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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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VIDEO: ‘Never force the tube down’ – The ins and outs of tube feeding calves

Stomach tubing calves

According to the Beef Cattle Research Council, knowing how to use a stomach tube is vital to support calves in their most vulnerable state.

Whether you are providing colostrum to a newborn or treating a calf for dehydration, a proper oesophageal feeding technique can save lives on your farm and improve your herd’s health.

To get started, have your supplies clean and ready to use.

To begin, you first need to choose what type of feeder to use.

There are two standard types of feeders:

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  • The most commonly used feed is the McGrath feeder – A sealed unit that is most practical when handling calves by yourself
  • The second most commonly found feeder is a bag feeder. This set-up allows you to poor fluids into the top of the bag. You hang the bag from a height which allows fluid to flow slowly via gravity.

To prevent aspiration, or fluid in the lungs, we need to ensure the calf is in the proper position, the council says.

A spokesperson explained: “In a perfect world, we would have the calf standing when delivering fluids.”

“However, if the calf is sick and too weak to stand, we can tube them in a sitting position or even lying down.”

Stomach tubing calves

Regardless of how the calf is positioned, it must be properly restrained.

If standing, back the calf into a corner for better head control, it advises.

“Never tip the calf’s nose upwards whilst tubing. This will change the angle of the entrance in the trachea and make you more prone to pointing the tip of the tube feeder down and entering the trachea.”

“Leave the calf’s head in a neutral position that is above the level of its stomach.”

“You can open a calf’s mouth by gently squeezing the concerns of the mouth or by grabbing its head over the bridge of the nose and putting slight pressure on the upper palate or gums.”

Once the mouth is opened, the empty tube should be passed slowly along the tongue to the back of the mouth.

Once the tube reaches the back of the tongue, the calf will start chewing and swallowing. At this point, the tube is passed down into the oesophagus.

“If the tube is not advancing easily, then slowly pull it out and try again. Never force the tube down,” the council stresses.

The oesophagus is slightly to the left of the trachea, and once placed, the tube should be “easily” palpated next to the trachea.

If it is properly positioned, you can easily feel the rings of the trachea, or windpipe or the rigid enlarged oesophagus.

If you cannot feel both, the council advises you to remove the tube and start again.

Two-tube rule

Remember the two-tube rule: You should be able to feel the trachea and the stomach tube.

Once you confirm proper placement, you can unclip the tube. Then, you can tip the container to allow liquid to flow down into the stomach.

Ensure the liquid is at body temperature (38 degrees Celsius) to prevent shock to an already weak calf.

“Allow the feeder to empty slowly. This could take upwards of three minutes.”

“The calf will regurgitate less with a slower flow rate. When you have finished feeding the calf, clip or kink the tube to ensure no left-over fluids can drain out as the tube is slowly pulled out. This prevents aspiration into the lungs.”

Then, clean and sanitise the tube and then allow it to drain and dry.

The council states it is “crucial” to have two oesophageal feeding tubes to avoid disease and pathogen transfer between calves.

  • One for feeding sick or scouring calves;
  • One for colostrum.

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