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Managing Orphaned Calves

Young, black calf being bottle fed in a pen.
Courtesy: Canva

Written collaboratively by Adele Harty and Taylor Grussing, former SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialists.

No matter the circumstances, it seems that, for one reason or another, cattlemen end up with an orphaned calf or two every year.

Situations, such as twins, a heifer or cow not claiming her calf, a sick or dead cow, or a weather event, such as a blizzard, can orphan calves.

No matter the reason for calves being orphaned, the cattlemen take on the responsibility of caring for that calf until it can be grafted onto another cow, sold or weaned.

    Management Considerations

    Milk Replacer

    After orphaned calves receive a colostrum replacement on day one (preferably within six hours of birth and multiple feedings), they need to be given milk, and, in most cases, this will be a milk replacer purchased from a local feed dealer. The milk replacer should contain at least 15% fat and 22% protein. Due to the higher fat levels, warm water is best for mixing (110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit), but make sure the milk is between 101 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit when feeding it.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 a pen, acquiring bottle holders or multi-nipple buckets will make feeding multiple orphaned calves 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-pound calf should get 10 to12 pounds of milk per day. One gallon equals eight pounds, so the 100-pound calf would need to receive one and one-fourth to one and one-half gallons of milk per day.


    Calves need access to clean, fresh water at all times. They may not consume a large amount of water when they are only a few days old, but once they reach a week old, the amount of milk they consume will not provide enough water for proper hydration.

    Dry Feed

    Within a few days to a week of birth, the calf should have access to dry feed. This could include a calf starter ration (Table 1), milk pellets or creep feed and hay. The calf must learn how to eat these feeds before it can be weaned from milk, which could be as early as six weeks-of-age. One way to introduce dry feed is to put a small amount into the bottom of the milk bucket. Once the milk is finished, hold the dry feed up to their nose and mouth to get them curious about it. Even if they don’t eat much right away, they will lick it off their nose and mouth, giving them the taste for it.

    It is necessary for calves to start consuming dry feed early for proper rumen development. By having access to these dry feeds throughout the day, calves will be curious and start nibbling at the feed as they learn to consume it. The hay needs to be a high-quality grass or a grass-legume mix that is green-in-color, has fine stems and contains many leaves.

    The calf starter ration should be highly palatable, and pelleted or coarse feeds are best. Below is an example calf starter ration (Table 1). Offer both milk and dry feed until calves consume one and one-half to two pounds of dry feed per day, then they can be weaned off the bottle slowly. Calves can then increase consumption of dry feed and hay to two to three percent of body weight by six to eight weeks-of-age and should double in weight by two months-of-age.

    Table 1. Calf Starter Ration (100-pound batch)

    Corn, Cracked
    37 pounds
    Oats, Rolled
    20 pounds
    Soybean Meal
    30 pounds
    7 pounds
    Limestone, Ground
    3 pounds
    Trace Mineral Salt
    3 pounds
    Vitamin Supplement
    Should supply 1000 I.U. Vitamin A and
    10 I.U. Vitamin E per-pound of starter.

    Long-Term Management of Orphaned Calves

    Once calves are consuming dry feed and approaching when they can be weaned from milk, plans can be made for managing them on grass. Grazing is a learned behavior, so it may take orphaned calves longer to learn how to graze, because they don’t have mom to teach them what is “good” to eat. If there is an older cow that can be placed with orphaned calves, she can help teach grazing behavior.

    With commitment and proper attention to nutrient intake, orphaned calf performance can be similar to calves on the cow. However, more often than not, orphaned 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, consider seeking niche markets for the calves, such as 4-H youth bucket-calf projects or Farm Service Agency Youth Loans to start small cattle projects. The goal is to optimize profit potential and minimize losses from these calves.