Tips for “tubing” or using an esophageal feeder for calves |

Tips for “tubing” or using an esophageal feeder for calves

Heather Smith Thomas
for Tri-State Livestock News

With the extended cold, wet weather many ranchers are dealing with, some are having to brush up on skills they’d rather not need. “Tubing” or “drenching” a calf using an esophageal tube can save a life if the calf is chilled, dehydrated or plain out of energy, but it can also have disastrous results if not done correctly.

The feeder probe is a rigid plastic or stainless steel tube about one-half inch in diameter, with a larger-diameter bulb on the end that goes down the throat. A container (a flexible bag or plastic bottle) for fluid is attached to the other end. Some have a valve that keeps the fluid from entering the tube until you release it. Others have a bag/bottle that hangs down until you have inserted the tube down the calf’s throat, and you raise it when you want fluid to go into the tube.

“The rounded bulb on the probe protects the throat from being scraped as you insert the tube and helps prevent backflow of fluids up the esophagus,” said Michael Thomas, a rancher near Baker, Idaho who has used an esophageal feeder hundreds of times to administer colostrum to newborns or fluids to sick calves. “That round ball also helps the tube bypass the small opening into the windpipe when you are inserting the tube. The windpipe is slightly below and alongside the esophagus,” Thomas said.

Dr. Shelie Laflin, former professor of agricultural practices, Kansas State University, now back on her family ranch near Olsburg, Kan., said esophageal feeders should always have some type of flexible connection between the probe and the bag that you can keep kinked off until you know that it is in the right place.

“If you are working by yourself, sometimes the probes attached to a bag instead of a bottle are easier because you can hang the bag on a fence, stall wall, or even the grill of your pickup and have your hands free,” Laflin said.

“On bigger calves, giving fluids to treat scours, I prefer metal tubes. The plastic ones are not as durable and a calf can bite it in two and swallow the end of it. At the vet school, we saw a few calves that had bitten the end off of a plastic tube and it got stuck in the throat or in the abomasum,” she said.

Using the feeder probe is easiest if the calf is standing, so you can back him into a corner, or have someone stand behind the calf.

Laflin tells producers that if they are straddling the calf with his neck between their legs, they need to keep his head and neck straight. “Slowly pass the tube. Never force it, or you might cause damage in the back of the throat. Once I get it started, I reach along the outside of the neck and feel for the bulb to pass that area,” Laflin said.

The windpipe and esophagus are next to each other, so you want to make sure the bulb is going into the esophagus, which is on the left side of the throat, when you are facing the same direction as the calf. “The calf will usually cough if the tube is in the wrong place, but not always. So I want to feel that bulb pass between my fingers,” she said.

Once you are sure the tube is in the esophagus, tip up the bag or release the clamp to turn the fluid on. “If it slows or stops running, move the tube about an inch farther in or out, and it usually flows again. Sometimes the esophagus presses against it or the end seals off, especially if you are giving thick colostrum or some of the scour packets. The ones that contain psyllium become very thick,” Laflin said. A vacuum may form in air-tight systems, slowing the flow of liquid. Creating a little airflow by loosening the screw-on lid may solve the problem.

“After all the fluid has gone down the tube, kink the connecter (between the tube and the bag or bottle) so nothing else goes down as you are pulling the tube out,” Thomas said. “You don’t want any fluid dripping on the way out.” If any fluid gets into the windpipe it could go into the lungs and cause pneumonia.

Always rinse the probe and bag with hot water as soon as possible after use, especially if you were giving colostrum. “The fats cling to the feeder and make it hard to get clean. I use regular dish soap and hot water,” Laflin said.

“If you wash the tube with dish soap and hot water there won’t be any risk of transferring disease from one calf to another. Even better, however, is to have two esophageal feeders — one for newborns and colostrum and the other for sick calves.”