Instructions for Raising Bottle Calves

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

| March/April 1978

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

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!