Getting colostrum into a newborn calf as soon as possible is critical for a good start in life. Calf expert Sam Leadley, PhD, Attica Veterinary Associates, P.C., Attica, N.Y. says if a bottle does not work and it takes using a tube feeder, then that is the way to go, assuming competent calf care personnel. “I am not much on using a tube feeder for milk or milk replacer,” Leadley says. “If the calf does not want to drink her milk something is wrong and I need address that problem rather than use a tube feeder as a crutch. Some of my clients with my encouragement do at times use a tube feeder to give supplemental fluids such as electrolytes. Often, however, if a calf will not drink electrolytes by herself, she may need IV fluids.”
Leadley notes that some of his clients tend to understaff the night shift, which is not ideal, but it happens. When they do, there is not time to bottle feed newborn calves born on their shift, and those calves will be tube fed with an esophageal feeder. “I’m not sure this is the best practice, but on farms where there is no night herdsman, just enough help to milk the cows, the management has made the decision that it is better to tube the calves than to delay colostrum feeding until the morning shift comes in at 4 or 5 a.m.,” he explains. “These are not easy simple decisions.”
If a newborn calf cannot nurse (e.g., dystocia delivery) tube feeding makes sure timely colostrum delivery takes place. For those who only feed colostrum one time and want to deliver four quarts to large breed calves tube feeding at least some of the colostrum may be the only cost effective way to do this, Leadley adds.
Holstein dairy calves (> 80 lbs of body weight) should receive four quarts of high quality colostrum within two hours of birth. Don Sockett, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, recommends producers should allow their calves to nurse from a bottle for roughly 10 minutes and everything they don’t drink in 10 minutes should be tube fed. Jersey calves should receive three quarts of colostrum. If producers don’t want to spend the 10 minutes allowing the calf to drink colostrum, they should tube feed four quarts of colostrum. “I am not too worried that calves receive another feeding of colostrum since four quarts of high quality colostrum (> 50 g/L of IgG) is adequate and many calves after being tube fed colostrum will not want to drink for 24–36 hours, Sockett explains.
In general a calf should be tube fed electrolytes when it has a weak suckling reflex and/or has difficulty rising without assistance, Sockett says. “Producers should avoid tube feeding milk or calf milk replacer in all calves that are 5 days of age and older because studies have shown that a single feeding of as little as 1.0 liter of milk causes ruminal acidosis, and repeated tube feeding of milk over time will cause D-lactic acidosis.”
Quality still needs to be high
No matter if your clients are using an esophageal feeder or a bottle, they still need to feed the best colostrum available. “Don’t depend on the four-quart volume to rescue you from poor quality colostrum when it happens,” Leadley states. “When feeding only two quarts via tube then the quality issue comes to the forefront. With the smaller volume, efficiency of transfer is lower with tubing than with nursing bottle. So, if only about 75% of the colostrum is going to get into the abomasum right away with two-quart tube feeding, it is really important that there be a high concentration of antibodies.”
Leadley uniformly recommends four quarts for a first feeding with nursing as the first method followed by a tube feeder to be sure calves get all four quarts. “Additional colostrum is to be offered by bottle for at least the first 24 hours, up to 48 hours if the farm can provide clean colostrum.”
Colostrum should be delivered at calf body temperature, roughly 102° F. In colder climates or wintertime, have clients warm colostrum enough so that it’s 102° F when it hits the calf’s mouth, however, try to not exceed 105° F. “My intuitive sense is that matching colostrum to body temperature in cold weather is more important than in warm weather because I do not want the calf burning up her limited supply of energy warming up the colostrum when in cold weather she is already using energy to maintain core body temperature,” explains Leadley.
Sockett adds that it is very important that producers have the correct temperature of the water when they mix up the colostrum replacement. ”Too cold a temperature prevents the colostrum replacement product from going into solution,” he says.
When you should not tube feed
The most consistent problem Sockett has seen with poor tube feeding of colostrum/milk is aspiration pneumonia. Most of the calves that develop an aspiration pneumonia will not develop clinical signs of pneumonia for at least 2–5 days after the event. “Affected calves will be chronic, unthrifty calves with pneumonia that do not respond well to antimicrobial treatment. Affected calves will have a gangrenous pneumonia that usually only affects one lung lobe when the animals are necropsied,” Sockett notes.
Leadley is hesitant to tube feed milk/milk replacer on a reluctant drinker. For example, the five or six-day-old calf that has been drinking well suddenly drinks very slowly the next feeding and leaves part of her milk. “On examination we find that she is having trouble breathing through her nose, slightly elevated body temperature, is not as ‘bright’ as we expect. Now, if we miss these symptoms and dismiss her as ‘that stupid calf didn’t drink’ we miss an opportunity to give timely treatment as per our protocol with the herd veterinarian, and prevent any secondary infections such as bacterial pneumonia.”
Make sure she is dry, out of the wind, hydrated and she will get better without tubing, suggests Leadley. “It is often when we fail to diagnose illness in a timely fashion that we get stuck with a calf not eating.”
The other case of not tubing a calf is when they are already ill with a gastrointestinal infection. Often calves are exposed to an infective dose of coliform bacteria either in the calving pen or in their colostrum. When these coliforms set up housekeeping in the gut at some point enough of them will die and release toxins. Often this process will impair the absorptive ability of the gut creating an abomasum and small intestine that are flooded with fluids. Adding more fluid can be a death sentence for the calf. Learning how to diagnose this situation is an important skill for calf rearing personnel so they do not attempt to give oral fluids. The calf is already at high risk, she doesn’t need the calf care person making things worse.
Training on tube feeding
Unfortunately many dairy employees don’t get the proper training on how to correctly use a tube feeder. Leadley thinks the training is pretty thin, not well done in general and has little involvement of professionals. Leadley is called to many farms to demonstrate the “proper” method of tube feeding, and some farms go further with having him do training. They line up three or four bull calves, get all the workers who will tube calves together, and Leadley demonstrates the correct method, with each employee practicing under his supervision. “I make sure they can palpate the neck and find the ball on the tube,” Leadley explains. “They find it and guide my fingers to it. About half the time they have no idea where or what to feel for. After a couple of tries nearly everyone can find the ball and correctly guide my fingers to it.”
One important thing Leadley always covers is teaching employees how to observe the calf once the colostrum starts to flow. “They learn to listen for symptoms that the colostrum is backing up the esophagus to possibly come up far enough to enter the back of the mouth and drain down into the trachea,” he says. “This is a very, very important skill and one that most workers and farm owners/managers neglect to teach, in addition to just how to insert the tube.”
Once employees learn the correct technique of inserting and removing the tube and how to monitor the feeding, they almost never have a problem and they feel really good about helping a calf get a good start in life, Leadley adds.
Bacterial contamination of tube feeding equipment is a common problem in dairy herds. Many times the producer thinks they are doing a good job of cleaning and sanitation of the esophageal feeder but in reality they are not, Sockett says. Many times the esophageal feeder looks clean but when it is tested; it will have unacceptably high bacterial counts. “When I am investigating the cleanliness of calf feeding equipment, I like samples collected from the bottles or buckets of the first, middle and last calf fed plus have a samples collected immediately before they put milk or colostrum in the esophageal feeder and collect a sample from the esophageal feeder itself.”
The only piece of equipment that is less sanitary than the inside of the tube on a tube feeder on many farms is the manure spreader, notes Leadley. “I have rinsed so many tube feeders with sterile water and cultured ‘too-numerous-to-count’ coliforms, that I would be rich if I had a dollar for each one. Calf care folks just do not realize the ability of bacteria to grow on biofilms that can coat tube feeder surfaces if they are not cleaned properly.”
The most common cleaning errors are:
Rinsing tube feeders with scalding hot water, but not washing them.
Washing them in warm (not hot) water with no detergent, maybe a little bleach, and no brushing.
- Not letting them completely dry between uses. Because of these errors, Leadley usually recommends that before every use the tube feeder be rinsed with a hot, strong bleach solution