We have all been there. It is 15 degrees outside, your hands are numb, you have a list of chores a mile long, and the newborn calf is taking what seems like hours to drink her bottle. She finally finishes and you get ready to feed the next newborn in line, but now you have an idea: Why not cut the nipple, just a little bit, so more milk comes out? How much harm could that possibly do? And it will save you at least 15 minutes. Sometimes working smarter, not harder is the key to success, but there are times when cutting corners is not the smarter option. Cutting nipples is one of those shortcuts that seems too good to be true, and that is because it is.
    When you cut bottle nipples, it allows milk to quickly flow into a calf’s mouth, which in turn has some negative impacts. The calf can choke at the amount of milk coming in at once. And if there is so much milk that the calf is unable to swallow as it comes in, the milk can end up in the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.
    Additionally, if the nipple is free flowing milk into the mouth, the calf’s suckling reflex is less likely to be stimulated. When a calf is nursing her mama, or a bottle, that sucking motion triggers her suckling reflex, which then stimulates the esophageal groove to open, allowing the milk to bypass the calf’s underdeveloped rumen and go straight into the abomasum – where it belongs.
    For the first two weeks of a calf’s life, calves can only use the abomasum to digest milk or milk replacer. Just to help you better understand the difference between a calf and a cow’s digestive system, when a calf is born the abomasum makes up 60% of the newborn’s stomach capacity and this amount decreases to 8% for a mature cow. On the flip side, a calf’s rumen goes from making up 25% of her stomach capacity to 65% as a mature cow. So, for all intents and purposes, a newborn calf is basically a monogastric animal.
    If the esophageal groove is not stimulated to open, it will allow milk to enter into the rumen and reticulum, which can result in bloat and excess gas if the milk does not move quickly enough into the abomasum. When a calf is tubed, the milk flows fast enough that it does not sit in the rumen long, even without opening the esophageal groove. However, with bottle feeding, the milk has more time to sit in the rumen, and that is when you can see bloating or excess gas occur.
    As a rule of thumb, the opening of a bottle should be large enough that the calf does not have to struggle to get milk out. What is a good test? Turn the bottle upside down and milk should slowly drip out, one drop at a time. If milk is pouring out, the hole is too big. One thing to also check is the vent hole in your bottles. A lot of issues can be blamed on a vent hole that is sealed or clogged.
    Unfortunately, bottle feeding newborn calves can become tiresome, but try to keep in mind that these babies require extra patience and nurturing. They came out of a nice warm place into a cold, new world, and although it might take them time to adjust, setting them up for success on day No. 1 is the key to your dairy operation’s future success. So, when you find yourself with a newborn that is taking a little too long to latch on to that bottle and drink, try to imagine the stellar cow she will become one day, and do not let your frustrations lead you to cut corners.
    Ellen is the First Defense regional sales and marketing manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota. She’s a problem solver who loves walking calf hutches and diagnosing protocol drift. A great day is a day spent helping dairy and beef farmers keep their baby calves healthy! Ellen can be reached at ecushing@immucell.com.