How to Care for a Newborn Calf Without the Mother

By Deborah Whistler

Sometimes a calf is orphaned when its mother dies giving birth. Newborn calves can be hand-raised if you provide the right housing, nutrition and preventive medical care. A newborn calf is a delicate creature and, like a human infant, requires round-the-clock attention for the first few weeks of birth.

Wipe mucus from the newborn's nostrils and mouth with a clean, dry cloth, and gently rub its body. The calf's mother would normally lick the calf clean, which also helps stimulate its system and breathing.

Cut the umbilical cord 2 to 3 inches from the calf's body. Dip the umbilical cord in 7 percent tincture of iodine to prevent pathogens from entering the calf's body.

House the newborn calf separately in a 4-by-8-foot calf hutch. The hutch should be located in a clean, dry, well-ventilated barn or other shelter that offers protection from drafts and the elements. Protection from dampness, cold and heat is critical. Ventilation is also very important. Accumulation of methane, ammonia and other gases in manure and urine can cause respiratory diseases.

Cover the hutch floor with clean, dry straw. Straw needs to be cleaned daily, and any wet or moldy straw should be immediately removed.

Bottle feed the newborn calf 2 to 4 pints of high-quality colostrum within the first 12 hours of birth. Colostrum, the mother's first milk after calving, contains antibodies and nutrients necessary to stimulate the calf's immune system. The calf's system will change after the first 12 hours and it will not absorb the necessary nutrients if the colostrum is fed later.

Continue feeding the calf colostrum for the first four days after birth. Colostrum can be stored in the freezer and thawed slowly in warm water. Many calves require bottle feeding at first but will be able to drink from a pail after about four days.

Feed the calf milk or milk replacer every two to three hours for the first three weeks, then reduce feedings to two or three times a day. Calves should be fed 10 percent of their birth body weight (1 quart of milk weighs 2 lbs.) Milk replacer should contain a minimum of 20 percent crude protein and 20 percent fat.

Offer calf starter grain feed and alfalfa hay when the calf is 4 days old, in addition to milk or milk replacer. If the calf isn't eating much, remove the old feed and lower the amount offered. All feed should be clean and fresh. Increase grain and hay amounts as the calf grows and consumes more.

Wean the calf off milk or milk replacer. When the calf is eating about 2 lbs. of calf starter a day, it can be weaned off milk.

Vaccinate the calf at least once before weaning. Giving the calf shots of vitamins A, D, E and Combiotic can also be beneficial. Typically, calves should be vaccinated for bovine respiratory syncytial virus, bovine viral diarrhea and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis. Consult your veterinarian for immunization and supplement recommendations.

Provide access to clean, fresh water at all times. Water should be free of particulate matter and low in salt and bacterial content. Water pails and troughs should be cleaned thoroughly and the water replaced whenever it becomes dirty. If the weather is hot, replace water regularly throughout the day to keep it cool. Calves up to 6 months of age will consume anywhere between 2 to 5 gallons of water daily.