Using an esophageal feeder – Step-by-step instructions for an essential piece of calf-raising equipment

The esophageal feeder is an excellent and inexpensive device to ensure adequate volumes of colostrum are being delivered within the recommended time frame.

Esophageal feeders are designed to ensure adequate volumes of colostrum are delivered to calves within a recommended time frame.
Photo courtesy of ACER Consulting

The following is a step by-step breakdown for using the esophageal feeder:

  1. Restrain the calf in a standing position
    • Measure the distance from the tip of the calf’s nose to just behind the elbow. Measuring the distance will help to ensure that the tube does not enter the lungs by way of the trachea.
  2. Keep the calf in a standing position
    • A calf that is tubed while lying down increases the risk of aspiration.
  3. Insert the probe into the mouth
    • To open a calf’s mouth, apply pressure to the corner of the mouth or take hold of the bridge of the nose and apply pressure to the upper palate or gums. Be gentle when inserting the tube, as damage can occur. The bulb of a correctly inserted tube can be felt in the esophagus; the windpipe is easily felt at the front of the neck, and the tube can be felt behind it. If two tubes are present, you are ready to allow fluid to flow.
  4. Always hold the fluid-filled bag above the calf
    • Ensure that the calf’s nose does not go above its ears. If the head is held too high, the calf may regurgitate. If any coughing occurs, clamp the bag to stop the fluid and check the placement of the tube.
  5. Administer no less than two litres in the first feeding of colostrum
    • Unlike suckling, the esophageal tube deposits colostrum into the rumen where it must move from here into the abomasum. Underfeeding will hinder this process.
  6. Feed liquids at body temperature
    • Colostrum should be about 40°C when fed.
  7. Slowly remove after application
    • Do this by ensuring that the tube is clamped or kinked so no backflow occurs.
  8. Clean and sanitize equipment before storage

Espohageal feeders can also be used to offer oral electrolytes to calves that are dehydrated. Having two is always a good idea and will ensure that the feeder used to administer colostrum is separate from that used to administer electrolytes to sick calves. This will prevent the transmission of disease between young and sick animals. 

Your herd veterinarian is a great resource if you have any questions or are looking for hands-on instruction.