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Tricks to grafting a calf

Since the beginning of time a common procedure in spring calving is cross-grafting calves onto surrogate mothers. It used to be if a beef cow had lost her calf, a new calf was bought from a dairy, but that brought with it the risk of exposing the beef herd to new infectious organisms such as scours.

With a lot of the exotic breeds, instances of twinning can reach the five to 10 per cent range with many cows twinning year after year. This creates an ideal opportunity to steal one twin (provided both were born alive) and get it sucking on a foster mom. The cow is thus productive and most beef cows only have enough milk for one calf.

Graft early

With the surrogate mother, the ideal time to graft a new calf with her is right at birth, if the cow has not had time 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 graft calf to change the scent. Leave a large amount of the tissue and liquid 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 cow-calf pair together in a small pen is helpful. Watch for telltale signs of bunting or kicking indicating the match is not going well.

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

In cows that are hyper or 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 “Calf Claim” can help with the bonding process. Some producers apply a perfume-like product over the calf and around the cow’s nose to trick their scent.

One of the most common causes of death of young calves on large ranches is abandonment, especially if many animals are calving in a small area. It is easy for young heifers to get confused about which calf is theirs.

Older calves

If older calves die and grafting is desired, the situation becomes more difficult. It is best to skin the dead calf and tie the hide over the back of 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 awhile. Their struggling and bawling will attract the cow and may initiate bonding.

Often producers will keep a few cows to serve as calf donors. They 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. When deading with twin calves, steal the calf the mother is not accepting as well, or if this appears equal select the freemartin heifer in the case of mixed-sex twins.

Too many twins

If you’re ending up with more twins than you can handle, there are several options available.

Bottle feed one calf until the opportunity to graft arises; you can sell or lease the calf to a neighbour; and you can also have high-producing nurse cows available for just this purpose. 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 them 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.

Be careful

A big caution here though is make absolutely sure the management of the dairy fits closely to what you are doing. 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 provide a higher return the next fall. But be absolutely sure to isolate the pair for at least two weeks. The last thing you want is for a calf purchase to introduce scours to your herd. Be absolutely sure the calf got a good suck of colostrum when first born. If at all possible try not to purchase calves off farm. Others may keep a potential surrogate cow milking in the hopes an extra twin will come along.

These strategies allow producers to make good productive use of twins and orphans and can make productive cows out of ones destined to be culled. †

About the author

Columnist

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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