Tubing a young calf with colostrum, colostrum substitute, electrolytes or for other reasons can be common on cow-calf operations.
The procedure must be properly done, keeping in mind biosecurity and that important pledge from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
This article will outline proper procedures for tubing as well as some treatment parameters and instances where I have seen things go wrong.
Most cow-calf operations will have at least one esophageal feeder around. There are several brands of feeders out there. I prefer the McGrath because it kinks off automatically when you let it hang down and you can administer with one hand while you hold the calf with the other.
The bags sometimes don’t seal as well and almost need two people to run, but you should find a brand you like, stick with it and replace it when the tube gets damaged and rough from teeth marks.
For biosecurity reasons, I like to use one feeder only with newborn calves for colostrum and colostrum substitutes, and another for sick or scouring calves and have them marked accordingly. Also, between uses, I suggest washing them and the tube out with warm water and dipping the tube in a gallon of previously mixed Virkon disinfectant.
To tube, fill the feeder with the product and make sure the line is clamped off so no product is running when you pass the tube. That is imperative.
Use a small amount of water or sterile lubricant on the bulb end in case the esophagus of the calf is dry from dehydration. This will help it slide in easier. The calf should be standing or sitting up in sternal. This allows gravity to help the liquid to flow and prevents the possibility of regurgitation. Do not tube the calf when it is lying on its side because regurgitation and aspiration can happen.
When passing the tube into the calf’s mouth, do so gently and the calf should swallow it.
Stop if you feel any resistance and retry.
You can feel the neck of the calf to check for the tube running down, just left of centre. When you feel this, you know you are in the right place and can let the fluid run in. I like to rub the throat area to stimulate swallowing. It also keeps the calf occupied.
Stop the flow immediately if the calf suddenly throws its head or starts to kick and struggle. Make sure the tube has not slid out to any degree.
When done, kink the tube and pull it out. The kinking does not allow fluid to run out when withdrawing and makes aspiration of any fluids almost impossible.
When tubing with colostrum, you want to make sure to give one litre or more.
When sucking naturally, the calf creates a groove, which has the milk flow through the third stomach into the fourth. However, with tubing this groove is not created and the colostrum flows into the rumen. It takes about 500 millilitres to fill the rumen and the excess then runs into the abomasum, so volume is important when it comes to feeding a newborn.
A litre or more is necessary to get enough into the abomasum so it will start being absorbed.
Ideally, with colostrum milk or electrolytes, it is nice to try and get the calf to suck. Most often, tubing is carried out because the suckle reflex is slow or because tubing is faster and producers will then know what the calf has received.
In severely dehydrated calves, you may tube up to three to four times a day, which is why being gentle is imperative to not create any injury or irritation to the throat.
The large bulb at the end of the tube facilitates swallowing. If a calf has just been pulled and is gasping or breathing through its open mouth, it is not the time to tube. Wait until the calf has a sustained normal breathing pattern.
A calf breathing through its open mouth creates a situation in which the tube can be taken into the lungs and you could essentially drown the calf.
Also, I have seen tubing carried out too vigorously, causing perforation of the esophagus. The resulting swelling and cellulitis can kill the calf. This is very rare, however, and only occurs as a result of ramming the tube down the throat or because the calf was severely struggling when being tubed.
The fluid should also flow freely when unkinked or when the clamp is released. If not, reposition the tube by pulling back a little bit. The tubes are generally designed to be inserted until the hard end is just protruding out of the end of the mouth.
Keep a close watch that the tube doesn’t come off or break off, creating a swallowing hazard. I have seen these types of situations and needed to go in surgically to remove the tube from a severely stretched out rumen.
Watch for defective feeders and old feeders that can become brittle. Replace old feeders every couple of years, depending on use.
It’s important to disinfect between uses to avoid spreading disease. Your clothes, boots and hands must also be cleaned between treatments.
In clinical practice, we may tube older calves with the same esophageal feeders for bloat or use activated charcoal or kaopectate mixed in with electrolytes for diarrhea treatments. Esophageal feeders are necessary devices for cow-calf producers. If hesitant to use one, get someone skilled to show you the proper technique. They will save calves’ lives.