Growing up on a dairy farm in the 1970s, I learned how to bottle-feed baby calves before I could comfortably do other typical farm chores. I loved spending time in the milk barn as a kid, feeding calves and letting them nurse on my fingers.
When we got out of dairying, I lost my skills of bottle-feeding calves, except when the task was resurrected during calving season if one of the newborn pasture calves needed a little extra tender-loving care in the barn on cold, snowy days. And, over the past 12 years or so that our children have been involved in 4-H, we have always had at least one of them enrolled in the 4-H bucket calf project. Who knew that learning to bottle-feed baby calves as a kid is actually learning a life skill?
Here are a few special things that my children have learned from bottle feeding calves.
Bottle calves are always hungry. Our calves are truly babies. Whenever they hear the door of the house open, they immediately begin to bellow out, calling for food. It doesn’t matter that they were just fed 15 minutes ago.
Bottle calves are never really finished with the bottle. If we are feeding three calves simultaneously, we hope that all three finish at the same time. Otherwise, they will keep bucking the empty bottle or try to steal from their neighbor, using the often violent bucking method.
Bottle calves slobber — a lot. One of the most entertaining aspects of bottle feeding with my children is the expression they have when we tell them to let the calves nurse on their fingers for the first time. The look of disgust and simultaneous glee when the calves nurse on their fingers and leave slobber all over their hands and fingers is priceless. (Washing of hands is required after this activity.)
Bottle calves will try to nurse any part of your clothing that presents itself. My oldest daughter, Lauren, learned this the hard way when she was about 5 years old. I left her standing near the calf pen while I quickly went inside the barn to get another bottle of milk replacer. When I returned, she was yelling as loudly as she could, while a young calf reached through the fence panels and chewed on her jacket.
You can name the calves, but they eventually will be someone’s dinner. The kids have given all kinds of names to bottle calves over the years, including calves named after family members. We keep telling family that this is a badge of honor to have a calf named after them. The real lesson for our children, however, is that these are beef calves, so if we don’t keep the heifers back to join the herd, they will eventually go to a feedlot where they are fed out to become someone’s dinner. For the youngsters, this is a hard lesson. Yet, it is one that they need to understand, so they know how food gets to our table. Unfortunately, understanding this connection between farmers and food, fiber and fuel is a lesson many adults haven’t completely grasped. So, it’s crucial for farm youth to be able to understand the system and be able to explain it to others, thanks to their experiences bottle-feeding calves.