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Bonding Tips

Once in a while, a first-calf heifer may need assistance in jump-starting her mothering instincts.

A first-calf heifer may act confused or indifferent toward her newborn calf. She may continue to lie there and not get up to lick the calf. When she finally does, she may seem surprised to see this strange new wiggling creature. The heifer may walk away, ignoring it, or she may 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 cold newborn to the barn to warm and dry it before its 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 Joseph Stookey, professor of animal behavior at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Sask.

“This seems to jump-start the maternal response. Simply pulling the newborn to the front of the mother may not be sufficient stimulus to trigger maternal behavior, especially for some first-calf heifers. Pouring feed onto a newborn calf may entice some reluctant mothers to approach the calf and eventually come in contact with birth fluids as they eat the feed. Any attractant that stimulates the cow to lick the calf would be useful,” says Stookey.

If a heifer is not interested in her calf, help it nurse. This triggers release of oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions and milk let-down and makes a cow feel more motherly. You may have to restrain her for that first nursing, so she won’t run off or try to kick the calf.

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

Some cases are more difficult if a heifer is stubborn about accepting her new calf or viciously attacks him, says Stookey. She may be very interested in her calf; her instincts tell her this is something very important and she must deal with it, 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’s on the fight, ready to protect this new calf from anything and everything, but confused and focusing all that aggression toward him.

Usually, if you stay out of sight and just monitor the situation, the heifer gets it figured out. Stookey says the best clue that she’s going to be a good mother is that she furiously licks the calf and moos at him even as she knocks him around. She just needs a little time to transmit that motherly attitude in the right direction — to encourage him to the udder instead of rooting him around so much that he can’t get up.

By contrast, if a heifer is merely knocking him around, you’ll have to intervene. If she ignores him except when he moves — and then charges at him and starts knocking him into a fence or wall — you’ll have to rescue the calf. 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) until she changes her mind. You can usually make any heifer raise her calf, but it may take up to 2 or 3 weeks of supervision, and hobbles on the heifer.

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Editor’s Note: Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer and cattlewoman from Salmon, Idaho.

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