Updated: Mar 29, 2022
Poor appetite caused by sickness or injury can quickly lead to life-threatening malnutrition and dehydration in young calves. If a sick calf will not nurse, tube feeding may be necessary. This is a useful skill for producers to have to avoid emergency veterinary visits.
There are two types of feeding tubes used in calves. While esophageal feeders are used most commonly, we prefer to train producers to use a foal tube for feeding. Esophageal feeders are short tubes that extend just past the larynx (throat) of the calf. This type of feeder has a ball at the end of the tube. Visualization or palpation of the ball in the neck area indicates correct placement in the esophagus, which leads to the stomach, rather than the trachea, which leads to the lungs.
Foal tubes are longer tubes that pass through the esophagus and into the stomach. When using a foal tube, we use three tests to ensure that the tube is in the stomach rather than the lungs:
Mark off the distance from the tip of the nose to the elbow of the calf on the tube. This is approximately the distance from the mouth to the lungs. If you are able to pass the tube significantly beyond this mark, you are unlikely to be in the lungs.
Watch for the tube passing on the left side of the neck. The tube is not visible if it is in the trachea, which is a rigid pipe.
Once you believe the tube is in the stomach, blow into the tube. Bubbles should be heard in the stomach if the tube is correctly placed. This test is most easily performed with two people.
We prefer foal tubes to esophageal feeders because the increased length makes it easier to ensure placement in the stomach rather than the lungs. The ball at the end of esophageal feeders can also occasionally cause severe trauma in the throat of calves. Esophageal feeders may still be preferable to some producers because they are easier for a person to use alone when assistance is not available.
Excessive volume when tube feeding can stretch and damage the stomach. As a rule of thumb, a calf’s stomach can hold ten percent of its body weight in milk (one gallon per 80-pound calf). However, milk should never be forced into the stomach. It should be gravity fed and when it stops flowing, feeding should be discontinued. Avoid tubing more than twice a day to minimize trauma to the throat and esophagus.
Always offer milk in a bottle prior to tubing. Some compromised calves refuse milk replacer, but are willing to drink whole milk. The bottle is always preferable to a tube.
Cold calves cannot digest milk. If the calf has a temperature less than 99°F, the calf must be warmed to a body temperature of 99°F or higher prior to tube feeding. Tube feeding a cold calf will lead to the milk sitting undigested in the stomach, which often speeds the calf’s deterioration and possible death.
Old Dominion Veterinary Services will be offering a wet lab for producers in 2022 for hands-on experience with tube feeding. Stay tuned for updates.