Care of Reindeer Calves

The usual gestation period for a cow is seven months (approx. 220 days). Individual cows will vary. Calves are usually born during daylight hours, typically in the morning. This is natural for reindeer; in the wild, calves need enough time to gather strength before nightfall so they can keep up with the herd. Calves will be up and following the mother within a couple hours of birth.

Calves are usually between 8 and 12 pounds, with the average weight at around 9 pounds. A 6 lb. calf is considered to be small and may not survive without a lot of attention and support.

The cow may become exceedingly restless in the 24 hours before birth. She will leave the herd and find a nice, quiet spot out of the wind. When the calf is born, she will lick it dry. If the calf remains wet, it is susceptible to chilling and may die.

It is important not to disturb the newborn for 4 to 6 hours after birth. This will give them enough time to bond and for the calf to receive the much needed colostrum. The mother is quite capable of calving on her own, a process that takes anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. However, if you notice that she hasn’t had the calf within an hour or so, then she may be having trouble.

Usually if a cow is having trouble calving, it’s usually because the calf is in an abnormal presentation. If this is so, it is necessary to intervene. With knowledge of how the calf should be positioned, a person with small hands can straighten it without the use of special tools or complex medical knowledge. If done carefully, it is often successful and may prevent the death of the cow and calf.


In a normal birth, the calf is positioned so that the front hooves and head are aimed down the birth canal. They will emerge first. Sometimes, the back hooves will emerge first and the calf is born backwards. This can also result in a normal birth as long as one hoof is not hooked backwards.

A cow having trouble will be in labour for an unusually long time. There are two signs that will indicate difficulties:

  • If part of the calf is visible at the entrance of the vagina for longer than half an hour, without be born and,
  • If the cow is straining hard for an hour without any results.

If a cow is in this situation, steps can be taken to help her:

  • Approach the cow slowly and quietly so she is not frightened. If frightened, she will try to run away and may abandon the calf, making it necessary for you to bottle-feed.
  • If possible, wear gloves or wash THOROUGHLY before and after. This protects not only yourself but the cow as well.
  • Gradually work your hand into the vagina, using lots of soap or lubrication and taking care not to damage the birth passage. Determine the position of the calf and work until it is in a normal birthing position. If there are twins, push one slightly back so that the other can emerge. The problem here is sorting out which legs belong to which calf!
  • When this is done, step back and the cow (providing she has enough strength left) will finish the job. If she is too weak, you will have to “pull” the calf out. To do this, you must work with the cow, pulling when she pushes with smooth motions. Pulling at the wrong time or pulling too hard can internally damage the cow and calf.

After the new calf is born, the cow should take over with the cleaning, etc.

In extreme cases when the mother does not take over, you will have to clean and dry the calf. Clean his nose and mouth of mucus and off the umbilical cord close to the body. Ct the cord between the mother and knot, making the cut 2 to 3 inches beyond the knot. Dip the end of the cord in iodine solution to prevent infection. If the calf is abandoned, you will have to bottle feed it.

Calves may nurse lying down. It may look like the mother is no letting her calf nurse, but that is not the case. Some mothers will get up and change sides so that the calf nurses from both sides. One way you can tell if a calf is not getting any milk is by the constant “honking”. A newborn calf can run on brown fat for 24-48 hours without nursing. However, during this time you will notice the calf constantly following the mother and “honking” at her. This is a good indication that the calf is not getting enough (or any) milk. At this point, you may have to begin bottle feeding.

Colostrum is very important for newborn calves as with any other newborn animal. In the colostrum are antibodies the calf needs to build an immune system. Calves have no immune system of their own for the first three months of life. Poly serum and Colostrum B, C and D can be very helpful. These products should be give 6 to 12 hours after birth and may be repeated at 10 to 14 years of age. Brown’s Dried Colostrum is a good source of antibodies and may be given by mouth to calves that have not received colostrum from their mothers.

Caring for calves

Perhaps the most worrisome time for the reindeer farmer is calving time. Every effort must be made to assure calves obtain the first milk or colostrum that is rich in antibodies. IF a calf is orphaned or unable to receive colostrum within the first few hours of life, antibodies should be administered.

One manner of doing so is intravenously. This is done by collecting one unit (approx. 1 pint) of blood from a donor deer (preferably from the same farm) and then separating and administering 50 to 100 ml of plasma intravenously. The plasma can also be given orally during the first 24 hours of life. This is a common procedure in equine medicine and most veterinarians are familiar with the technique.

Plasma may be harvested and stored frozen for immediate availability. The immune system of young animals is not fully functional until the yare approximately 3 months of age. Vaccines administered before then do little good, but antiserums and antitoxins should provide passive immunity at any time. Bovine antiserums often contain E. coli antibodies and appear to be effective in reindeer. Both infectious and noninfectious diseases, usually specific to individual farms, must be dealt with.

One of the most common infectious diseases encountered by reindeer calves is caused by pathogenic Escherichia coli bacteria (colibacillosis). In calves 1 to 5 days old, it causes weakness which rapidly progresses to death. This disease is also seen in slightly older calves. Prevention includes administering a killed K99 E. coli vaccine to pregnant females in late fall. If colibaccillosis persists after the use of commercial vaccines, an autogenus vaccine can be made from a specific strain of E. coli taken on the farm. Injection of Poly serum at 1 day and again at 10-14 days of age is useful in preventing E. coli infections.

Clean calving areas are important. In most cases, intrusions should be kept to a minimum to prevent the mother from rejecting her newborn. Putting iodine on the naval, administering oral antibodies, etc. to healthy calves may cause more harm than good if the mother and her newborn have not had a chance to bond. Common sense and good judgment, based on experience and advice form those with experience, is important and often reaps better results than following a rigid set of guidelines.

Bottle raising

One thing to keep in mind when bottle raising a calf is that no two calves are exactly alike. Two calves are as different as two people, each with their own personality and needs.

The younger you start to bottle feed, the most quickly the deer will bond with you. This results in a very tame animal. However, remember that you do not have to bottle feed to have tame deer. Just spending a little extra time with them every day when feeding will tame them quite nicely. Tame (or quiet) deer are much easier to handle and work with and seem to get less “stressed out” when it’s time to run them through the chute and squeeze for vaccinations or antler removal.

There are milk substitutes on the market that can be used for reindeer. Brown’s Dried Colostrum works well for deer. After starting the calf off on this, you will have to change him over to a full milk replacement. Other alternatives are kid (goat) milk replacement or an ungulate (deer) milk replacement. Brown’s has a lamb’s milk replacement that also works well. Any of these should work for you. Most people do not have colostrum and milk replacement on hand. You can use a temporary substitute of one quart whole milk or reconstituted whole powdered milk mixed with one can of evaporated milk. Note that this is not satisfactory for prolonged use and is only intended to work as a temporary replacement until a commercial product can be obtained. Be sure to warm the formula to body temperature before feeding.

An ordinary baby bottle and nipple can be used or a lamb’s nipple on a pop bottle. A specific brand of nipple is the New Zealand lamb nipple which fits nicely onto a pop bottle. Be sure that the hole in the nipple is a proper size for feeding (you may need to enlarge it as you see fit). If the hole is too large, the calf will drink too quickly and finish too fast. If they drink too quickly, they may choke and this could lead to pneumonia.

As you are feeding the calf, gently wipe its rear with a warm, wet cloth. This provokes the calf to defecate, something the mother would do naturally by licking the rear end. This should be done at least twice a day, although once every feeding is recommended.

Start off by feeding the calf small amounts. A baby deer does not eat the same as a baby calf (cow). Cows will nurse for long periods at a time. Baby deer nurse for a few seconds at a time, but more frequently. Here is a table to give you an idea of a feeding schedule:

Age (weeks) Ounces Times per day
0-1 2-3 5-7
1-2 3-4 5-6
2-4 4-5 4-5
4-6 6-8 3-4
6-8 8-10 3
8-12 8 3


Another guideline that is useful is to remember that a calf usually requires ten percent of its body weight per day of milk replacement (if that is all its being given).

Weight of Calf (in pounds) Total milk replacement
10 16 ounces (this can be divided into four feedings of 4 oz. each)
15 24 ounces
20 32 ounces


By the time the calf is 8 weeks old, the amount of grains, supplements and greens should have increased and the calf should be eating independently.

It is important not to over-feed a calf. Calves will always act like they have no gotten enough and want more. Overfeeding is the most common cause of diarrhea. Calf manure is usually soft but not very watery. Prolonged diarrhea is very serious and can lead to death.

If diarrhea occurs, you can give them a baby’s dose of Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate as described on the bottle. A shot of Poly serum also works well. You could also add a little rice cereal (in the baby food isle at your grocery store) to the formula. In more severe cases, electrolytes should be given instead of milk replacement for 12-24 hours.

Diarrhea is usually watery and a yellowish colour from drinking too much milk or from diseases. Watery and green diarrhea is usually caused by the ingestion of too many greens. If the fawns become dehydrated, they will die quickly. Dehydrated calves should be given intravenous fluids.

If a calf is older than 3 weeks when you start to bottle feed, it may not drink from a bottle. If this is the case, give it the milk in a pan or bucket. This will usually prove effective.

When the calf is about five days old, you can start offering it some grains or supplements. This can be done by dipping your fingers into the milk and then putting them into the calf’s mouth. This will get him to lick your fingers, getting the grain at the same time. Some calves will take to it easily while others may take a little longer. Regardless, soon your calf will be eating grains by itself. Calves will also readily eat willow leaves at a young age.

Calves should not get more than half a cup of grain a day until they are more than one month old. This is mixed with one cup of the supplement pellet, totally around one and one half cup per day. As they get older, their feed requirements will increase. Keep in mind that too much grain (in babes as well as adults) is not the best thing for their rumens. Another thing to remember is to have free choice water available to bottle reared calves. This will ensure they are receiving enough fluids.