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A few tricks to grafting calves

Animal Health: It makes good economics to find replacement calves for productive cows

cow and calf

Since the beginning of time, a common procedure in spring calving is cross-grafting calves onto surrogate mothers. It used to be calves were bought from dairies but you do run the risk of exposing your herd to infectious organisms such as scours. With many of the exotic breeds such as Maine Anjou, twinning can reach the five to eight per cent range with many cows twinning year after year. This leaves an ideal opportunity to steal one twin (provided both were born alive) and get it sucking on a foster mom who lost her calf. The birth cow is therefore more productive and most beef cows only have enough milk for one growthy calf anyways.

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The ideal time to graft is right at birth if the cow has not had the chance to lick her dead calf. Most producers will have the twins close at hand so they can immediately be thrown in with their new mother. It’s easiest to rub the afterbirth or fetal fluid of the cow all over the replacement calf to change the scent and leave a large amount draped over the calf. This will usually fool even the wisest of cows. Heifers are generally easier to fool than the wise multiparous cow, but placing the pair together in a small pen is also helpful. Watch for the telltale signs of bunting or kicking indicating the match is not going well.

Often mothers do not accept one twin as well so if you need to keep them together keep in a small area. Once turned out into a larger pen or field it is likely to be abandoned. Fortunately twins get very inventive at stealing milk from other cows. They usually suck from behind while the cow’s own calf is nursing.

Grafting tricks

If cows are hyper, or in dealing with young heifers, mothering can even be a problem with their own calf. This is where a few handfuls of grain placed over the calf’s back or the use of a commercial product such as “Calf Claim” helps to encourage bonding. Some producers use a perfume-like product over the calf and applied around the cow’s nose to trick their scent.

Calf abandonment is one of the most common causes of death for young calves on large ranches, especially if many are calving in a small area. It is easy for young heifers to get mixed up as to which calf is theirs. I have seen hobbles used on cows for several days to allow the grafted calf to suckle a hyper mother.

If older calves die and grafting is desired the situation becomes more difficult. It is best then to skin the dead calf and tie the hide over the new calf. This extra effort in skinning usually makes the grafting procedure go smoothly. Take the largest piece of hide over the midsection of the calf. It is not necessary to skin out the legs and neck. After a few days the smell will become great the hide will fall off and generally the grafting will be successful. Older calves can even be hog-tied for a short while. Their struggling and bawling will attract the cow and may initiate bonding.

To secure “extra” calves, often producers will keep over a few cows, which are really culls but were pregnant when examined. Especially if these cows were bred early the opportunity may present itself to steal their calf and graft it on to a younger more productive cow, which has lost her calf. With twins, steal the calf the mother is not accepting as well or if this appears equal select the freemartin heifer in the case of mixed twins.

Too many extras

If twinning success numbers are getting way ahead of grafting requirements, several options are available.

Bottle-feeding till the opportunity arises, selling or leasing the calf to a neighbour, and having high producing nurse cows around will all be a benefit. The nurse cows usually need some dairy blood in them and they can often raise three or four calves quite easily. These cows will usually let anything suck so grafting multiple calves onto the same cow is not a problem.

If possible it is nice to have the nurse cows calving early with their own calf so they are heavily producing when you need them. Some producers will purchase three-teaters or slow milkers from a dairy for this purchase. A big CAUTION to prevent introducing disease is to make absolutely sure the management of the dairy fits in close to what you are doing and get the cows early before calving is initiated. Isolate the cow and her calves for two to three weeks to minimize the spread of any disease. Talk to your veterinarian if there is anything he/she would recommend testing for before bringing a dairy animal onto your premise.

If purchasing a calf for grafting the same precautions apply. Make sure the management of the operation is similar to yours. Beef calves will return you a higher return the next fall. But be absolutely sure to isolate the pair for two weeks. The last thing you want is to introduce scours into your herd through a calf purchase. Be absolutely sure the calf got a good feed of colostrum when first born. If at all possible try not to purchase calves off farm. Others may keep a cow milking in the hopes an extra twin will come along.

All these strategies allow utilizing twins and making productive cows out of ones destined to be culled.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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