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Grafting Calves
By: Heather Smith Thomas

Occasionally a cow loses a calf at birth or a calf loses its mother, and you need to “graft” the orphan or a substitute calf onto another cow to raise.  Or, a cow might have twins and not want (or be able) to raise both of them, and you want to put the extra calf onto a cow that lost her own baby.  Sometimes it’s prudent to graft an old cow’s calf (so the old thin cow can be fattened and sold) onto a younger cow that lost a calf.

But it’s not always easy to convince a cow to take a calf that’s not her own.  There are many tricks a person can try, such as putting commercial powders on the substitute calf that are supposed to make the cow want to lick it, or smearing Vicks Vaporub on the cow’s nose and on the calf to confuse the cow’s sense of smell.  Some cows will start to lick the substitute calf if you put molasses on his back and hindquarters to encourage her to lick him.

If the cow or heifer has just calved, it often helps to smear some of the birth fluids or mucus from her placenta onto the substitute calf before you bring him to her.  If he’s lively, however, he may startle or confuse the cow or heifer, because her dead calf was unmoving.  If the bouncing baby scares a heifer, or the cow is suspicious that this lively youngster is not her newborn, tie him to the side of the stall or pen for a few moments so he can’t run around, or lay him down on the ground and tie his legs together so he can’t get up.  This gives the cow/heifer a chance to sniff and start to lick him without becoming alarmed or suspicious by his boisterous actions.  Once she starts licking him you can untie the calf.  This tactic often works with a first-calf heifer (and she’ll think the calf is hers), but an older cow may be harder to fool. 

The oldest trick, and the one that works best, is to skin her dead calf and put the hide over the calf to be grafted.  The cow knows the smell of her own calf (even if it was dead at birth--if you gave her a chance to smell and lick it for a little while before you take the body away), and this “smell bonding” can be used to advantage.

It’s hard to say how old this trick is.  Probably at some point after humans domesticated cattle, they noticed that cows recognize their offspring by smell.  The cow smells her newborn baby and locks that memory into her brain.  From then on she can pick her calf out of the herd by smelling it.  She may be temporarily confused by another calf running by (thinking it’s hers), or by another calf bawling--especially if a calf lets out a bellow of pain or alarm.  In this situation almost all the cows in the herd will come running.

But if she gets a smell of the calf, she knows instantly whether it’s hers or not.  Some early stockman probably took note of this fact, and used this knowledge to make a cow take another calf in place of her own dead one--by skinning the hide off the dead calf and using it to disguise the smell of the imposter.  Stockmen have been doing it ever since.

The substitution works best when a cow loses her calf early, while it is still very young.  Her mothering instinct, due to hormonal changes during the birth process, is strongest soon after she calves, and she can be more readily convinced to accept another young calf in place of her own.  If her own calf dies after it is a few days or weeks old, it is harder to trick her into taking a different calf.  But it is always worth a try.     

The dead calf should be skinned while still fresh.  The legs can be skinned out in such a way that the hide can be put over the live replacement calf like a jacket, with the live calf’s legs going through the leg holes of the dead skin, and the calf’s head coming through the neck hole of the skin.  This holds the “jacket” in place.  If there’s a lot of size difference between the dead calf and the live one, you can simply tie the hide under the belly to help hold it in place.  You may have to trim the hide down to size, if the dead calf is a lot bigger than the substitute.

Make slits in the hide for anchoring a piece of baling twine or some other kind of twine to tie with.  The tail of the dead calf should be left attached to the skin if the hide isn’t too big for the live calf, or the end of the hide draped over the calf’s hindquarters.  The cow will smell and lick the calf’s hind end, and it had better smell like hers!  A few smells of the jacket-bearing newcomer, and most cows are convinced, or at least confused enough to let the calf nurse, and then will start mothering it.

If the cow lost her calf at birth or soon after and is still in a barn stall or pen, leave her there where she last had her own calf.  Take the body and skin it, put the hide on the substitute calf, then bring the live calf to her, like you were bringing her baby back to her.  Or, if you have moved the cow, put the new calf into the stall or pen where she lost her own calf--where she last saw and smelled him--and bring her back there.  If the cow is upset and worried about her missing calf, she may think the calf you bring (or take her back to) is her own.  The more you can do to trick her into thinking this is her own calf, the more likely you will succeed in fooling her.

Bring the “new” calf to the cow when the calf is hungry and eager to nurse.  The sooner he nurses her the better, if she lost her own calf at birth.  Nursing triggers the release of oxytocin in the cow, which stimulates motherly behavior.  You want the cow to accept the calf before she becomes suspicious.  Once the substitute calf has nursed a few times and the cow is accepting him, it is usually safe to take off the old skin.  It won’t be needed after the new pair are bonded.  The cow will mother and protect that baby as diligently as if it were her own.

Sometimes you’ll encounter a cow that is harder to convince, and not easily tricked.  She may still try to kick off the substitute calf.  If this happens, and your skin-graft trick does not fool her, keep the pair in separate adjacent pens for a few days so the cow cannot hurt the substitute calf, and leave hobbles on the cow’s hind legs so she cannot kick the calf at nursing time.  You can put them together 2 or 3 times a day for nursing, until the cow resigns herself to accepting the newcomer.            

It may take 2 days or 2 weeks to change a cow’s mind about being a mother, but she will eventually accept the calf.  If the cow is hobbled so she cannot kick the calf as it nurses, and if you give her some good hay to eat when you let the calf in with her at nursing time, she will usually stand relatively still for the calf--without trying too hard to prevent the calf from nursing.  Being fed at nursing time helps pacify her and take her mind off trying to hurt the calf.

If she is still obnoxious, such as trying to butt the calf, you may have to tie her at nursing time while she eats her hay and baby gets his dinner.  Leave a halter on her, dragging the halter rope.  Then you can easily get hold of the rope each time, and tie her up or hold her still while she eats the hay you feed her, enabling the calf to catch up with her and nurse.  After dragging the rope and stepping on it a time or two, she quickly learns to respect this restraint and is nicely halter trained.

Usually after a few days of this, even the most stubborn cows will start to resign themselves to letting the calf nurse, and you no longer have to tie them up.  Once the cow starts to show a change of heart, such as mooing at the calf, licking him, or worrying about him when you put him back into his own pen after the nursing (no longer trying to move away from him or hurt him when he’s with her), it is safe to start leaving them together.  You can leave the hobbles on a day or too longer just to make sure she doesn’t kick him when he tries to suck, but once the cow changes her mind and accepts the calf, your grafting job is successful.

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