Calves usually load up on colostrum the first nursing, gaining a high level of antibodies and sufficient energy and nutrients to get them off to a good start. Then they may play or lie down for a nap, nursing again in six to eight hours. A calf that wants to nurse sooner than that probably didn’t get enough the first time. If you are feeding a calf by bottle or supervising the nursing of a cow or heifer whose calf needs help, make sure he gets a full meal every eight hours. Don’t wait 12 hours; that’s too long between meals for a newborn calf.
Sometimes the cow is the reason a calf can’t nurse; she might have a sore udder, or frost-bitten teats. A heifer might have a lot of swelling (cake) in her udder and it’s tender so she kicks the calf. Some heifers are confused at first and won’t stand still. You may have to restrain her to suckle the calf. Usually, once the calf has nursed, the heifer will accept him. Nursing stimulates production of hormones that encourage her to feel more motherly.
If she won’t let you help him nurse, restrain her in a head-catch and tie a hind leg back so she won’t kick you or the calf as you help him nurse. Put a double loop of rope (half hitch) around her leg above the fetlock joint. She’ll kick out of a single loop. Leave enough slack in the rope that she can put weight on that leg comfortably. Otherwise she’ll keep kicking and fighting.
A calf’s sucking reflex is strongest right after birth. If for some reason he doesn’t nurse right away (and gets chilled), or the cow has big teats and he can’t nurse, he may lose that eagerness and it can be more difficult to help him. A healthy calf will try to suck on anything, at first. This is the time to give him a bottle or get him on a teat, rather than waiting until he gives up. If he’s scared or stubborn when you try to guide him to the udder, or won’t nurse when you stick a teat in his mouth, milk a little from the cow into a bottle and get him drinking from it. It’s easier to get some trickling down his throat with a nipple than to force him to nurse a teat, especially if the cow is nervous or not standing still. Back him into a corner or have someone stand behind him and rub his back end while you get him sucking the bottle. Once he gets some swallows of colostrum, he’ll want more, and it’s easier to get him sucking the teat.
Don’t fight with him or he may refuse to nurse. For a timid or reluctant calf, keep a low profile and don’t push him around. Make it seem like his idea. If the cow is tolerant, one person can stay behind the calf to keep him from backing away from the udder, rubbing his butt (like mama licking him). Vigorous rubbing of his hind end, rather than pushing on him to hold him there, works best. Pushing on a calf makes him resist and back up more, whereas your rubbing or mama’s licking makes him think about nursing.
Don’t handle his head or mouth any more than necessary, or he may resist. Just slip the teat into his mouth with your finger. Help him onto each teat, to make sure he gets a full meal of colostrum, but also let him try on his own once he’s had a taste. He needs to learn how to get on the teat by himself. A newborn calf must learn to maneuver his mouth and tongue to get hold of the teat. If you always stick it into his mouth when he loses it, he won’t learn how to grab it with his tongue. If the teats are long or big they may be hard to get onto, but he must learn how.
HeatherSmithThomasrancheswithher husbandLynnnearSalmon,Idaho.Contact herat208-756-2841