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Bonding tips for reluctant mothers

Cow and calf in a pen in a bonding process.

Sometimes a heifer is confused or indifferent toward her newborn calf. She may continue to lie there and doesn’t get up to lick the calf, and when she does she seems surprised to see this strange new wiggling creature behind her. She may walk away, ignoring it, or kick the calf when it gets up and staggers toward her. Some heifers attack the calf if it 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 mother has a chance to lick it, this may also disrupt 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,” says Joe Stookey, a researcher with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

“This seems to jump-start the maternal response,” he says. “Simply pulling the newborn to the front of the mother may not be sufficient stimulus to trigger maternal behaviour, especially for some first-calf heifers. Pouring feed onto a newborn calf may also 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.”

If a heifer is not interested in her calf, 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. You may have to restrain the cow (at least the first time) for the nursing, so she won’t run off or kick the calf.

Oxytocin is associated with maternal behaviour. “If you can stimulate milk let-down a few times by assisting the calf in nursing, the hormone comes on board and improves maternal behaviour,” says Stookey. “Oxytocin can switch off the heifer’s aggression, reluctance or fear, and turn it into interest and mothering.” These hormones can completely change a heifer’s attitude.


Some cases are more difficult. Sometimes a heifer is stubborn about accepting her new calf or may viciously attacks it. You may need to keep her from injuring or killing her calf. If she’s in a barn or pen she may slam him into the wall or fence. She 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 it.

From the Canadian Cattlemen website: Late weaning

Usually if you stay out of sight and monitor the situation, the heifer figures it out. The best clue she’s on her way to becoming a good mother is if she furiously licks the calf and moos at him even as she knocks him around. She just needs more time to transmit a motherly attitude in the right direction to encourage him to nurse instead of rooting him around.

By contrast, if a heifer is NOT licking her calf, and merely knocking him around, you’ll have to intervene. If she ignores him except when he moves — charges at him and 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 the calf 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 heifer raise her calf, but it may take up to two to three supervised nursings, and hobbles on the heifer.

If a cow won’t mother her calf, you may be able to kick-start her protective instincts and change her mind by bringing a dog into the pen. The urge to protect a calf from predators is so strong that this will often get a cow excited and upset about the dog. She will think about the calf and want to protect him. This may help her develop an interest in the calf and she’ll start to mother it.

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841.

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