To Tube Feed or Not to Tube Feed?

There is much debate on whether you should or should not tube feed a calf. Some farmers only like to use tube feeding as a last result and not as a normal part of their daily maternity care protocols. Tube feeding a calf becomes necessary when the calf is unable or having difficulty nursing. Other farmers, use tube feeding for every calf born, to ensure that the colostrum is delivered as quickly as possible. This method, if done properly is completely safe for all calves, not just the ones that are having difficulties. When a calf nurses its dam, you cannot control the quantity or quality of colostrum that calf is given. Tube feeding eliminates this by allowing you to feed high-quality colostrum to your calves that you have tested with a digital refractometer, and ensures that you are giving the correct quantities to each calf at each meal. Tube feeding is also essential when you have a sick calf that needs electrolytes. 

What Type of Tube Feeder To Use

Now, this brings us to the next topic of debate on which type of tube feeder a dairy should be using: stainless steel or plastic tube feeders. In this article, we will highlight the pros and cons of each style of tube feeders.

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

Tube Feeder Construction

Calf Hero Tube Feeding | Plastic Esophageal Tube Feeder | Stainless steel calf tube

All tube feeders are designed similarly. Both stainless steel and plastic, have long hollow probes with a bulb-shaped end and use a pouch or container for the fluids. The bulb end helps to guide the tube down into the esophagus, which helps to avoid the windpipe. The bulb end also acts as a plug to prevent fluids from coming back up the esophagus and potentially drowning the calf.

Size Matters, at least for Tube Feeders

Before we get into the materials, we need to discuss the size. There are three dimensions of the tube feeder that really matter when it comes to tube feeding newborn calves.

  • Inside Diameter of the Tube Feeder: This is the inner dimension, which determines how fast the colostrum will flow into the calf. This is critical! The faster the feeding, the less stress for the calf.
  • Outside Diameter of the tip of the Tube Feeder: This is the case of not too big and not too small, but just right. The tip needs to be big enough so that it can slightly stretch the esophagus to seal and prevent backflow. This size will also allow you to feel the tube feeder through the neck. It also needs to be small enough to where it doesn’t damage the esophagus.
  • Overall length of the Tube Feeder: The tube feeder needs to be long enough to reach past the trachea and towards the rumen, but not so long that it damages the calf.

Calf Hero™ Snap-in Plastic Tube Feeder

Calf Hero™ Tube Feeder

Advantages of Calf Hero™ Snap-in Plastic Tube Feeder:

  • Made from soft and flexible plastic
  • Has a smaller tip with a larger diameter than other plastic tube feeders on the market
  • Delivers a fast and gentle feeding of colostrum
  • Snaps directly into our Calf Hero™ Colostrum Bags for a true single-use option
  • Since it is disposable, the need for cleaning is eliminated. Which is saving you money on water usage, cleaning products, and testing materials.
  • Employees feel more comfortable using a plastic tube feeder

Disadvantages of Snap-in Plastic Tube Feeder:

  • Employees may try to reuse them thinking that they are saving you money, but we have made it pretty difficult

Stainless Steel Tube Feeder

Stainless Steel Tube Feeder

Advantages of Stainless Steel Tube Feeder:

  • Made from stainless steel and will not rust
  • Designed to be durable and scratch-resistant
  • Easier to clean and sanitize
  • Tend to limit the amount of bacteria growth
  • Last longer
  • Calf can’t bite through the tube feeder

Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Tube Feeder:

  • More expensive upfront
  • Employees can be intimidated by it and feel like they will hurt the calf

Reusable Plastic Tube Feeder

Advantages of Reusable Plastic Tube Feeder

  • Made from a flexible but sturdy plastic 
  • Designed to be less traumatic to a calf
  • Employees may feel more comfortable using on a calf
  • Less expensive and disposable

Disadvantages of Reusable Plastic Tube Feeder

  • Prone to scratching, those scratches can damage the esophagus when inserting 
  • Bacteria tends to grow in the scratches
  • Harder to clean and sanitize 
  • Calves have extremely sharp teeth and can bite through the feeder causing them to get lodged in the throat or stomach

No matter what tube feeder style you choose to have on the farm, you need to make sure that you ALWAYS replace worn, damaged, and scratched tube feeders. Make sure that all tube feeders are intact and have no signs of wear before use. ALWAYS completely clean and sanitize the tube feeder after every use. The fats in colostrum tend to cling to the inside of the tube feeder and this is a great bacteria breading ground. If you skip this critical step, you can potentially introduce harmful bacteria to the next calf you feed. Also, it is wise to have multiple tube feeders on the farm, ones just for colostrum and ones that are solely used for electrolytes. If you have many calves born a day on your farm, you will want multiple feeders as well, that way you can make sure that each calf is getting a clean feeder, without having to have them wait for you to wash and sanitize a feeder before administering the colostrum or electrolytes. Doing these things will help to minimize bacteria growth and sickness being transferred around to the new herd.

So, Which Tube Feeder is Better, Plastic or Stainless?

It really depends on how you handle the hygiene. Stainless steel tube feeder is a great option if you have a team dedicated to cleaning and work with people who feel comfortable using it. The Calf Hero™ snap-in plastic tube feeder inserts directly into our Calf Hero™ Colostrum Bags and fits well into busy environments, who are hygiene conscious. These innovative new tube feeders allow each calf to get its own feeder without concern about transferring harmful bacteria from calf to calf. Once they are inserted into the bag, they are not able to be removed and used again. A reusable plastic tube feeder is the choice for cost-conscious consumers, who are willing to put in extra labor into washing and checking the smoothness of the tube feeder to ensure that calves don’t get hurt.

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