Introduction: How to Tube Feed a Calf the Right Way Every Time

Hello. My name is Trayce Haeder. I am a fifth generation cattle producer on my family farm. I have been an integral part in raising calves on my family farm for the past five years, and I have been helping since I was big enough to open a gate. For a few years, I was always mystified when we had to tube a calf. I could not believe why a tube was being put down a calf’s throat. As I have grown and become an integral part of the operation, I have learned why the process needs to be done. Newborn calves need the first milk from their mother to prime their immune systems with antibodies and prepare them for the first few days of their life. If they do not get these antibodies, it is very likely the calf will die. Tube feeding is utilized when a cow is unable to feed her calf, and the calf will not eat from a bottle. Tube feeding is the only way to deliver the proper antibodies in this situation. I will be showing you six simple steps to properly tube feed a calf to save its life and get it the proper start it needs. The first few times I tube fed a calf, I was quite nervous, but after getting familiar with how everything feels during the process, I have been able to tube feed calves efficiently and safely during each calving season.


Before beginning the actual process of tube feeding the calf, it is important to have a tube feeder that is clean and functional. Make sure the tube feeder does not leak, or it will make quite a mess and the calf will not get all of the antibodies it needs. Also, make sure the colostrum supplement or replacer you are feeding is mixed thoroughly and in the feeder before restraining the calf. Lastly, it is beneficial to have another person help hold the calf during the tubing process.

Step 1: Measuring How Far to Insert the Tube

The first step in the process is measuring the length of tube needed. Hold the tube, with the reservoir end up by the calf’s mouth, up to the calf’s side. Hold the end of the tube with the plastic nub up to the calf just behind its front shoulder. Then mark where the tube would come out of the calf’s mouth. This is done to prevent the tube from being forced too far down the calf’s digestive tract. If the tube is inserted too far, it can cause major injuries to the calf.

Step 2: Inserting the Tube

Once the length of tube needed has been determined, it is time to begin inserting the tube. Gently grab the calf with one hand around the top of its mouth, and apply slight pressure to the roof of its mouth to get it to open. Then insert the end of the tube with the plastic nub into the calf’s mouth and slowly maneuver it towards the back of the mouth. It is a matter of life or death that the tube enters on the left side of the throat. If the tube is inserted on the right side of the throat, the colostrum will go into the calf’s lungs causing it to drown and die. Therefore, hold the tube as far to the left as possible, and let the calf swallow the tube while applying steady pressure. Once in the esophagus, the tube will push easily. Before inserting the tube to the marked location, stop and ensure the tube has been inserted on the correct side. The best way to do this is to feel the calf’s throat for the plastic nub on the end of the tube. It will be quite distinguishable to the touch and sometimes even visible. If the tube is on the left side, as it should be, continue inserting the tube into the calf’s stomach until the marked location is just outside the calf’s mouth. If the tube is on the right side, remove the tube slowly and start over with getting the calf to swallow the tube.

Step 3: Delivering the Colostrum

Now, the marked location on the tube should be just outside the calf’s mouth. The tube is in the calf’s stomach and is in proper position to deliver the colostrum. At this time, slowly tip the container with the colostrum upside down, so the colostrum flows through the tube. Some tube feeders have clips to stop the flow, this is the time to open the clip as well. Make sure to hold the marked location on the tube just outside the calf’s mouth, so the calf does not try to spit out the tube. It is important to not force the colostrum out of the container. Let it flow at a slow, steady rate, so it does not overwhelm the calf.

Step 4: Removing the Tube From the Calf

After the container and tube are completely empty, it is time to remove the tube. Begin slowly removing the tube. Do not pull the tube hard or fast as it can harm the calf. Pull the tube at a steady rate. If the tube is jerked out or removed to quickly, it can scratch the calf’s esophagus. The calf may have a reaction to the removal of the tube when the plastic nub nears the entrance of the esophagus, but continue pulling at a steady rate. Do not stop or jerk the tube out.

Step 5: Cleaning the Tube Feeder

The last step is to clean the entire feeder. Both the tube and container should be sanitized to prevent the spread of diseases and other contaminates between calves. Once the feeder has been washed and sanitized, let it drip and air dry. The calf has now been tube and is ready to take on life with all of the antibodies it needs.