Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother

Devin Kelly
16 Min Read

Easily one of my most frustrating, yet ultimately rewarding, experiences on the homestead came in the process of convincing an ornery Angus to adopt a newly-orphaned calf.  Grafting an orphan—whether lamb, kid, calf, foal, or piglet—onto a surrogate mother is often the most efficient and healthy option in an otherwise unfortunate situation.  Many times the two will take to each other smoothly.  However, there will undoubtedly be some instances where either is so stubborn you’ll wonder which side of sanity you’re standing on, and begin questioning the motives that led you to this particularly exhausting juncture in life.  So, before you find yourself an hour into milking a wild cow only to be knocked backward over the bucket with an udder full of milk soaking into your jeans, I’m going to share a few experiences I’ve had and the kinds of problems that arose.

If you regularly work with livestock, you will likely encounter an orphaned baby at some point.  At the homestead, we learn to expect the unexpected.  Sometimes, that might entail death due to birthing complications or an unfortunate accident shortly after childbirth.  Other times, a baby will become orphaned because the mother rejects it and refuses to let it nurse.  In addition, if a mother births multiples, it is likely that at least one of the babies will be underfed and undernourished.  In these cases, you might choose to graft one of the babies onto another mother.  An orphaned animal is potentially a huge liability on a farm.  The situation can become a stressful and delicate balance between ensuring the orphan’s health and minimizing expenses and unnecessary time allocation.

Photo by Jay Bohnsack

Last spring, while the other farmers and I were making our rounds through the pastures looking for newborn calves, we heard a new calf bleating incessantly, quite some distance away from the herd.  The mother had died sometime shortly after birthing, leaving the dogie without a source of colostrum and milk during the most impressionable and important hours of his new life.  We would have to train him to bottle feed while we sought an alternative solution.

Early the next morning, we became alarmed when we heard one of the mother cows bawling.  Our neighbor told us that she had been bawling all night, and when we walked out to see her, it became apparent why she was so distraught: her calf had been stillborn or had died shortly after birth.  I was impressed to witness that the power of a mother’s love can transcend species and cognitive prowess, and to be so heart-broken indicated that she might have made a great mother.

Suddenly, we had two unforeseen problems on our hands, and they were counterparts of the same equation.  Bottle-feeding can be costly and an inefficient use of time.  In my experience, bottle-fed babies never seem to receive the same quality nutrition afforded to naturally-fed babies.  In just about every case I can recall, their growth has been stunted, they seem to lack the social skills developed within the herd, and bloat and scours can become an issue even when transitioning to pasture.  Finding the optimal feeding regiment to complement their development poses an inherent challenge with little room for error or variation.  It can be time-consuming in an occupation/lifestyle where the notion of spare time is as fantastical as unicorns and leprechauns.  Coupled with the necessities of a mother who has lost her baby, grafting to a foster mother quickly becomes the most efficient and gratifying alternative.

A mother who lost her baby in the throes of birthing or the critical days that follow can be at risk for other complications.  Udder pressure on a new mother can begin to build, becoming painful and posing a risk for problems like mastitis.  “First-calvers”, or first-time mothers, tend to have especially prolific udders.  Milking the mother at 12-hour intervals can take valuable time away from other projects but might be necessary, especially among dairy breeds.  And if the mother is not used to being milked by hand, you could be in for a wild ride.  Posed with both of these problems, the solution seemed obvious: we decided to graft the dogie onto the new mother.  As most things go, this particular case turned out to be much easier said than done.  Below are a few steps to consider should you ever find yourself posed with a similar situation.  Even though much of the article references a cow and calf, most of these techniques can be used for all species of livestock.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother Part One: Ensure You Have the Means to Properly Guide or Control the Animals

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother

Grafting a calf takes time, often anywhere from 7 to 14 days.  In some cases, the mother will take to the calf immediately, but consider those instances the exception to the rule.  It is likely that at some point during the grafting process, it will be advantageous to either lead or tie the mother.  Putting a halter on her immediately will help keep your blood pressure lower when that point arises.  If she is not halter-broke yet, leave the lead-rope on so that she learns to give toward pressure.  It can also be a huge advantage to halter-train the calf early on.  If you do put a halter on the calf and begin working with him, make sure you remove the lead-rope so the mother doesn’t step on it during nursing.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother Part Two: Isolate the Mother and Baby Together Away From the Herd

The first and easiest step is to pair the two together in a pen where they are separated from the herd and in a safe environment where they can be calm and become introduced.  It is important to keep an eye on them, especially the first times they are penned together, because the mother could become anxious or suspicious and reject the calf.  The calf might try to feed and if the mother is distraught and nervous, she could cow-kick at the calf, causing injury.  If the calf persists, this aggression can turn into head-butting and charging.  If the mother is showing signs of aggression toward the calf, it is best to introduce a barrier into the pen so that they can be separated from each other while still given the chance to become acquainted.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother Part Three: Distract the Mother

Offer the mother some hay or grain while the calf attempts to nurse.  The hay can provide a distraction for the mother and pacify her while the calf becomes comfortable with the new surroundings and the process of nursing.  Cows are very scent-oriented and use it to recognize their own calves.  By feeding the mother, you are also keeping her nose pointed away from the stranger-calf and occupied with eating.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother Part Four: Confuse the Olfactory

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother

While simply penning the two together might be enough for the mother to begin nursing the calf, many mothers will require more convincing.  Because the mother smells that the new calf is not her own, you might have to fool her olfactory.  If the surrogate mother has recently given birth and you still have access to the fresh placenta, you can use it to cover the calf in the scent of her afterbirth.  Be liberal with the fluids and afterbirth and try to cover the calf as thoroughly as you can.  If the mother has just given birth, her instincts will be to begin licking her calf clean; this is the first—and perhaps most important—bonding time between the mother and her new calf.  To persuade her to mimic this action with the orphan, you can sprinkle salt or molasses along the back and head of the calf.  The intention is to persuade the mother to lick the calf clean, and in doing so, recreate the initial bonding motions and convince her that it is, in fact, her calf.

If you do not have access to the afterbirth, you can attempt to fool the mother’s olfactory by using either manure or camphor vapor rub around her snout.  There are also commercial products designed specifically for this purpose.  Using her own manure around her snout will cause her to recognize her own scent, and hopefully she attributes it to the calf in the pen with her.  Using a vapor rub serves to mask the scent entirely, and hopefully her instincts to be a good mother will be enough to let the calf start nursing.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother Part Five: Collect the Mother’s Milk

Depending on the situation, you might need to milk the mother by hand to relieve some of the pressure on her udder.  This udder pressure can be an advantage, prompting the mother to let the calf nurse, but at a certain point it can become dangerous or cause the udder to be overly sensitive, and she will reject the calf’s attempts even more.  If the calf is still only a day or two old, and the foster mother birthed within the previous three days, it is best to try to milk the mother for colostrum immediately.  Colostrum contains antibodies and other nutritional benefits that are crucial to the newborn calf for a healthy start.  If the calf is older, or the mother is no longer producing colostrum, it is still advantageous to collect some of her milk to bottle feed to the calf.  The sooner you can get the surrogate mother’s milk through the calf, the sooner his manure will begin to carry the mother’s scent, thereby further fooling her olfactory.  The milk can also be used to cover the calf directly, soaking him in the scent of the mother’s milk.  With his coat wet, you can try the salt trick again, hopefully prompting the mother to lick the calf clean, causing her maternal instincts to supersede her hesitation toward the calf.

Grafting an Orphan Calf to a Surrogate Mother
Photo by Pete & Lynne

The old cowboy trick is to skin the dead calf and drape the pelt over the orphaned calf, convincing the mother that it is her biological baby.  This technique has been around for hundreds of years, and many sources agree that it has the highest and fastest success rate.  In many circumstances, this will not be an option, but in a situation where the calf has recently died and the coat is still fresh, I would recommend beginning the grafting with this technique.  If you are not practiced in skinning dead animals, the process could take much longer than expected, and you will have to decide whether it is worth your time.  There are a few tricks, though, and generally it should not take more than an hour or two to produce a skin, even for somebody who lacks experience.  There are a number of resources available with instructions on various skinning methods, and you should be able to find one conducive to your set-up.  While some people might find the process upsetting, keep in mind that the primary goal is to save the life of the orphaned calf and ensure he gets the best nutrition possible.

Repeat the Process

Remember that this process will take time.  Keep the pair isolated from the rest of the herd during the grafting process (and separated if the mother is aggressive).  Continue to bottle-feed the calf using as much of the mother’s milk as possible.  Ideally, the calf will develop a preference for the mother’s milk over the formula mix and continue trying to nurse.  Devote some of your time in the morning and evening to supervising the process and repeating the steps mentioned above.  Try to time your bottle-feeding sessions so that the calf is still hungry when you are working with the pair.  Hopefully within the first few days you will already see improvement.  Once the mother has accepted the new calf, you have successfully grafted and are usually free to turn the happy pair out to the rest of the herd.

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