The way we feed calves impacts calf health


At this time, there are three basic options of delivering milk to your calves: a fast flow teat, a controlled flow teat and a bucket. 

We spend a good portion of our time on farms and see the results first hand of all of these systems but, excitingly, research and educational facilities are now focusing studies not only on what we feed calves, but how we feed calves. This is really exciting for the future of calf rearing. 

The ideal milk delivery needs to enhance calf performance, and reduce management time and costs not cause problems.

A Fast Flow Teat


To stop a gravity feed teat from leaking, manufacturers will insert some sort of non return valve or flap into the back of the teat. 

For the calf, a valve is bad news and it changes the way she drinks so instead of the controlled sucking action she needs for good health, the milk is forced into her mouth and she must gulp quickly.

She soon learns to pump the teat with her jaw and drinks very quickly, often less than 1 minute per litre! Imagine how your stomach would feel if you drank that quickly!


With this pumping and gulping, she produces very little saliva. Saliva is antimicrobial for immunity and also balances the pH for digestion, without it, things start to go wrong.

The signs are very clear if you know what you are looking for:

  • She can be unsettled when drinking, coming on and off the teat (breakaway behaviour).

  • She steps back and coughs during feeding.

  • After feeding she is hyperactive and tries to suck on anything around her (cross suckling).

  • Because there is no suckling, calves in groups drink at different speeds.

  • She will have some diarrhoea.


This is totally opposite to what the digestive system needs to function and results in health issues.

Problems can be managed with an experienced team and this is often the case.

A good team can keep calves growing with a fast flow teat but often the time cost of this management is not calculated and simply accepted as part of raising calves.

Fast flow teat

TOP TIP! Reduce management by feeding a slow flow to help your calves grow

In the height of calf rearing it's easy to want to get the calves fed as quickly as possible. Delivering milk with a fast flow disrupts the workings of the digestive system and calves can end up not doing so well.

If calves were supposed to be force fed milk, cows would have pumps not teats!

Fast flow impacts the lactose absorption so you need to feed for longer to get the same weight gains as you would experience if they were drinking with a controlled flow. 

Milk Bar calf feeder

Bucket feeding

Feeding calves from a bucket is a very old fashioned system that started when dairy farming became more commercial but teat feeders were not yet invented! It is common in some parts of the world and unheard of in others!

Buckets themselves are cheap to buy, are often given away and so can be an attractive option to those wanting to reduce equipment costs.

For a calf, learning to drink from a bucket is a crazy idea!

Her instinct is to suckle, she was born with this natural instinct and so training her to drink from a bucket can take time. There are many devises like floating teats to make training easier, however troublesome training is only the start of the problem.

When the calf drinks milk from a bucket the oesophageal groove stays open and milk flows into the rumen as well as the abomasum. We know that the rumen is not equipped to deal with milk and the milk ferments causing gut ache and acidosis.

  • Absolutely no saliva is produced.

  • Calves are extremely unsettled and will hyperactively cross    suckle after feeding.

  • Calf management is high.

  • Although cheap and common, bucket feeding should be      avoided as the most unnatural system for a calf.

Calves cross suckling

TOP TIP! Reduce management by feeding in a natural way

Just because buckets are cheap, or even free, does not mean you should use them to feed your calves. 

If the calves digestive system was supposed to have milk delivered from a bucket then cows would look like this!

Bucket fed calves need a lot of management so the 'free' bucket ends up costing you in the long run.

Milk Bar calf feeder

Controlled flow teat


The Milk Bar Teat controls the flow of milk to the calf by combining design with top quality rubber.

The calf squeezes the teat to open it and suckles to release the milk using positive and negative pressure, just like when she suckles from a cow.

She drinks slowly at over 3 minutes per litre and produces a lot of saliva.

Her digestive system works in harmony and her health is great.


A misconception is that because she is drinking at a slow, controlled flow that feeding the calves takes longer.

The reality is that because calves are so much healthier the overall time is significantly reduced!

Calves are much heavier and can be weaned earlier to further reduce costs.

Cross suckling and breakaway behaviour disappear and nutritional diarrhoea is significantly reduced!

To really get a feel for it, try hand milking a cow and feel how much pressure you need to draw the milk down and how long it takes to milk a litre.

This is how the calf is supposed to drink. 

Milk Bar calf feeder

TOP TIP! Keep the rumen protected from milk!

Feeding calves with a fast, valve teat or from a bucket can allow milk to overflow the oesophageal groove and enter the rumen.


There are normally live bacteria in the rumen within the first few days. These bacteria cause the milk to ferment. The fermenting milk produces lactic acid. The lactic acid enters the blood stream and causes depression, anorexia and eventually the death of an otherwise healthy calf.