Top Ten Tips: Considerations for Bucket Feeding Pre-weaned Calves

Amber Adams Progar, Dairy Management Specialist Washington State University

Is it better to offer milk/milk replacer in buckets or bottles for preweaned calves? This is a common debate within the dairy industry. Feeding milk in bottles allows calves to exhibit suckling behavior, which minimizes the occurrences of non-nutritive sucking behavior. Buckets are easier to clean and sanitize, which minimizes calf exposure to potentially harmful pathogens.


We understand the obvious advantages and disadvantages of both feeding systems; however, we often overlook an important aspect, labor. Drinking out of buckets is not intuitive for calves so additional labor is needed to train them. How long does it take to train calves to drink from buckets?

Well, that is exactly what researchers at Washington State University wanted to determine. Cameron Mandel, Amber Adams Progar, Bill Sischo, and Dale Moore recently published a study in the Journal of Dairy Science that monitored 1,235 bucket-fed calves. Below I will highlight some important results from this study.


Please consider these results if your dairy uses, or is contemplating switching to a bucket feeding system:

1.Use of a bucket vs. bottle feeding

According to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System, dairies in the United States fed milk or milk replacer to 59% of preweaned heifer dairy calves using buckets, with 38% more calves in the East than the West fed with buckets. In comparison, a study concluded that about 92% of dairy farms in Quebec fed heifers with buckets.

  1. Heifer vs. bull

After 3 days of age, heifer calves were 1.5 times less likely to require assistance compared with bull calves.

  1. Twins

Twins had almost twice the odds of requiring assistance after 3 days of age than singletons.

  1. Calf position at birth

A calf born facing forward was less likely to require assistance with drinking after 3 days of age, when compared to a calf born backwards. Sixteen percent more of the calves born backwards needed assistance drinking than calves born forwards.

      5. Dam

About 4% more calves born to heifers tended to require assistance longer than calves born to cows.

  1. Calving score

The level of difficulty during calving (calving score) did not appear to affect the amount of time a calf required for training. Calving score was assigned as a 1 (normal delivery), 2 (some assistance), or 3 (difficult birth).

  1. Average training requirement

The average time required for training was 3.4 days. After 3 days of age, almost 60% of calves consumed the entire morning milk allotment without assistance.

  1. Time of year

Calves were enrolled onto the study between the beginning of May and the end of July. A calf born after June 8th was 2-5 times less likely to need assistance after 3 days of age than calves born during the first week of the study.

  1. Calf behavior – depressed vs. alert

Depressed (slow to respond to the environment) calves were four times more likely to be assisted than alert calves.

  1. Calf behavior – sternal vs. standing

Alert, sternal (lying down) calves were 2.4 times more likely to require assistance than alert, standing calves.


Article citation: Mandel, C., A. Adams-Progar, W. M. Sischo, and D. A. Moore. 2017. Short communication: Predictors of time to dairy calf bucket training. Journal of Dairy Science 100:9769-9774.