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"Motherly Instinct"
Tips on Assisting (and not hindering) Bonding
By Heather Smith Thomas


Occasionally you may encounter a cow or heifer that doesn't want her newborn calf.  Usually it's a first time mother.  A cow that's had calves before is generally a good mother--unless she was a poor mother the first time and is again slow to have maternal instincts kick in.  Most heifers that are reluctant mamas change their minds in a day or so, and are good mothers from then on.  A few seem to have a hormonal deficit; even though you persuade them to mother the calf this year, they are again unmotherly next time.  Most tend to get better over time, but some are just as stubborn on their 5th calf as they were on their first.

HORMONES ARE THE KEY - The bonding process is a complex blend of hormonal-induced and learned behavior.  Mature cows that have already had calves are more apt to quickly mother their offspring than first-time heifers.  Experience is part of the equation, (older cows tend to be more consistent mothers, with more maternal drive than heifers), but we tend to give experience too much credit.  “The cow is most receptive to wanting a newborn calf when she gives birth,” says Dr. Joseph Stookey (Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan).

            Hormones initiate and drive most of what we perceive as maternal behavior. “Some cows, especially older cows, become interested in any newborn calf, up to a week before they actually calve.  Their hormone pump is already primed; those hormones are already reaching a level that makes them receptive to any new calf,” he says.

            “At the other end of the spectrum are cows that don’t have proper hormone profile or levels, and don’t want their calf.  We see this most often in first-calf heifers, or in some of the females we assist, or those that must be delivered by C-section.  If it’s too much of a rodeo getting the cow in, or she undergoes too much trauma, she may be less interested in the newborn calf.  There may be other hormones overriding the whole system, due to stress, pain, and some of the drugs used during a C-section,” says Stookey.

            Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels initiate the birth process, but rising oxytocin levels trigger maternal behavior.  Oxytocin is released in the brain during birth.  “Its presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the role of odor in the bonding process, with the cow recognizing her own calf by smell,” he says.

“Cervical stimulation is crucial for proper hormonal triggers,” explains Stookey.  Release of oxytocin is caused by stretching/stimulation of the cervix and birth canal.  Cervical stimulation (gradual dilation of the cervix as the feet of the fetus push against it with each uterine contraction, and passage of the fetus through cervix) is one of the main triggers for oxytocin release.

“If you do a C-section there isn’t much cervical stimulation, since the fetus doesn’t come through.  This could be another factor that plays a role when a cow is slow to mother her calf,” says Stookey.

First-calf heifers produce less oxytocin than cows who’ve had previous calves—and this may explain why heifers may be less motherly and more apt to reject or abandon their calves.  “Giving birth seems to prime the system and allows for release of larger quantities of oxytocin with subsequent births.  Heifers are less experienced than cows, and also have lower levels of oxytocin release in the brain during calving,” he says.

HEIFERS UNSURE ABOUT MOTHERHOOD - Sometimes a heifer is confused or indifferent toward her calf at first.  She may hardly notice that she's calved.  She continues to lie there and doesn't bother to get up to lick the calf, and when she does get up she seems surprised to see this strange new wiggling creature behind her.  She may walk away, ignoring it, or kick the calf when he gets up and staggers toward her.  Some heifers attack the calf if he tries to get up.

            If you had to pull a heifer’s calf, this may disrupt the normal bonding process.  If you take a newborn cold calf to the barn to warm and dry it before the dam has a chance to lick it, this may also disrupt proper bonding. 

“One technique that helps facilitate proper maternal response is smearing birth fluids across the muzzle and tongue of the dam following an assisted delivery.  This seems to jump-start the maternal response.  Simply pulling the newborn to the front of the mother may not be sufficient stimulus to start the maternal behavior, especially for some first-calf heifers.  Pouring feed onto a newborn calf may entice some reluctant mothers to approach the calf and eventually come in contact with birth fluids as they eat the feed.  Any attractant that can stimulate the cow to lick the calf would be useful,” says Stookey.

If a heifer is not at all interested in her calf, you should help him nurse.  The act of nursing (which triggers release of oxytocin--the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions and milk let-down) makes a cow or heifer feel more motherly.  If you can help the calf nurse the indifferent heifer a time or two, she may decide she likes him.  You may have to restrain her (at least the first time) for the nursing, so she won't run off or try to kick the calf.

In some instances, a heifer may not have much milk at first.  Then as her milk starts to come in, she becomes more interested in her calf.  Oxytocin is associated with milk letdown, and is also closely tied to maternal behavior.  If a heifer is indifferent, or actively rejects her calf, if you can assist the calf in nursing, she generally becomes more receptive to motherhood.

“If you can stimulate milk let-down a few times by assisting the calf in nursing, the hormone comes on board and improves maternal behavior.  Oxytocin can switch off the heifer’s aggression, reluctance or fear, and turn it into interest and mothering,” says Stookey.  These hormones of motherhood can completely change a heifer’s attitude.
HEIFERS STRONGLY OPPOSED TO MOTHERHOOD - Other instances are more difficult, when a heifer is stubborn about accepting her new calf or viciously attacks him.  You may need to keep the heifer from injuring or killing her calf.  If she's in a barn or pen she may slam him into the wall or fence.  If she's in an open field she may eventually get tired of rooting him around and knocking him down, and walk away, but in a confined area she may keep beating on him.

Sometimes it's hard to tell at first if a heifer is just being overly motherly/protective or a "calf killer".  The new mother may be very interested in her calf; her instincts tell her this is something very important and she must deal with him, but she's not sure how.  She smells him and starts bellowing and rooting him around--butting him with her head if he moves or tries to get up.  She may knock him down when he tries to stand.  She's on the fight, ready to protect this new calf from anything and everything, but she's confused and focuses all that aggression toward him.  Angus heifers are notorious for being vocal and rooting their calves around when they give birth the first time.

Usually, however, if you stay out of sight and just monitor the situation, the heifer gets it figured out.  The best clue that she's going to be a good mother is that she is furiously licking the calf and mooing at him even as she knocks him around.  She just needs a little time to transmit that motherly attitude in the right direction--to encourage him to the udder instead of rooting him around so harshly that he can't get up.

By contrast, if a heifer is NOT licking her calf, and merely knocking him around with her head, you’ll have to intervene.  If she just ignores him except when he moves--and then charges at him--there's a good chance she's not going to mother him.  If she starts knocking him into a fence or wall, you’ll have to rescue the calf.  The heifer needs to be restrained so she can't hurt the calf (or you), as you help him nurse. 
Sometimes after the calf nurses, the aggressive heifer simmers down and starts to mother him, but it may take several supervised nursings (with the calf safe in a penned-off area between nursings so she can't hurt him) until she changes her mind.  You can usually make any non-motherly heifer raise her calf, but it may take up to 2 or 3 weeks of supervision, and hobbles on the heifer.

DOG TRICK - Sometimes if a cow won’t mother her calf, you can kick-start her protective instincts and change her mind by bringing a dog into the pen or nearby.  The urge to protect a calf from predators is so strong that this will often get a cow excited and upset about the dog, and she will think about the calf and wanting to protect him.  This may help her develop an interest in the calf and she'll start to mother it.

RESTRAINTS FOR THE POOR MOTHER – If a cow or heifer refuses to mother her calf, keep the pair in separate adjacent pens or stalls for a few days so she can't hurt him.  Leave hobbles on the cow's hind legs so she can't kick him at nursing time.
If you don't have a separate pen, put a panel across the corner of the cow's stall or pen, to make a safe enclosure for the calf.  Let him out with her 2 or 3 times a day (3 is best, so he won't go so long between meals) for nursing, until she resigns herself to accepting him.  Even the most stubborn heifer can be made to raise her calf if you are persistent, though it may take 2 or 3 weeks of supervised nursing.

            If she’s hobbled so she cannot viciously kick the calf, and you give her a flake of alfalfa hay to eat at nursing time, she may stand relatively still for the calf to nurse.  If she is still aggressively resentful, trying to butt him with her head or smash him into the fence or wall, restrain her during nursing time. 

A stanchion or headcatcher works, if it is in or near her stall or pen.  You can give her a little hay or grain to eat while she's restrained in it.  Otherwise, put a halter on her and tie her up at nursing time while she eats her hay and baby gets dinner.  If she's only fed at nursing time, she'll more willingly concentrate on food while the calf nurses, and be less intent on attacking him--and can't run off because she's tied.

In a stall or small pen it's usually safe to leave the halter on and let her drag a rope--if there's nothing for it to catch on and get her tangled up.  Then it's easy to tie her (or even just hold onto the rope) when you put the calf with her for nursing; she can't move around to keep him from nursing, nor hit him with her head.  Feed her only at nursing time and restrain her while the calf is with her. 

            Usually after a couple days of this, even a stubborn cow will let the calf nurse, and you no longer have to tie her.  You may still have to supervise the nursings for another day or so, but the cow won't try to kill the calf each time; she realizes it's pointless.  After a time you'll see little clues that she's tolerating him better.  You may find her standing next to his enclosure (content to be near him) rather than at the far corner of her stall/pen ignoring him. 

            Once she starts to show a change of heart, mooing at the calf in his enclosure, or licking him a little while he nurses, or worrying about him when you put him back into his own place after nursing, it's usually safe to leave them together.  Watch them awhile, to make sure she won't be mean to him.  Even if she is (and you have to separate them), it's only a matter of time until she accepts him.  You can leave the hobbles on for a day or longer--to make sure she won't still try to kick him when he nurses--but once the cow begins to change her mind, you know she will raise that calf.

EASY HOBBLES - A fast and easy set of hobbles can be made from 4 strands of baling twine.  Choose twines that were cut next to the knot, so it’s not in the middle where it will interfere with making the hobbles or might rub on the cow's leg and create a sore.
            Tie the 4 strands together at their knot end.  Restrain the cow in a headcatcher (with a side that moves out of the way, to give you room to work) so you can put hobbles around her legs without being kicked.  Put a pole behind her in the chute if needed, as insurance that she’ll stand still and not keep moving back and forth as you work.  If necessary, tie one of her legs back--with enough slack in the rope that she can still put her weight on that foot to stand, but can't bring it forward to kick.  Situate the hobbles above the rope holding her leg, so you can take the rope loop off her leg after you've made the hobbles.

Make the first loop of the hobbles around one leg.  Tie the first knot a few inches from the tied-together end of the twines, so there will be plenty of room to go around the cow's leg, then tie the twines into a loose loop around the leg.  Make the loop large enough and loose enough you can get 1 or 2 fingers between the loop and her leg.  You don't want it any looser or she'll be able to pull the hobbles down over the joint and dewclaws when she tries to walk or kick--or get a toe of her other foot caught in the loop.

            When you make that first knot, double tie it so it can’t slip.  Make all knots non-slip, so the loops can never tighten up (so they won’t cut off the circulation).  Leave about 8 to 12 inches of space between the leg loops, depending on the size of the cow.  You want enough slack that she can walk, but not enough that she can kick.  On the second loop, after you make the final knot to finish the loop, make another double tie and an extra knot, so it cannot come undone.  Also do that on the first loop of the hobbles, just before you start the loop.  This insures that the knots will stay in place.  When you finish the second loop and its extra "security knot", cut off the extra length of twine ends, so they won’t be dragging on the ground to be stepped on.  

            To remove the hobbles you may be able to cut the loop off one leg with a knife or shears (because the cow can't kick you very effectively) but the second one is tricky because now she CAN kick you.  A gentle cow may let you snip off both loops, but if you don't trust her, clip the first loop and then take her to a headcatcher or chute (because now she can walk more freely) to safely clip off the second leg loop.

SIDEBAR:  LIBERATED WOMAN? -  One of our first experiences with an un-motherly heifer was Tuffy's mother.  She calved quickly in the corral, then got up and marched off with a backward glance.  The calf bawled and she looked back at him once to see what made that noise, but kept going. 

Her calf was not to be so easily deserted.  He got to his feet and staggered after his departing mother, bawling plaintively.  She didn't want anything to do with him, kicking at him when we herded her back.  So we brought the calf in the house and fed him a bottle--and put the heifer out in a field. 

As I was drying the calf in the kitchen, my own young son needed a diaper change so I left Tuffy lying on towels.  He'd been enjoying the towel rubbing and suddenly felt deprived; perhaps he thought I, too, was suddenly deserting him.  He lurched to his feet and wobbled after me into the living room, where I diapered my baby with the help of a blundering, slobbery calf I had to keep pushing away.  Tuffy spent the night in the barn, after another bottle from us.

Next morning, we were awakened by his mother bellowing.  She was standing by the gate, bawling her head off.  She had a full and painful udder and this may have triggered maternal yearnings; sometime during the night she must have realized she had a baby. 

We brought Tuffy to her, and she immediately began licking and loving him, and he went right to her udder to start nursing.   As he was slurping milk, she was licking his little rear end quite roughly, as if to say, "Where ya been all this time, kid?"  From that moment on they were a bonded pair.  She was a perfect example of delayed reaction to calving!

SIDEBAR – A BUNCH OF MIXED-UP MOTHERS - The first group of heifers we bought in 1967 were Angus and crossbreds, and an unusually high percent of those 40 heifers were weird in their attitude about motherhood.  They came from a feedlot, and we wondered if something they'd been given (perhaps a growth stimulant) had hindered their hormones.  Most of them were fine for their second calf, but several did not improve. 

At that time we didn't have the experience to know how to deal with them.  The first one that tried to kill her calf, our vet suggested tranquilizers (we named her Tranquiliza).  She still kicked the calf, just slower.  We left her tied in the barn for several days, and had to help the calf nurse.  She finally accepted the calf but was an indifferent mother the next 3 years (we had to restrain her so the calf could nurse, for the first few days) so we sold her. 

Even worse was Hilda--who tried to kill her calf 3 years in a row.  We raised her first calf on a heifer that lost hers.  In our naive thinking, we felt we'd "messed her up" with too much human intervention, so we let her calve in a big mountain pasture the second year.  We never found the calf; it probably died because she killed it or left it to die. 

The third year, she calved next to the corral fence and we rushed out there when we heard her bellowing.  The only thing that saved the calf was that she’d pushed it under the fence and couldn't finish killing it.  We realized she wasn't going to get better, and sold her--and raised that calf on another cow.


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