How to Care for Your Calf Bottle Nipples

by Kelly Driver, MBA

When was the last time you stopped your work to ponder the important part rubber calf nipples play in getting your newborn calves off to a good start? There are many brands of nipples on the market, so how do we know which is best for our operation? Every manufacturer is striving to achieve the perfect blend of durability and ease of use. Newborn calves often find it easier to nurse a softer nipple, but that softness can also lead to a shorter useful life of the nipple.

Your calf bottle nipples are one of the most critical items for newborns as they’re often the way you can effectively carry the first critical colostrum and continue to deliver the calf’s meals based on the farm’s feeding program. This means the proper use and care of these nipples is of the utmost importance.

With every manufacturer striving to achieve the perfect blend of durability and ease of use, it can leave calf raisers with a lot of questions. Let’s take a deeper look into the potential factors that could jeopardize feeding your own calves.

The Two Causes of Nipple Wear

There are two primary factors that cause calf nipples to wear. The first is mechanical wear, caused by calves sucking or chewing on the nipple. The second factor is chemical effects, brought about by repeatedly cleaning and sanitizing the rubber.

Mechanical Wear

Purely by the way calves nurse, nipples can become worn overtime which causes the nipple to become too elongated and the rubber of the nipple body to become too thin. This often causes an unnecessary and excessive amount of milk to be delivered to the calf. 

Chemical Wear

Many cleansers and sanitizers are known to have a harsh effect on nipples, with iodine sanitizers noted for being extremely harsh and shortening the usefulness of the nipple most quickly.

How to Check the Quality of a Calf Bottle Nipple

In most cases, you should be able to see a distinct difference between a bottle that’s been too worn-out vs a brand-new calf bottle nipple. However, you can also test the flow of milk to ensure everything is working properly. All you need to do is hold the bottle upside down with the nipple attached. You’ll want to see a steady drip come out of the nipple. If you see a steady stream of milk instead, it’s time to replace that nipple on the calf bottle.

How to Best Maximize Useful Life of the Nipple

While nipples are designed to resist the wear caused by calves nursing and chewing on the nipple, as well as cleaning and sanitizing chemicals, eventually they all wear out. Some of the signs of wear are a thinning of the wall and elongation of the nipple when compared to a new one. We might also observe splitting or tearing of the x-cut on the end of the nipple resulting in milk leakage when the bottle is tipped or turned upside down.

Rob Costello of Merrick’s nipple manufacturing company offers these tips for extending nipple life in a Merrick’s Tech Bulletin:

  1. Use a gentle detergent for cleaning. It is recommended to wash nipples with a common dishwashing detergent purchased at a local grocery store. Let the nipples soak in the detergent water for about 5 minutes with a water temperature of 125-135°F.
  2. Use an effective, gentle sanitizing solution. After nipples are removed from the detergent solution, place them into a dilute chlorhexidine solution. Costello suggests using 8 oz. of 2% chlorhexidine for every 10 gallons of water, again with a water temperature of 125-135°F. Let nipples remain in the solution for about 2 minutes. Straight chlorine and iodine are used by some producers to sanitize nipples and are harsh enough to pull the natural oils out of the rubber, drying the nipples out.
  3. Remove nipples promptly from solutions. Nipples should not be allowed to soak for long periods of time in either the detergent or sanitizing solutions. Rubber will swell when left in water, so immersion times should be short. When the nipples are removed from the sanitizing solution, place them on a rack to air dry until the next use.
  4. Remove bottles and nipples promptly after calves have finished drinking. Nipple life is greatly affected by the amount of time a calf sucks and chews on the nipple after emptying their bottle.
  5. Be attentive to subtle changes in feeding, cleaning and sanitizing protocols. Minor changes can have significant effects on nipple life, according to Costello. Small changes in the amount of time calves have access to empty bottles or the concentration of cleaning and sanitizing agents can have significant effects on the useful life of the calf nipple.

Should I Cut the Nipple on my Calf Bottle?

Have you looked to ensure that the x-cut hole in the calf bottle nipple is not too large? There is a happy balance to be struck here. The opening should be large enough that the calf does not have to struggle to get milk. But the opening should not be so large that milk runs out of the bottle when it is turned upside down.

One item I have learned to examine over the years is the vent hole in the nipple. The vent allows air into the bottle while milk is being sucked out, keeping the bottle sides from collapsing. The air from the vent hole releases the vacuum that is formed when the calf is nursing the bottle. Sometimes when examining new nipples that calves are struggling to get milk out of, I have found a thin membrane on the vent hole left over from the rubber molding process. This actually prevents the vent hole from working properly and I suggest using a pin or small sharp item to assure the vent hole is open. This will allow for quicker and more even milk flow for the calf and is a much better option than cutting the nipple to enlarge the actual nursing hole.

Risks of a Worn Nipple

If the nipple opening is cut or gets too large from wear, milk can enter the calf’s mouth faster than they may be able to swallow it, which increases the chances it may end up in the lungs. This results in what we call aspiration pneumonia. Calf care givers all know a calf with pneumonia means extra work for proper treatment and increased costs for medicinal treatment. Aspiration pneumonia is potential for permanent lung damage and even culling. For these reasons, we always want to take a few seconds to examine and evaluate calf nipples.

As calf raisers, we notice big differences in drinking speeds between calves. Some can swallow more milk quickly and easily. Others will struggle with harder nipples and even moderate amounts of milk. A skilled calf feeder will recognize these differences and adapt the nipple being used to match the calf’s ability to nurse safely from the bottle. This is a skill that we cannot undervalue when considering the health of our herd.

Find the Right Nipple for Your Calf Feeding Needs

Ultimately, the right nipple and bottle for your calves depends on your feeding program and the individual feeding abilities of your herd. At Calf-Tel, they offer a range of feeding accessories including bottles with nipples in order to help calf raisers find the right supplies they need to keep a healthy farm.

Kelly Driver, MBA has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. In addition to raising dairy calves and replacement heifers, she is the Eastern US & Canada Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like addressed in a future blog.


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