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!
    Kathleen recently posted..The challenges of taking care of a premature baby calf.

    • 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”.
    Betty recently posted..Five Reasons to take Advantage of the Early Bird Registration for Teach Them Diligently Convention

  6. we have a 4 day old calf she gets up moves around but is having breathing problems sounds rasp. yesterday momma had broken out of the pen and refused to come back in, she called the calf out yesterday and calf was with her all day it got cold so we carried calf back in to the barn as her labored breathing was worse with the tongue out and now the breathing has became worse lays on its side panting real heavy. feels like all ribs are correct. she still gets up moves around as momma comes up but momma wont stand long enough for to latch on and she wont drink re placer. very concerned she looks for comfort as I try yet I can’t help not knowing signs of pneumonia and not a single cattleman will help I have been to talk to them.

    • Hi Sonia,

      Typical signs of Pneumonia are: quick and shallow breathing, a snotty nose, fever (higher than 100 F) and a clear visual of the ribs. If I understand the problems with your calf correctly it gets disturbed by it’s mother. What I should do in this situation, make sure the calf gets enough rest and avoid extra stress. In other words, make sure that the calf and it’s mother can’t have any contact.
      If an animal has stress, curing from a disease is more problamatic.
      Also, I wouldn’t give this calf milk replacer, but milk from it’s own mother.
      Thanks, Joost.

  7. Hi. I am caring for a calf that was born 5 days ago. We have her our barn right now. She was born 4-5 weeks premature. I have been feeding her by bottle and the first few days it seemed she was getting better and stronger and drinking more milk each day. As of last night she will not drink anything. She will suck on my finger but wants nothing to do with the bottle. Very worried about her. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!!

    • Hi Jessica,

      It sounds like your calf is feeling depressed. Of course from here I can’t determine the cause, but what might help is giving the calf an injection with a painkiller. I usually use a product named Novem 20® a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), but there are several more product that do the same thing. The best thing to do in this case is contact the Vet.
      Thanks, Joost.

  8. I had a calf born Sunday night and I think he was premature because his bottom jaw is short so he can’t figure out how to latch onto a nipple to nurse. Also I’m guessing his ligaments in his legs must not have been developed because when he stands and walks his front legs rock back and hyperextend at the knee and ankle(ankles are gettin straighter) but I’ve only gotten him to eat twice in 4 days because he refuses to suck from the nipple that seems to big for his mouth. I took a latex glove and put over the end of the bottle and cut the tip o a finger and he’s started sucking that way the last two nights but hasn’t eaten any other time I’ve tried. Once he quits fighting and starts sucking that I can swap to the bottle nipple and he sucks.. And still can’t get him to figure out how to latch onto momma, which isn’t easy trying being that they are bucking stock. I’m doing everything I know to get him to learn to take a nipple and suck cuz I know if he starts latching onto mom he’ll be ok but I’m at my wits end and any helpful hints would be appreciated

    • Hi Bud,

      I read you have quite some complicated problems with your calf. What we usually do when a calf has problems with his fore legs like your calf, we put them in plaster as if it were broken. This will support the calf in walking and gives it the chance to get stronger in its legs, but you have to consult a Vet for this.
      About the drinking problems, I think it is a very clever idea of you to use a latex glove. Anything that will help a calf drink its milk is a good one. I don’t have a straight forward solution for this problem, but would it help if your calf could learn from another calf of the same age that is latching to its mother? I know that many times animals do learn from each other. I hope this might help you a bit.

      Thank you, Joost.

  9. I have a calf that was born probably 5 weeks premature and he weighs about 35ish pounds. For the first day we bottle fed him colostrum from his mother as well as colostrum from a mix. He was feeling much stronger and he was able to stand after constantly trying for the 1st 24 hours. As of day 2 he could stand for about a minute on his own. He had been pooping right along and it was the normal tar-like poopy of a newborn calf. As the colostrum started working its way through his system and the poopy changed from the newborn feces to the colostrum feces, I started to see specs of blood. Last night during the night, he had a more diarrhea-like feces and there was more blood in it. I asked my husband to pick up a packet of the scours medicine that you mix and feed in a bottle. I just need as many suggestions as you can give me because I have three little girls that are counting on me to keep this little guy alive. I read where you posted that you should feed the calf 10% of it’s body weight to maintain its weight and add another 5% to increase it. Do I need ot weigh out the bottle? I am very new at this. Also, how long do I need to make tha calf stand before he can take a rest? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Raquel,

      A calf weighing around 35 pounds is indeed a premature calf. Having specs of blood in his feces seems to me that the intestine wall and/or the villi are damaged because of diarrhea. Are there antibiotics in the scours medicine? This will only help if the scours is caused by bacteria. It won’t help if the scours is caused by viruses.
      When a calf has scours, the most important thing to do is to prevent dehydration, because 90 % of the time it is the direct cause of death of such calves.

      Here is an exerpt from my EBook that might help determining the cause of the scours:

      - What is the age of the calf when it gets scours the first time? Indication of the cause of scours.
      o 1 day. Rota virus?
      o 5 days. Corona virus?
      o 1 to 3 weeks. Cryptosporidium?
      o 3 weeks or older. Coccidiosis?

      - What is the color and consistency of the manure? Indication of the cause of scours.

      o Watery, yellow, bits in it. Rota virus?
      o Watery, yellow, slime in it. Corona virus?
      o Watery, ulcers on tongue, mouth and lips. BVD?
      o Very sick rapidly. Bacteria?
      o Diarrhea smeared over rump. Coccidiosis?
      o Watery, homogenous, white color. Nutritional diarrhea?

      On this website there is also a page where you can learn what can cause the scours. You can find it here:

      You ask me if you need to weigh out the bottle. Well, if you can make a good estimate it will do, but if you want to be sure I would suggest to weigh the bottle.
      About the feeding regime: What we usually do is feed the normal portion (10% of body weight) milk every day and between meals give the calf water (the 5 % of body weight divided in two meals) with electrolytes and a bit of line seed if you have that. The line seed will soothe the walls of the intestines, but be careful not to give too much since it can then worsen the diarrhea.

      If you don’t have electrolytes, you can find an alternative on this page and make your own:

      About how long the calf should stand? I think untill you see he gets tired. Even if you don’t have that much experience with raising calves, your gut feeling will be right. Just try to increase it bit by bit.

      I hope these tips might help a bit.

      Thank you, Joost.

  10. Thanks! Yeah I thought about trying to brace his legs but didn’t want to since he wouldn’t be able to lay down or get back up. He finally figured out how to latch onto mom, but I haven’t been able to turn them out to pasture yet because I don’t think he’s put on enough body mass yet to be able to maintain his body temp and it’s wet, muddy, and cold here, so I’m having to keep them in a barn now. His legs have gotten stronger and straightened up for the most part, but mom is depressed in the barn and not eating or drinking much so I don’t think he’s getting enough milk. Also he developed a naval infection so that was a struggle in itself but I think I’ve got it beat with penicillin. As of now I’m just trying to wait til he gets strong enough to hold his own out in the pasture, then I think he’ll shoot up like a weed once I get them back out on good grass

  11. Your advice in caring for a premature calf is reassuring that we have followed the right procedure. The one thing that I might add is that a syringe without the needle worked for us with a calf that could suck, but not strongly enough to make much progress on the bottle. We had to be very careful not to give her too much so it didn’t get into her lungs. (we didn’t have a feeding tube). She is making progress. It was helpful to see your reply to an e-mail about feeding 10% of body weight for maintenance and another 5% for growth.
    The baby is now 4 days old. Her breathing is still a bit labored, but not raspy, is this normal?
    Thank you for your article, Sandra

    • Hi Sandra,

      Good to read that my advice was helpful for you. I wouldn’t worry too much about the labored breathing, since the lungs might still not be fully grown.

      Thank you, Joost.

  12. Nice thread. We had a preemie today. 40#. We gave 1/2cc dexamethaxone (for lungs), 4cc of Bcomplex/pen mix, and 1/2 cc excede for antibiotics. She had a suck reclex, so we milked the cow and fed her with a lamb nipple on a liter pop bottle. Biggest threat for this little girl is temperature fluctuation, as it is in the 90s here today. She’s in our show barn with momma and a fan. Keeping our fingers crossed here!

  13. A good read as I went by each comment. Talk to a vet if you are not so sure what to do with a preemie calf.
    Edric recently posted..Animal Referral Hospital gets tough on pet cancer with largest oncology group

  14. Had a heifer that had her calf 18 days early on Saturday. Calf weighed 42 lbs we gave it a tube of colostrum and milked the colostrum out of his mom and gave it to him. Mother still isn’t producing much milk bag feels hard up top but its not dropping down so we can milk her. The calf tries to nurse her and we try to bottle feed him but he will not take to the bottle we have tried different sizes of nipples but still doesn’t want to latch on so we have been slowly drenching him with a goat drench gun just to get something in him. He has also started running a temp during the day yesterday it was 105 so we gave him a shot of Baytril and clipped a lot of hair off of him since its around 100 degrees outside here. We do have fans on him and his mother. Thinking about putting him in a large dog cage in the office we have at the barn its around 75-80 degrees in there then at night time put him back with his mother.

  15. Hi have a baby cow it was born this afternoon it was aborted and it is 2 1/2 months early do you still recommend these instructions? I’m desperate so any info will be welcome!!!

    • Joost de Groot says:

      Hi Leanne,

      Yes I certainly recommend these instructions, however the chances of success are not so good with such an early born calf. Hopefully it will make it, good luck!

  16. My jersey heifer calf weighed nearly 40# when my husband brought her home. He found her underneath a cow calving. The weight from the cow broke the calves neck. She’s about 6 weeks old now and is still unable to stand up or walk. She does however use her back legs and can get her hind end up in the air.She’s a very good eater she has 3 bottle feedings a day plus hay throughout the day. I help her stand at every bottle feeding she does well but her front legs want to buckle. Is there anything I can do to help her build strength in her front legs and eventually learn to stand and walk? Any advice would be helpful.

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