Instructions for Raising Bottle Calves

You don't need a lot of money or pasture to get started raising bottle calves.

| March/April 1978


In the method described by Luilla Thompson, raising bottle calves is an easy way to make a profit while having your own small herd of calves.


So you want to raise a small herd (maybe just two or three head) of cattle and enjoy honest-to-goodness "homegrown" milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, and/or beef for a change? But you don't have the time, money, acreage, or know-how to start right out with several full-grown animals? Then here's a suggestion: Why not start small ... by raising bottle calves?

Ken and I acquired our very first herd this way more than 10 years ago. Since then, we've ''mothered" a good many bottle calves (and learned a great deal through trial and error). And we're still convinced that the ''bottle method" is by far the easiest, most economical, most educational way to get started in small-scale dairy farming or beef raising.

Where to Buy Bottle Calves 

Whenever possible, Ken and I buy our calves directly from the original owner, and we recommend that you do the same. Check with local dairies which frequently sell some of their calves at birth. (An advantage of buying from a dairy is that sometimes the calf has been allowed to nurse for a few days, in which case the calf has already gotten a good dose of the colostrum — or first milk — it needs for a good start in life.) While you're at the dairy, ask about buying some fresh colostrum too (even if they have no calves to sell you). A couple plastic jugfuls of colostrum kept at home in the freezer can come in handy later on.

You can sometimes also purchase calves at feedlots, since — frequently — cows that are brought to the lots for fattening are pregnant, and the managers of the operations don't want to bother with infants. Quite often, too, a calf born in one of these huge "meat factories" will get very little care (perhaps not even a first feeding). Hence, you may want to ask someone who works at a feedlot to notify you immediately when a calf is born.

We also buy calves now and then from the local livestock auction buy only if we feel we have the time, money, and extra pens to gamble with. (The sad truth is, you never really know what you're getting when you buy an animal at auction.) If you decide to go to one of the sales, try to arrive several hours before the bidding starts and don't buy any calf that you can't check close-up first.

What does a calf cost? Well, the current price in 1978 for day-old calves in this area (Broadwater, Nebraska) is about $50. Calves from milker stock can still be bought at auction for about $25, however. (Last spring, I purchased eight little ones at auction for an average of $10 each. Four turned out to be "hot calves" [see below] and died the first week ... while the other four grew well and netted us a nice return in the fall.)

6/19/2016 4:58:32 PM

I wanted to let you know how much i enjoyed reading your article. I have been raising hundreds of calves for a long time and I have a few points that I would like to make. The biggest problem one faces when raising baby calves is scours. When I first started out when I had a calf that was scouring I did as the vet said and held back the milk and only gave the calf electrolytes as well as various scours medicine. In most cases the scours stopped, but the calf died of malnourishment. Calves are born with a limited energy supply. By depriving them of milk replacer they are at a huge nutritional disadvantage. I searched and found an all natural nutritional supplent, Recover, that would combat calf scours. I talked with the owner who assured me it has been successful used on hundreds of calves. The big surprise came when he told me I could drench the calf with it and also add it to their milk replacer. I was shocked to say the least!! I was always told that this was a no no!!! To make a long story short, I did use it and it worked as he said. Now, the first thing that I do when I receive new calves is to drench them with Recover and add it to their milk replacer. This has been a lifesaver for me. I found the product at Thanks again for an informative article.

5/28/2015 9:22:56 PM

have a calf ive been feeding for five weeks on milk replacer sav a calf two bottles a day. he has had slight scours from day one have given him scour pills and other electrolites... didnt want to eat this morning and wouldnt get up tonight forced feed electrolites with bag calf not looking good. have given him three days of penicillin no help... and advice thanks

hayley holmes
11/1/2012 12:50:46 PM

Hi there, So we have this bottle calf that is giving us fits...Can you help? Here is the run down brought it home from auction (yes bad choice, lesson learned) thursday night. probably about a week old. 40 pounds. Nursed vigorously on human infant formula bc we had nothing else. next couple days I forget but basically it hasn't been eating well. I have given it Penicillin, oxytetracycline and oral bactrim. It was coughing and a little drowsy acting eating poorly. I have been taking out small 9oz bottles during the day and giving it like water and electrolytes with an egg yolk mixed in or just water with a little bit of milk replacer. Noticed diarrhea on Monday I think so we gave it pepto and that night 2 quarts of water electrolyte mix, same thing next morning. Guzzled them down. Last night had my husband give 1 quart milk replacer and 1 quart water electrolyte mix all mixed together, guzzled it down. this morning mixed 2 quarts milk replacer at 75% strength- not interested. I mean it jumped up looking for the bottle starts drinking and then starts messing around, not drinking, turning its mouth away etc. So i went in and poured half of it out filled it up with water and put in 2 egg yolks and got about a pint into him with some struggle. We are really frustrated, I think it just doesn't like the milk replacer. Was wanting goats milk or cows milk, someone near me has goats milk for 14$ a gallon! Can I try grocery store milk? We aren't sure what to try next. Monday took a total of 1 quart, tuesday took about 3 1/4 quarts and yesterday 4 quarts. Have also noticed it drinking water from the "free choice" bucket in the stall. If you have any ideas suggestions or answers I would really appreciate it! Thanks Hayley

8/30/2008 2:27:29 PM

could you please tell me at what age i stop the starter feed and start the grower feed and i do shop at MFA so what kind should i get and when should i start the grower. i would ask at MFA but ive been told that this MFA make commission on there sales so they sell you the most expensive thank you diana

2/6/2008 10:05:19 AM

very good web site about the remedy for scours can you flavor the sure jell with milk replacer???

1/19/2008 8:06:04 AM

I am new to this calf feeding but have raise many wildlife and other babie (deer, coon ,dog, cats colts and mule babies, ect.) are neighbor had a big show and is paying us to take care of their cows while they were gone (500 of them most hving calfs)there have been 2 we lost and 17 other doing good but there was one that had twins and she rejectd the little girl I gave her the col. it took for ever but i final gave up on the big nipple and used a regular babie bottle and she has taken to it i plan on tring the big nipple after she is aleast a week old. It take a bit more work but she has made a big turn around. my thing is everone has said i should not have use the small nipple was i in the wrong to so this.

11/29/2007 7:42:38 PM

I am new to the world of dairy cows, but what I can't understand is how calves can live with excellent health at their mother's side in a pasture, but when kept away from their mother in a pen, all that is natural to the pasture becomes dangerous to them? It also seems that people are trying to live a "natural" life with bottle-fed calves on fake milk. Doesn't something just seem wrong in all this? Perhaps the health problems are caused by our reduced but nevertheless too great disruption of the natural processes involved here. I can't help but cow milk consumption by human "natural"? If you're like me, I want to live a simple happy life free of human-made chaos and trouble. I'm not sure this is the answer to that problem.

7/26/2007 7:35:11 AM

Just one thing I noticed in here that is incorrect baby calves should not have hay in front of them until about six weeks. They are born monogastric and do not develop the ability to ruminate properly to digest hay until then. Feeding hay too early only fills their belly with "fill" that offers no nutritional value and prevents them from eating the milk and grain they need to grow and develop properly.

4/14/2007 9:42:22 PM

Please let all of your readers know that if anyone uses a milk replacer put out by milk products out of Chilton, Wis it will kill your bottle calfs in a heart beat. I tried it and within 10 days I lost 13 calfs due to the soy flour in it. Land-o-lakes is the main company of milk products and they even told me that this brand sav-a-caf is very bad for calfs and that it can kill them.. how about that.

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