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Getting A Cow To Accept Her Calf

When a cow gives birth, her maternal instincts should kick in so she'll immediately tend to her baby. Unfortunately, some cows will reject their calf and not allow it to nurse.

Michelle Arnold is a ruminant extension veterinarian at the University of Kentucky. She says most behaviors of cattle are mixtures of prior experience, plus innate response.

"We know that oxytocin, the hormone, initiates and drives most maternal behavior. And that is released when the cervix and the birth canal are stimulated and stretched," she says. "So, we see this problem most often in heifers because of a combination of two things. They have less experience, and they also have a lower level of oxytocin released."

There's also the smell and taste of birth fluids that drives maternal behavior. If this process is interrupted, Arnold says it increases the likelihood of mis-mothering. Calves that are weak are at risk of being rejected, as are calves moved to a different location because the cow can't visually follow it.

If you see disconnect between cow and calf, there are some things to try.

"Sometimes smearing the birth fluid across her muzzle and tongue, and then onto the calf, will stimulate her normal response," says Arnold. "Using a strong-smelling compound on the calf and in the cow's nose has always been a very popular method, using something like Vick's Vaporub, or hairspray, or vanilla."

Arnold says these things aren't proven, but may help when used in conjunction with   penning the cow and the calf together. You may also need to restrain the cow so the calf can nurse.

If it isn't able to nurse within one-hour, you need to intervene and get colostrum into the calf.