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Managing Orphaned Calves After April Blizzard

April 20, 2018

Many calves were born during the April blizzard last week. Many calves survived as a result of the hard work of ranchers, giving them warmth and shelter in barns, garages and even bathrooms to save their lives. When the blizzard ended cattlemen began digging out and working to pair cows and calves back together. While some pairs were reunited, unfortunately, other calves were not claimed and now cattlemen are dealing with the challenge of managing orphaned calves through the rest of the spring and summer.

Milk Replacer
After orphaned calves receive a colostrum replacement on day 1, they need to be given milk, and in most cases, this will be a milk replacer purchased from your local feed dealer. The milk replacer should have at least 15% fat and 22% protein. Due to the higher fat levels, warm water is best for mixing (110 – 120° F), but make sure the milk is between 101 – 105° F when feeding it to the calves. There are two methods that can be used to feed calves. The first, and likely easiest for the calf, is to nurse a bottle with a nipple. This uses their natural instinct of suckling. The second is to teach them to drink from a pail or bucket. Depending on how many orphaned calves are in the pen, acquiring bottle holders or multi-nipple buckets will make feeding many orphaned calves at once more efficient. Calves should be fed two or three times per day in equal feedings. The amount fed per feeding will increase as the calf grows. Calves should receive 10-12% of their body weight in milk per day. A 100 lb calf should get 10-12 lbs of milk per day. One gallon equals 8 pounds, so the 100 lb. calf would need to receive 1 ¼ to 1 ½ gallons of milk per day.

Dry Feed
Within a few days of birth, the calf should have access to dry feed. This would include a calf starter ration or creep feed and hay. The calf must learn how to eat these feeds, as it could be weaned from milk as early as 4 weeks of age. One way to introduce dry feed is to put a small amount into the bottom of the bucket they are drinking their milk out of. Once they finish the milk, hold the dry feed up to their mouth to try to get them to consume it. It is necessary that they start consuming dry feed early to help with proper rumen development. The hay needs to be a high quality grass or grass-legume mix. The hay should be green in color, have fine stems and contain many leaves. The calf starter ration should be highly palatable, pelleted or coarse feeds are best. Offer both milk and dry feed until calves consume 1 ½ – 2 lbs. of dry feed per day, then they can be weaned off the bottle slowly. Calves can then increase consumption to 2 – 3% of BW of dry feed and hay by 6 – 8 weeks of age and should double in weight by two months of age.


Calves need to have access to water at all times. They may not consume a large amount of water when they are only a few days old, but once they get to be a week old, the amount of milk they consume will not provide enough water in their diet. Make sure to always provide fresh, cool, water to calves.

Long Term Management of Orphaned Calves
Although it may seem like green grass will never come, having a plan for orphaned calves when it does is critical. With hard work and proper attention to nutrient intake, orphaned calf performance can be similar to calves still on the cow. However, more often than not, these calves may fall behind in performance and growth compared to their counterparts. Thus, these orphans may not meet the requirements to join the replacement heifer pen or background lot in the fall. If this is the case on your operation or you have a large enough operation to select other calves for replacements, consider seeking out niche markets for the calves: 4-H Youth bucket-calf projects, FSA Youth Loans to start small cattle projects, dairy calf farms, etc. Of course no one wants to decrease potential profit from this year’s calf crop right off the bat; however, minimizing losses is sometimes the proactive approach to manage your way through this unfortunate event that none could prevent.

Additional Resources
Management and Housing

Read this series of articles on ventilation of calving barns and how to keep calves warm in cool weather.

Disease Management
Beef cattlemen can learn from our dairy counterparts on how to manage disease risk in young calves.

Source: Taylor Grussing, iGrow