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Multiple options are available to producers when raising orphaned calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many ranchers have raised calves on bottles – whether that be a twin, a heifer’s calf that isn’t accepted by its mother or a calf whose mother died.

Veterinarians agree that the main thing is to make sure the calf has had colostrum within the first hours of life from its own mother or from another cow to ensure a good start in life.  Antibodies from colostrum provide temporary protection against many of the diseases the calf might encounter. 

After a bottle or two of colostrum, the calf can be switched to milk or milk replacer. 


More challenging than a newborn calf is the one or two-month-old calf that’s been out with the herd all its life and suddenly loses mom. Unexplainable events occur, such as a cow getting on her back in a ditch, dying from larkspur poisoning or bloat, being killed by predators or some other misfortune. This leaves ranchers with an orphan that might be wild and not ready to accept them as mom but too young to go without milk.

Ray Randall, a veterinarian near Bridger, Mont. says some of those calves are good enough robbers to survive out with the herd – sneaking up to suck alongside the calf of another cow. 

They seem to manage, though they might be a little smaller than the other calves in the fall.

Bringing them in

“If they are only a couple months old when they lose mom and we can get them home from the range or in from the pasture, they can probably do all right even without milk – if we can put them on good quality hay and a concentrate feed like grain or calf pellets,” he says.

“Milk replacer is expensive, and it can also be a hassle to get a calf that age sucking a bottle if he’s afraid of people,” continues Randall. 

Instead, producers might put the orphan with an older animal in a small pen – so the calf has a buddy, for security – and give them some good quality feed. 

Once the calf learns to eat by following his buddy’s example, Randall tells producers that they could then utilize a creep situation, if they didn’t want the older animal hogging all the calf feed and not letting the smaller one get its share.

On pasture

“If we have some good pasture and a little herd of cows on pasture, sometimes another cow will adopt the orphan,” Randall comments. “If that happens, the motherless calf will do fine. But if the orphan is very young and we need to try to bottle-feed it, we can bring that calf home with a little group of cattle.”

He encouraged producers to get their hands on the calf as soon as possible but avoid causing extra stress by trying too much to catch it.

“The last thing you want to do is stress the calf too much by trying to catch it – or it might get pneumonia and we’ll lose the calf,” he says. “If we’ve already lost the cow, we don’t want to risk losing the calf, as well.”

Feeding by hand

Randall notes that if the orphan doesn’t have good pasture and a cow to rob from, producers should find a way to feed it milk, milk replacer or a high-quality concentrate diet. 

He explains that the rumen isn’t developed enough yet in a young calf to handle enough forage, but a young calf can digest grain or a more concentrated feed like calf pellets.

“Depending on when the calf lost its mother, it may have already been vaccinated. In that case, it will be okay,” Randall comments, “but if there is any doubt about immune status we could give that calf another vaccination with one of the seven-way clostridial vaccines, for adequate protection.”

Producers should also keep that calf in a clean environment because it will be vulnerable to diseases like coccidiosis or calf scours.  Producers who don’t have a really clean place for that calf may be better off leaving him out at pasture with the herd rather than in a pen where there have been lots of cattle.

Either way, Randall notes that orphaned calves should be monitored closely to make sure they stay healthy. 

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to


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