Ag Bites: How to Bucket Train a Calf

Bucket feeding a calf is like bottle feeding, but it makes the feeding and cleanup process easier and faster. Here are the steps to follow.

by Alli Kelley
PHOTO: Jack Malvern/Flickr

Bucket training your calf is a great way to make feeding time easier, faster and lower maintenance. Bucket training a calf simply means that instead of drinking milk from a bottle, the calf drinks it’s milk from a bucket. Transitioning to bucket feeding is beneficial because it speeds up feeding preparation time, it’s easier to feed the calf and the calves can usually finish buckets more quickly than a bottle. Cleaning a bucket thoroughly is also much easier than cleaning a bottle.

Once you have a calf that is healthy and drinking out of a bottle easily, you can make feeding time go even faster by training the calf to drink out of a bucket. Calves will suckle on everything, and that is what makes bucket training so easy! Once they are familiar with sucking on a bottle, there are just a few easy steps you can follow to bucket-train them.

  1. Mix the normal amount of milk replacer the calf is eating, and pour it into the bucket that is already hung in place.
  2. Let the calf start to suck on your fingers and slowly guide its head down toward the milk in the bucket.
  3. Help the calf understand there is milk in the bucket and that it can drink it by putting your hand down into the bucket while the calf is still suckling on your finger. You may have to put your hand into the milk, so the calf begins to suck it up as it suckles on your fingers.
  4. Leave your fingers in the calf’s mouth as it starts to suck the milk out of the bucket. Gradually remove your fingers and let the calf try to drink from the bucket on its own. If the calf stops drinking, replace your fingers and help it again.
  5. Do this until the bucket is gone, the first few attempts will take a longer amount of time, but patience will pay off!
  6. You may have to do step No. 4 a few times over a couple days; eventually, the calf will realize that the milk is in the bucket, not attached to your fingers.

As always: When working with livestock, it’s very important to not become impatient, forceful, rushed or frustrated. If your calf really doesn’t seem to get bucket feeding after two or three days, give it another week with the bottle and then try bucket training again. Most calves catch on very quickly, and if a calf doesn’t, it might just be too young.

After the calf knows how to drink out of the bucket, all you have to do is pour the milk in the bucket and let it drink! This will be a welcome relief if you have been holding the bottles yourself. If you have multiple calves housed in the same area, mixing all the replacer at once and pouring each calves’ feeding quickly is a good way to ensure each calf will start and finish roughly at the same time, minimizing the possibility of missed feedings or overeating.

Bucket training a calf will be much easier if you have a bucket that can be hung on a fence rail either by a lip on the bucket itself or by the bucket handle on a clip. If the bucket is just placed on a hook, there is a high probability the calf will knock it down as it is drinking. Trying to hold the bucket while you bucket train the calf will also be difficult and will probably end with spilled milk.

Removing the bucket from where your calf is kept after feeding is also a good idea. Calves can be mischievous and get themselves injured on buckets left hanging, especially because the bucket needs to be secure while they are drinking. To make clipping buckets up easier, tie a small loop of twine around the bucket handle and hook the bucket up by the twine loop. That way, the bucket can break down easily if a calf has any crazy ideas and gets a bit stuck.

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Be sure to clean the bucket thoroughly after the calf is finished drinking and any other equipment you used during feeding.

Overall, bucket training a calf is very simple! Feeding time will be easier and go more quickly by eliminating bottles. Bucket feeding is also more low maintenance, giving you more time for other farm tasks. By following these few easy steps, your calf will be bucket trained in no time.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.

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