8 tips for raising bucket calves | Living the Country Life
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8 tips for raising bucket calves

Whether you purchase a bucket calf or wind up with one by chance, these tips from Iowa State University Extension will help ensure it grows up to be healthy.
  • What is a bucket calf?

    Bucket calves are calves that are fed with a bottle or bucket with a nipple attached until they are weaned, rather than getting milk directly from their mothers. The cow may have rejected her calf, may be unable to produce enough milk, or she may even have died.

    More often, though, people buy bucket calves from dairy farmers or sale barns. These calves are removed from their mothers after a few days, so the cows can be used for milk production.

    Since they become so used to human interaction, bucket calves are often good candidates for showing at the fair, and make good 4-H or FFA projects.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Colostrum is key

    Colostrum is found in the cow’s milk for the first few days after a calf is born. It contains antibodies that the calf needs to thrive. Most dairies will leave calves with their mothers until they stop producing colostrum. If calves have not received colostrum from their mothers, you can purchase a colostrum supplement. If you have cattle, it’s a good idea to keep some of this supplement on hand, in case you have a calf that needs it.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Check health before buying

    Whether you buy your bucket calf from a dairy farm or a sale barn, give it a quick inspection. Make sure it has been fed colostrum, and check to see if it will suck your fingers. This is a good sign of a healthy calf. Check the calf’s rear end to make sure it is dry. If the rear is wet or there are signs of yellow manure on its back end or legs, this could be a sign of scours, which can be deadly. Runny eyes and droopy ears are other signs of poor health.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Preventive medicine

    Even if your calf seems healthy when you purchase it, the stress of moving to a new environment can cause scours, which may lead to pneumonia and eventual death. It’s a good idea to give newly purchased calves two scour pills a day for the first few days they are home. Keep an eye on their manure and their breathing, eyes, and ears. If scours do appear and don’t clear up with commercial pills, call your vet to get a prescription medication.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Fevers and colds

    If the calf has a cough or runny nose, take his temperature before calling your vet. The normal temperature for a calf is 101 degrees. If the calf has a temperature and is showing signs of a cold, the vet may prescribe penicillin or another medicine.

    Calves with elevated temperatures can dehydrate fast. 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. NEVER attempt to use a stomach tube unless you are 100% sure you know what you’re doing. It’s very easy to get fluid into the lungs, causing death.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Offering grain

    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 as well, but not very much at a time, since young calves can't digest it very well. Still, it’s a good idea for calves to get used to having it offered.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • How much do they drink?

    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. 

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Making the switch to water

    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.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014
  • Learning to be led

    At about two months of 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 option is to tie a leash or rope attached to the halter to a post for about two hours per day. During this time, groom the calf, and let him get used to having someone run a hand along his back. Judges will do this at the fair, so getting a calf used to that feeling will help cut down on his fear and anxiety in the show ring.

    Date Published: February 20, 2013
    Date Updated: April 3, 2014

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