Tube Feeding Colostrum – an Essential Skill for All Producers

– Michelle Arnold, DVM, UK Ruminant Veterinarian

“Failure of passive transfer” of immunity occurs when a calf does not absorb enough good quality immunoglobulin before closure of the intestine that occurs at approximately 24 hours after birth. This failure leads to increased calf sickness and death. If the calf survives, it will have a slower growth rate and use feed less efficiently. It is estimated that of the calf deaths occurring in the first 3 weeks of life, approximately a third are due to inadequate colostrum intake. Early and adequate consumption of high quality colostrum is considered the single most important management factor in determining health and survival of a newborn calf. Four key factors (the 4 Q’s) contribute to the goal of successful passive transfer of immunity:

1. Quality: Feeding high quality colostrum with a high immunoglobulin concentration (>50 g/L of IgG) or use of a good quality powdered colostrum replacer (not a supplement);
2. Quantity: Feeding an adequate volume of colostrum (2 quarts to beef calves at birth followed by 2 more quarts in 4-6 hours);
3. Quickly: Feeding colostrum promptly after birth (within 1-2 hours and again by 6 hours maximum);
4. Quietly: Passing the tube too quickly may result in damage to the laryngeal area and passage into the trachea and lungs. Handling the calf correctly minimizes this risk.

Arnold0316Picture accessed 3/9/2016 from

The esophageal feeder is a tool designed to deliver colostrum when a calf is unwilling or unable to nurse. The inability to nurse may be due to a variety of causes. 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:

• Prior to tubing the calf, examine the feeder to make sure it is clean and undamaged. Sharp edges can injure the mouth and esophagus.
• 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.

Handling the Calf:
• The calf should be standing if possible. Place its rear end into a corner and hold its head between your knees. Place one hand under the chin to keep its head and neck upright. If the calf won’t stand, at least sit it up on its sternum (breastbone) and hold the head between your legs. Never tube a calf lying flat as milk can enter the lungs causing death.
• Be aware of the cow’s maternal instinct to protect her calf; it is best to place the cow in a separate pen while performing this task.

Inserting the Tube:
• 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.
• Moisten the end of the feeder (the ball) with colostrum to make it more slippery. In cold weather, it also important to warm the rubber tube so it is not as rigid.
• Stimulate the calf to open its mouth by squeezing the sides of the mouth gently and pressing on the roof of the mouth with your fingers. Do not hold the nose straight up; keep the nose below the ears to reduce the risk of trauma to the back of the throat.
• 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. Remember this is soft tissue so stop immediately if you feel resistance. Pull the tube back slightly and redirect it-never force a tube down the throat because you can perforate (put a hole in) the esophagus.

Checking Placement:
• 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.
• If the tube is in the right place, the calf should seem comfortable and be swallowing. However, if the calf is coughing and puffs of air can be felt at the end of the tube, remove the tube and re-insert it slowly.

Administering the Colostrum:
• Administer the colostrum by raising the bag above the calf and allowing the fluid to flow by gravity. The liquid should be fed at body temperature (around 100° F).
• Control the flow rate by raising and lowering the bag. Keeping the bag low will be more comfortable for the calf and will result in less possibility of regurgitation. Never squeeze the bag to hurry the process.
• The calf will begin to move (and vocalize) when it feels pressure as the rumen fills. Do not remove the tube until the fluid has had time to completely empty into the rumen.

Removal of the Tube:
• Again, kink the plastic tube or use a clamp before pulling the tube out in one swift motion.
• Removing the tube while there is still liquid in the feeder may cause colostrum to enter the lungs; kinking the tube keeps the calf from inhaling any remaining fluid.

Cleaning of the Equipment:
• 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. Hang in a clean, dry environment so it can completely drain and dry. If not properly cleaned and disinfected, you risk inoculating bacteria directly into the intestinal tract when a calf is most vulnerable to infections.
• Keep the feeder in good repair-change them when they begin to show any signs of wear.

Esophageal feeders come in a range of sizes and designs, depending on whether to be used in calves, yearlings or adult cows. 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. While it is best for the calf to suck a teat or a bottle, 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. Esophageal feeders can also be used to administer vital electrolytes to scouring calves if reluctant to nurse a bottle. Videos are available on U-tube that show the process: or but your veterinarian is the best resource to teach the proper technique for passing a tube correctly and safely.