Feeding colostrum: Esophageal tubes versus bottles

Posted on August 4, 2023 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Bethany Dado-Senn, Ph.D., Vita Plus dairy calf and heifer specialist

Both science and field work demonstrate that getting colostrum into calves within 2 hours of birth is a key part of ensuring adequate passive transfer of immunity.  However, I often hear disputes on-farm on the best method for approaching this timely feeding. Is it better to feed colostrum via a bottle or esophageal feeder?

The following advantages and disadvantages of each method can help you decide which strategy is the best for your farm and calves.

Esophageal tube feeding
Calves that are fed colostrum via an esophageal tube feeder should receive 4 quarts of colostrum within 2 hours of birth in a single bottle or bag attached to a firm tube.  There are many models of esophageal tube feeder systems available on the market, and which one you use will depend on the flow and hygiene of your maternity system.  Esophageal tubes should be long enough to reach from the mouth to the end of the esophagus, have a clamp to stop the flow of liquid, and be made of either semi-pliable plastic or stainless steel.

  • Advantages
    • Quick. It usually takes no more than two to three minutes to tube a calf.  This might be especially important for farms that have a large maternity program or a staff with many varied responsibilities.
    • Ensures total volume. Tubing a calf the entire 4 quarts of colostrum in one feeding ensures that the calf receives adequate colostrum volumes, which is another key component of immunoglobulin (Ig) absorption.
  • Disadvantages
    • Aspiration of milk in the lungs. If the esophageal tube feeder is put down the trachea (i.e., windpipe), if the calf is lying recumbent or if the tube is removed without stopping the flow of liquid, there is a potential for colostrum to enter the lungs.  This can cause an infection called aspiration pneumonia, which can lead to chronic respiratory disease or death.  Ensure that the esophageal tube feeder is placed down the left side of the calf’s throat and that the calf is standing with its nose below its ears before feeding.
    • Bacterial transfer. With the esophageal tube feeder entering the esophagus, there is potential for the transfer of pathogens.  Monitor esophageal tube feeders for rough edges that can harbor pathogens and scratch the esophagus.  Ensure that feeders are being cleaned thoroughly with warm water, detergent and sanitizer between each calf.
    • Specialized training. Any individual feeding calves via esophageal tube should be properly trained to avoid lung aspiration.  Training videos are available online in English and Spanish, or contact your calf specialist to coordinate a training.

Bottle feeding
Calves that are bottle-fed colostrum should receive 4 quarts of colostrum within 2 hours of birth in either two 2-quart bottles or one 4-quart bottle with a nipple.

  • Advantages
    • Minimal chances of aspiration. Unless calf nipples have egregiously large holes, calves will not aspirate colostrum into the lungs if bottle-fed.  To determine if the holes are too big, tip a full calf bottle upside-down.  If liquid flows out more than one drip at a time, the hole is too big.
    • Encourages proper calf digestive reflexes. Bottle-feeding encourages both the suckling reflex and proper closing of the esophageal groove.  This allows for milk to be deposited straight into the omasum and abomasum instead of the forestomach.  Research suggests that initiating these natural digestive properties increases salivary flow, quickens the emptying into the small intestine, and promotes breakdown of nutrients.
  • Disadvantages
    • Slower. Feeding newborn calves manually by bottle requires substantially more time and patience relative to esophageal tube feeding.  Ensure whoever is working in your maternity program has the fortitude not to cut corners in the process.
    • Reduced volume potential. Some calves may not have the desire to eat the full 4-quart bottle of colostrum during the first feeding.  If this happens, it is important to follow up with an additional colostrum feeding of 2 to 4 quarts within 6 hours after birth to allow for adequate Ig uptake.  While we know that the intestinal wall starts to close after the first colostrum intake, recent research from the University of Guelph suggests that the gut remains partially open for additional Ig absorption even after the first meal, as long as the second meal occurs shortly after the first.

Which method is better for absorbing colostrum Ig?  That’s the million-dollar question.  As long as you’re hitting volume, timing and hygiene targets, both methods promote adequate passive transfer of immunity.

At the end of the day, the system that works best for you depends more on maternity logistics and labor division.  If you want additional resources to train and troubleshoot your maternity program, your Vita Plus calf team is here to help.

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care