Author: Dr. Susan Kerr, WSU-Klickitat County Extension Director
Publish Date: Summer 2008
It is essential that sheep and goat producers learn how to tube feed young animals. This simple procedure can often save a young animal’s life, thereby increasing lambing and kidding crop rates and enhancing profitability. With a brief amount of instruction and a little practice, even children can perform this crucial task quickly, safely and effectively.
When is tube feeding necessary? If an animal is too weak or otherwise unable to nurse, it needs to be tube fed. Other situations include maternal factors (lack of milk production, lack of mothering, mastitis, death) and management decisions to control various diseases (C.A.E., O.P.P., Johne’s Disease, etc.). If the lamb or kid will drink from a bottle, this is always preferable to tube feeding.
Importance of Colostrum
Colostrum is the first milk of a mother’s lactation period. It is produced by the udder in the last weeks of pregnancy and lasts for a few days after delivery. It is darker and thicker than milk. It contains high levels of fat, protein, vitamins and special proteins called antibodies. These antibodies are produced by the dam’s immune system to protect her against various diseases such as tetanus, enterotoxemia, E. coli and other diseases she was vaccinated against or experienced naturally in her life. Giving dams a booster vaccination two to three weeks before kidding or lambing helps ensure high levels of antibodies in colostrum.
Newborn animals must ingest colostrum within a few hours of birth. A newborn’s intestinal tract is not very selective in the first hours of life; antibodies can be absorbed whole, which is essential for their function. After 12 hours of age, antibodies and other proteins are digested into amino acids and then absorbed; they can be used as a source of nutrition but no longer have any disease-fighting ability. The 12-hour time limit should be considered an absolute maximum—producers should strive to ensure adequate colostral intake as soon as possible after birth.
Sources of colostrum in decreasing preference include the neonate’s own dam, another dam of the same species in the herd, frozen colostrum from the same herd, fresh or frozen colostrum from a neighbor’s dam of the same species, fresh or frozen colostrum from another species and commercial colostrum supplements. Commercial preparations should be considered supplements for poor quality or quantity of colostrum, not as colostral substitutes. Each year, producers should harvest extra colostrum from high-producing animals and freeze it in case of emergency; update frozen colostrum reserves every year. Freezing colostrum in two-ounce portions simplifies future use and reduces waste.
Laboratory tests can confirm the quality of a sample of colostrum by measuring its antibody concentration. Blood tests in neonates over 24 hours old can confirm whether or not they have absorbed sufficient levels of antibodies. The lack of a protective level of circulating antibodies is called failure of passive transfer (FPT). FPT makes a young animal very susceptible to disease; many animals with FPT die of scours or pneumonia within two weeks of birth. After the first 12 to 24 hours of life, the gut is “closed” and can no longer absorb intact antibodies, so the only treatment for FPT is a costly intravenous transfusion of plasma antibodies.
The diagrams below depict a simplified cross section of an animal’s head. The “Swallowing” diagram shows the structures of the throat area during swallowing and the “Breathing” diagram shows the same structures during breathing. During swallowing, food and liquids are funneled down the esophagus instead of into the airway by the automatic function of protective flaps of tissue.
Steps to Tube Feeding
1.Determine that tube feeding is necessary. If a newborn lamb or kid has not nursed within 12 hours of birth, it should be tube fed. If an animal is nursing or can take a bottle, there is no need to tube feed.
2. If the animal is hypothermic (cold), warm it before administering colostrum. Neonates must be warmed before colostrum can be absorbed properly. Stick your finger in the animals’ mouth—if it seems cool, the animal needs to be warmed. Take it indoors, fashion a wool sweater for it, put it under a safe heat lamp, place it near a wood stove or do whatever it takes to warm it until the mouth feels warm. A moribund animal may need to be immersed in warm water for rapid warming. Dry all neonates thoroughly before putting them outdoors.
3. Warm the fluid to be administered to about 104ºF. There is no need to feed colostrum if the animal is older than 24 hours old—milk will do. Electrolytes should be administered if the animal is weak due to dehydration from diarrhea. Frozen colostrum should be thawed in a warm water bath, not a microwave; microwaving will destroy the beneficial and protective antibodies in the colostrum.
5.Place the tube alongside the neonate’s body, with the mouth of the tube at the animal’s mouth and the end at its last rib, where the stomach is located. Note how far the tube will have to be inserted to reach the last rib.
- Seeing the animal swallow as the tube is introduced and advanced
- Watching the tip of the tube advance in the esophagus on left side of the animal’s neck
- Being able to insert tube to 100% of previously-noted length (a tube inserted into the trachea cannot be advanced this far)
- Feeling the tube in the esophagus on the left side of the animal’s neck (the tube cannot be felt if it is in the trachea)
- No gagging or coughing
10. As shown in the photo, after the required amount of fluid has been administered, crimp off or plug the end of the tube as it is withdrawn from the animal; this prevents the animal from inhaling any fluid as the tube is withdrawn across the pharynx.
How Much and How Often?An animal should receive at least 10% of its body weight in colostrum in the first 24 hours of life. For example, a 10-pound lamb should receive at least one pound (16 ounces) of colostrum during its first day. Frequent small meals of two or three ounces are better than one or two huge meals. If all goes well, the animal will only need to be tubed once, then can be returned to its dam to nurse free choice or bottle fed. Animals that do not respond well or do not get stronger within a few hours should have a thorough physical examination.
Biosecurity and Sanitation Concerns
Johne’s Disease, Brucellosis, mycoplasmosis, O.P.P., C.A.E. and other diseases can spread to your herd through infected colostrum. If you are using colostrum from another herd, be sure the source is disease-free or heat-treat the colostrum. It is a challenge to pasteurize colostrum without destroying its beneficial antibodies. The key is to keep the colostrum between 132.8ºF and 134.6ºF for 60 minutes. To disinfect tube feeding equipment, rinse well immediately after use. Wash thoroughly with warm, soapy water to remove all debris. Dilute one ounce of bleach with 21 ounces of water and submerge all equipment in this solution for two minutes. Remove, rinse well, air dry and store in a clean place. Wash your hands well before and after tube feeding.