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OSU Extension

College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

February 9, 2015 - 4:26pm -- Anonymous

Back in December the OSU Extension Beef Cattle Letter carried a very good article about using a calf esophageal feeder by Dr. Michelle Arnold, Ruminant Extension Veterinarian at the University of Kentucky.  Although the entire article is too long for this column, here is the “guts” of that article, excerpted:

The esophageal feeder is a tool designed to deliver colostrum when a calf is unwilling or unable to nurse. Regardless of the reason, colostrum delivery can be accomplished quickly and safely with an esophageal feeder if proper technique is followed. The steps involved in using an esophageal feeder are as follows:

1. Prior to tubing the calf, examine the feeder to make sure it is clean and undamaged.

2. The length of the tube and the size of the calf will dictate how far the tube should be inserted. Compare the tube length to the distance between the mouth of the calf and the point of the shoulder. This is the approximate distance the tube should be inserted.

3. The calf should be standing if possible. Place its rear end into a corner and hold its head between your knees. If the calf won't stand, at least sit it up on its sternum (breastbone) and hold the head between your legs.

4. To insure that no fluid runs into the mouth of the calf that could be inhaled in the lungs, either kink the plastic tubing or clamp it off during passage.

5. Moisten the end of the feeder (the ball) with colostrum to make it more slippery.

6. Stimulate the calf to open its mouth by putting pressure on the gums or pressing on the roof of the mouth with your fingers. Do not hold the nose up; keep the nose below the ears to reduce the risk of trauma to the back of the throat.

7. Gently insert the tube into the mouth over the top of the calf's tongue. When the rounded end hits the back of the tongue where there is a ridge, the calf should swallow. Wait patiently until the calf swallows then slide the tube gently down the esophagus.

8. Prior to administering the colostrum, check that you feel the tube in the esophagus on the left side of the calf's neck. You should feel two tube-like structures in the neck. The trachea (or windpipe) is firm and has ridges of cartilage all along its length. The esophageal feeder tube in the throat is firm but smooth.

9. Administer the colostrum by raising the bag above the calf and allowing the fluid to flow by gravity. Never squeeze the bag to hurry the process. The calf will begin to move (and vocalize) when it feels pressure as the rumen fills. The amount of colostrum needed depends on the size of the calf. Do not remove the tube until the fluid has had time to empty into the rumen.

10. Again, kink the plastic tube or use a clamp before pulling the tube out in one swift motion.

11. Immediately wash the tube and feeder in hot, soapy water. Follow with a chlorine and hot water rinse in order to remove the film of fat and protein that adheres to the inside of the feeder. If not properly cleaned and disinfected, you risk inoculating bacteria directly into the intestinal tract when a calf is most vulnerable to infections.

12. Keep the feeder in good repair-change them when they begin to show any signs of wear.

The calf esophageal feeder generally consists of a plastic pouch or bottle which holds the colostrum with an attaching plastic or stainless steel tube and a ball or bulb on the end. One gallon capacity feeders are recommended to deliver colostrum because recent research has proven a full dose administered all at once is much better than two smaller feedings. In the past it was thought that feeding smaller volumes of colostrum by a nipple was best because it stimulated closure of the esophageal groove and absorption of immunoglobulins was increased if the rumen was bypassed. It is now understood that there is no difference in absorption when colostrum is administered by esophageal feeder because the colostrum quickly spills out of the rumen into the abomasum. Ultimately, 48-hour serum immunoglobulin concentrations were found to be no different in bottle-fed or tubed calves.

In summary, learning to use an esophageal feeder may mean the difference in life or death to a newborn calf.


Colostrum quality and feeding goes hand in hand with the esophageal feeder, so here are a couple of colostrum facts and feeding goals to keep in mind:

  • Colostrum contains twice as much dry matter and total solids, two to three times as many minerals, and five times as much protein as whole milk.
  • Newborn calves should receive 200 grams of IgG (immunoglobulins) in colostrum within 6 hours of birth
  • High quality colostrum is 50 grams/quart and higher.  This equates to 50 mg/ml of immunoglobulins or higher when using a colostrometer.
  • Within six hours after birth, the ability of the gut to absorb antibodies in colostrum decreases by one-third.  By 24 hours, the gut can absorb only11% of what it originally could have absorbed at birth.

Rory Lewandowski is an OSU Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources educator and may be reached at 330-264-8722.