Trying to Get Our Cow to Accept a Calf – Part 1

We hadn’t done much research when we made the decision to bring a calf on the farm for the cow to “adopt” so that we wouldn’t have to milk her during my husband’s shoulder healing (read about that here).  Had we done some research we would have realized that it was a very long shot and we would have been horribly discouraged.  As it was, I did that research AFTER the calf arrived, which led to quite a bit of regret and discouragement.  Most of what I read said that she was too far from calving for it to work well.  They said it should be within the first week and she is 3 weeks out.  And that the best way to make her accept the calf was to make it smell like her own with placenta or the hide of her dead calf.  We didn’t have either.  But we pressed on and gave it a good try anyway.

The calf arrived Friday afternoon at about 4pm.  She has been being milked in the evenings at about 8:15pm and then in the mornings at 6am.  We decided the best thing to do would be to put the calf in the stall we built in her stall and let them get acquainted over the stall wall for a few hours and then try letting him nurse while she was in the stanchion.

I must break in here to say that the calf was so. darn. cute.  When my husband opened the back of the truck the first words out of my mouth were “she better accept him because I can’t give him back, he is too darn cute!”  It did feel very nice to have another calf on the farm again!

We put him in the calf stall and watched the two of them.  She was way interested in him, leaning her head over the edge, trying to get a good sniff.  Unfortunately, this stall was built with our standard jersey in mind, and Violet is so short that she had trouble getting a really good look or sniff.

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So we left them like that until milking time.  Then we put Violet in the milking stanchion, with her food to eat and distract her.  We hobbled both her back legs to each other to protect the calf from injury, and then we brought him out.  We had the calf on a halter and my husband led him over and helped guide him.

The second he touched Violet’s side she was not having it.  She snapped her head up and started kicking.  Being hobbled made kicking difficult but she gave it a good try.  She kicked and kicked.  The calf was hungry, so when he realized the kicks weren’t getting him he went right ahead and started nursing.  Man she was MAAAAD.  She kicked and swerved and kicked.  He ate and ate, even with her indignation.  Then he did what all calves do to encourage let-down…he butted her udder with his head.  That was the last straw for her.  She exploded…and broke the hobbles.  My husband was able to grab the calf and swerve out of the way in time so neither the calf, nor my husband was hurt (though I don’t think wrangling a calf is on the doctor-approved shoulder exercises list).

My husband got some rope and re-hobbled her back two legs while I held the calf a safe distance away.  Then he led the calf back again.  Again she went into a kicking frenzy while hobbled.  The calf was able to eat some more before she broke the hobbles again and my husband decided that was enough for the night.  He put the calf back in the calf stall and calmed Violet down with some brushing and his calming spirit (he is really amazing with animals).  Then, once she had calmed, he milked out what was left.

All the while I was thinking, “the owner told us this cow had stanchion nursed two different calves last year!  What the heck?  Could she have completely forgotten it or what!?”

We put them all to bed for the night and went into the house, worried and discouraged.  Was this what it looked like right before a cow adopted a calf that wasn’t hers?  Not likely.

The next morning milking time came.  Our renter agreed to help my husband (thank goodness!).  The same scene played out, except that the calf wasn’t very interested in nursing and gave up very quickly.  More discouragement.  More hand-milking with an injured shoulder.  And now worry as to why the calf wasn’t hungry.  Was he ill?

We closed them each in their stalls and came inside for breakfast.  About two hours later we went out to let all the animals out of the barn and found a shocking situation.  The cow had broken down the barrier between her and the calf.  This is a barrier that our Jersey tried to break several times with no success when we were weaning her baby.  This is a barrier that was screwed into the wall with 8 screws!  The calf could not have done it, he was too small.  It had to have been Violet.  But how!?  And more importantly, why!?  Nonetheless, there they were, in the stall together with the broken wooden stall barrier on the floor under them.

Had she decided she wanted him?  He didn’t look hurt.  Maybe she had accepted him!  We quickly let the two of them into the barnyard but it was soon apparent she was not happy with his presence.  He followed her around like a good little calf following his mama, and she kept throwing her head at him and making it clear she didn’t want him near her.  Why did she break the barrier?  We have no idea, but she did not want the calf near her.  It was heartbreaking to watch him try to get to her and then be chased off.

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We went about our morning routine, letting animals out.  The sheep saw the new addition right away and ran right over to investigate.  The calf was scared of these new wooly, jacket-wearing, creatures that were running at him and he took off towards the only thing he knew as safety, his “mama.”  Out of nowhere Violet ran right at the sheep, head down to butt them, CLEARLY protecting the calf from them.  They stopped and she threw her head at them a few more times, driving home the point until they backed off.  The calf trotted up to her side, like a calf would with its mama, and stood there next to her.  She didn’t chase him off!  We were shocked, and so excited.  Had the instinct to protect him kicked in her mothering instincts and had she decided he was hers?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.  She let him stand near her a few minutes, and then chased him away again.

The one thing we did notice though was that she wasn’t being aggressive about it.  She wasn’t trying to hurt him or really kicking at him.  I have seen horses with another horse’s foal and they can be extremely aggressive and hurt the baby.  I’ve read cows hurt calves other than their own too.  So we were a bit hopeful since she wasn’t being outright aggressive.

We decided that we needed to leave them together in the barnyard, but have someone always watching to be sure she didn’t get aggressive and hurt him.  My husband had some work to do, so I brought over a lawn chair and settled in.  It was during this time that I started searching the internet for information about getting a cow to accept a calf.  And this is when some more discouragement set in.  After reading the facts that I listed in the first paragraph I felt that maybe we had just made a big mistake and were in for a long battle only to return the calf later this week.

My husband joined me in the cow/calf watching (who needs TV?) and we started discussing what I had read.  As we talked we noticed that Violet was being less insistent with the calf staying away.  She was letting him stand next to her, touching her, as long as he didn’t go near her udder.  If he did she would throw her head at him and kick, but again, it wasn’t aggressive and it was clear she never meant to make contact with him with her hoof or her head.  He got the point and wasn’t insistent about nursing.  Instead he settled into just being happy she was letting him be near her.

Some of the things I had read online were about how it is important for a calf to smell like its surrogate mom so she would think it was hers.  As I said above the ideal way to accomplish this was with a placenta or the hide of her dead calf.  But some other suggestions were to put her urine on him, or her milk.  As we sat contemplating this, and contemplating how unappealing the urine idea was we watched the calf go behind Violet, and right at that moment she started urinating, and it got right on him.  Ha!  Thanks Violet!  That took care of that option.  Unfortunately, we didn’t notice her notice his smell, nor did it seem to make a difference to her.

We continued taking turns “cowsitting.”  She continued to insist he not nurse, but she also continued to let him hang out with her and touch her.  He even licked her side for a while and she seemed to enjoy the attention.  It got to the point where we felt like she had accepted him as a member of her herd, just not as her calf.

We needed a break for dinner and we could not trust them alone, so we closed him in the newly re-built calf stall.  We decided to put some of her milk on his head at that point and see if it helped the situation.  We rubbed it in and went inside.

When we came out an hour later he, along with the barrier wall, was covered with slobber.  Clearly, she had been licking him.  So we hurried to let him out and we poured some more milk on his head and neck and over his rump.  She came over and began licking him.  He also got some of the milk in his mouth and I think this spurred him on to realize how very hungry he was.

If you remember, he hadn’t had much of a meal that morning.  He now became very insistent about nursing.  He kept trying and she kept rejecting him.  And the more he ignored her gentle demands, the more aggressive she got.  It got to the point where she kicked a very real, and very hard kick in his direction, barely missing him.  We were worried for his safety at this point and knew we had to intervene.  We went in the barnyard and haltered him and took him away from her.

More of this adventure to come…

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5 thoughts on “Trying to Get Our Cow to Accept a Calf – Part 1

  1. Again, I love reading your experiences! I will be praying for Violet to adopt the calf – have you named him yet? Or are you waiting to see how things play out?

    Also praying for your husbands shoulder.

    Wishing you all the blessings God has to bestow.

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  2. I have had good luck for many years on ” nurse cows” using this method. First, the calf needs to smell like the nurse cow. Milk about a gallon of milk and wet the hair of the calf including the head and shoulders and the rear end. take a small amount of the cows manure and apply to head, down the back and over hips and under tail. The cow will naturally want to smell the calf. If the calf smells like her ,she will better accept the calf

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