Prevention / Treatments

The challenges of taking care of a premature baby calf.

Bottle feed a newborn calf

Using an esophagael tube to feed a premature calf

When a calf is born premature, it is a challenge for the calf to survive. Many times the organs are not fully grown and thus the calf has difficulties in its overall functions. When taking care of such a calf you should take this into account.

A premature calf is usually a small calf with a slow functioning metabolism. Breathing is hard with lungs that are not functioning at full potential and the digestive system might also not be so well developed. This can result in the calf having troubles in digesting the milk.

When you think of all this, you realize that you need to have a different approach for such a calf. Building up resistance for pathogens is even more important because it has but little reserves. Good quality colostrum is vital.

Since the calf’s stomach is not fully developed it needs to have small amounts of quality colostrum, maybe even five or six, times a day. This way you ensure that the calf is able to digest the colostrum milk the best way it can.

You also have to realize that the swallowing reflex is not so strong, so there is always the chance of milk going into the lungs. Be prepared for that! An esophageal tube is in this situation a good thing to use, because then you bypass the throat and the calf doesn’t have to swallow then.

Another thing that is important that this calf is having trouble maintaining its core body temperature. Therefore keeping it in a dry and draft free environment is crucial. A warm place is even better if you have the means for that.

To give the calf additional support an injection with extra vitamins is always a good thing to do. This way you will give the calf a boost for its metabolism, which is important for further development of the organs and the ability to maintain its body temperature.

Premature calves, when born healthy, do have a good chance of survival if you take care of them the right way. As long as you keep in mind that it needs a different approach and you act accordingly, it will be able to grow into a normal and healthy calf. If it does get sick, my article on calf treatment is a good resource to check. Here you can find how you can treat it the best way.

Agree? Disagree?

I don’t care, just leave a comment!

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  1. I believe that this has hit the spot. Yesterday we had a calf born that couldn’t get up. Just laid on its side. After getting it into the barn and finding its mother and bringing her in too, the calf drank 1/2 gal of milk replacement. The vet called in the afternoon and advised we needed to milk mother and get the colostrum as tomorrow will be too late. Now these cows are angus not jerseys and I am 65 and haven’t milked since the grandpa bought his first milking machine and my 45 year old son hasn’t even been around dairy cattle. All in all it went well and I had about a quart of milk with colostrum. We held its head and he drank the whole quart but didn’t want anymore.
    One day has passed and the calf took 1/2 gal this morning but hasn’t got up yet. Just lays on its side but is trying. Tonight the calf can raise its head and we propped it between two objects to put it into a normal position of “sitting?” but it didn’t want any milk replacement but we got about a pint in it. At noon today the calf was cold almost like it was dead and tonight it is warmer. We bought the bred cow 3 weeks ago and the vet sleeved her and indicated that she was in her third trimester. Reading your article is making the most sense of all the thoughts that we have had. If you can give us some further ideas, please feel free. It is a beautiful calf otherwise.

  2. Today after pulling some close up heifers to our calving barn, I thought nothing of them. Of course they were bagging up and were springing behind. I locked them up in their pen and went about my normal chores. Come later that day when it was time to lock up the close-ups I happen to hear a quiet cry of a baby calf, I turn to see a baby that maybe 25-30lbs. He appeared as tho the heifer attempted to claim the calf but other than licking the calf there was no more she could do. I grabbed the calf, loaded it up in the pick-up and went to the shop. I set up a heat lamp above and started making around a cup of colostrum. I knew that his belly surely couldn’t hold any more than that due to its size. As I was making the colostrum I kept trying to figure a way to tube it. A regular tuber that works perfect for “normal” sized calves was not going to work for this Premature baby. I found an unused pour on tube that was no bigger than a straw but was stiff enough that I could direct it down to the esopheal groove. I then gave the calf the colostrum and crossed my fingers. I was worried because the cry he gave out was the cry we’ve all heard before, it’s what I call the “death cry”. Here it is 3 hours later and he’s got enough energy to try and get up. Although he doesn’t have the coordination nor the balance. At this point I’m giving the calf a 60% percent chance of survival, better than the 10% I gave it after the death cry. With all this being said, I appreciate this article, it’s truely been beneficial to me for providing care to Edgar, the premey. All that I can think to add to this article is the factor that maybe our normal, conventional tubers won’t work for such small calfs, so to take into perspective that we need to Improvise and downsize the tube to meet the calves needs. Thanks again.

    • Hi Reid,

      Good to read that my article helped you to get this premature calf through its bad start. I think your solution to use a pour on tube is an excellent example of how to improvise when dealing with a special situation. Thank you for your comment, I will surely use your recommendation for using a smaller tube!

      Thanks, Joost.

  3. We just had a premature calf born today. She is 5 weeks early. She is doing well so far but I am concerned with how often to feed her and I’m quite a ways from the barn so should I set up a pen here closer to the house so I can take care of her and keep her warmer than in the barn with the rest of the calves. Any and all recommendations would be appreciated. We have holstein dairy. Thank you!

    • Hi Kathleen,

      I just read your comment today, a bit late to give some direct advice for a newborn calf. I’m sorry I haven’t seen it sooner.
      How is she doing at this moment? Is she well?
      A guideline in feeding her is that if you know her weight, 10% of that weight in milk is needed for maintenance of her body weight. Add 5% extra milk for growth and she will be well on her way.
      Divide this amount of milk in at least three portions per day for the next three weeks. After about five weeks you can start giving her solid feed and fresh water.
      Thanks, Joost.

  4. I need a lot of help. I have never been around cows and so I do not know anything about them. I have twin calfs that were born a month or so early. How much should I be feeding them in ounces? They r a week old. They got colostrum the first four days. They r 32 and 35 pounds. Any help is appreciated.

  5. I am taking care of a little heifer we have named Scooter. She was 35-40 lbs at birth and her owner (not us) left her out in the pasture for three days and on day three, as she was still alive, called my husband to see if our children wanted a project. Well, she is now 7 days old and doing great. Our first day of taking care of her was a bit of a challenge, as she was severely dehydrated, and then that even late, was feverish and lethargic. We were not prepared for a bucket calf of any kind, as our cows won’t be calving for another 6 weeks. So, normal supplies were not on hand.

    I had penicillin on hand and gave her 1/2 cc and then the next day I ran to the closest town to get the best things for her.

    All that to say, thanks for this article, encouraging people to take care of these calves rather than just leaving them in the pasture. This owner also keeps getting after me for feeding her four times a day instead of the normal 2 that most farmers around here believe to be “enough”.

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