of a temperature you can damage the esophagus, like when you eat pizza that is too hot you burn your tongue and it is painful. Conversely, too cold of a temperature is not acceptable either, you can end up shocking the calf and they have to spend energy that they do not have on trying to warm up the colostrum, thus causing decrease passive transfer rates. You need to feed the colostrum at the calf’s body temperature, which is 102-104°F.

Quality of the tube feeder matters as well. If you are using a tube feeder that has nicks or abrasions, you will cause damage as you insert it into the esophagus. If you are using a plastic tube feeder, replace damaged ones. If you are using a stainless steel one, then lightly buff out the scratches with an Emory cloth. Calves who have had scratches on their esophagus from a bad tube feeder will stop drinking before they are actually full. Colostrum is naturally acidic and will irritate if there are scratches in the esophagus.

Some common challenges when tube feeding are when you try using them on older calves or using damaged tube feeders. Releasing the colostrum too close to the esophageal groove and inserting the tube feeder too quickly are also fairly common. Another big no-no when tube feeding is not cleaning the tube feeder properly and using the same tube feeder for colostrum and then using it for electrolytes for a calf that is sick, thus causing widespread health issues in your herd.

Cleaning Practice for Tube Feeders

Just a quick review for cleaning practices for your tube feeders and other feeding equipment:

  • Rinse hose/nipple and tube feeder thoroughly with cold water. 
  • Use a brush cleaning kit for cleaning tube feeder and the cross of a nipple after each use inside and out, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.
  • Put hose/nipple and tube feeder into a sink with hot water and detergent and rinse with clean water. 
  • Wash hose/nipple and tube feeder with hot water and acid and rinse with clean water. 
  • Place in a clean area or hang to dry properly. 
  • Storing a tube feeder in a freezer in between feedings will limit bacterial
  • Remember to replace the tube feeder barbed fitting regularly, if you are using a stainless steel one. If reusing a plastic tube feeder, replace them immediately if they look worn or damaged.
Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company