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Here’s an idea for those who don’t want to skin a calf

— Stan Harder


As novice producers we maintained our pattern of trial and error in searching for the best method of death loss management in our cattle herd.

Some producers had no problem enduring the agony of a cow bellowing until her voice seized from overuse, or watching her run along and through fencelines looking for her calf for days on end. That’s just the way it was.

Some ignored the hazards of leaving calf carcasses around the yard, casually making them accessible to the dogs. This is a reasonable use of what is obviously a waste product but it also attracts coyotes that, after the flesh has been consumed, keep coming.

Others preferred to create a bone yard some distance from the farm. That deprived the dogs of free food but had the advantage of feeding coyotes well away from the yard.

We eventually settled on a process that worked for us. We carried the dead calf into a shelter where other cows were held to prevent predation by either feral dogs or coyotes. The dam could and would quietly stand vigil near the body for varying lengths of time, gradually leaving the spot for increasing periods until after a number of days she had accepted the reality of her calf’s death and moved back into general herd activity.

At this point we would cart the carcass to a spot well away from the yard, place it on a bed of square straw bales and dry wood, toss on a gallon of used oil and incinerate it.

We felt this gave the cow time to adjust as humanely as possible, and sent a message to the wildlife that calves were not fair game, dead or alive.

In a quarter-century of operating a beef enterprise we never lost a calf to predation, either in the yard or on range. It is difficult to pinpoint one explanation but when a system works understanding the mechanism becomes less important than appreciating the reality.

The word “graft” means different things to different people. On a cattle farm it means transplanting a relatively newborn calf on to a cow that is not its mother, a completely respectable undertaking.

There are as many recommendations for grafting calves as there are for treating the common cold and in some circumstances each has proven its worth. We too ran the gamut of techniques until we finally arrived at what, for us, was the one method that consistently produced positive results.

It all starts with the mother. The cow we may know as a normal, gentle and caring mother can become utterly contrary when asked to foster a calf.

In approaching any recently bereaved cow with another calf it is important to recognize cows are capable of extreme anger and her fury may be directed at both the calf and its owner. This is not the time for soothing words. It is a time for keyed-up vigilance.

There are reverse situations where a cow who lost her calf is so anxious to become a mother that she will aggressively target any calf of any age for adoption, even to the extent of driving the natural mother off her own calf if the dam is of inferior social status. Such a cow is best confined in a pen with animals yet to calve as she can negatively disrupt the tranquility of the herd and possibly injure the calf she is trying to steal.

Some cows will reach a sort of handshake agreement and share a calf. That this calf will be an outstanding animal in the fall is a given.

But generally there are the run-of-the-mill situations in which originally reluctant cows can be successfully persuaded to adopt and once bonded frequently become as attached to their baby as they would to their own birth calf.

Quite obviously a successful graft requires basic conditions. The cow has to lose her calf at birth and there has to be another calf on standby, almost invariably a twin, for few cows die while giving birth to a live calf.

We raised purebreds and twins were a mixed blessing. Quite disproportionately each set seemed to consist of a male and female, with the female virtually guaranteed to be an infertile freemartin good only for the freezer. Her birth mate was invariably less developed at weaning resulting in less attractive 205-day numbers. There are bull buyers who want nothing to do with a bull twin fearing an inheritance factor that increases the chances of multiple births in their own herd.

Twins born to our cows were most welcome if they came in the first half of the calving season. On occasion we kept a cow that lost a calf going by hand milking her while waiting for a twin birth. That worked well enough. We found that a cow’s tolerance to hand milking and accepting of another calf lasted a couple weeks. It seemed that the maternal instinct begins to diminish after the first week and virtually any chance of a successful transplant is lost after two.

The offset situation, where a calf is waiting for a new mother is by far the best. Such a calf would likely be a scrapper, having been obliged to compete for milk with a sibling and each day of added age brought increased vigour and sheer determination not to be dissuaded from sucking even at the cost of the occasional brutal kick to the head by an unwilling harassed mother.

The actual process of transplanting runs the range of possibilities. Some only require a simple introduction, where the foster mother accepts the calf immediately. From there the degree of difficulty descends all the way to full-blown hell.

A thing we never tried, but by popular opinion works well, is to skin the dead calf and tie its hide over the calf to be grafted. Folks favouring this method claim nearly 100 per cent acceptance.

Those less inclined to wield the knife seem to have a grocery list of techniques that may or may not work. Some believe that body smell needs to be masked and will douse both cow and calf in anything from shaving lotion to baby powder in the expectation that the cow will be confused into thinking that since the calf smells like herself it must be hers.

Others will sprinkle calf starter over the calf which when licked off by the cow is supposed to stimulate the cow to keep going and bond through her sense of taste while becoming acclimatized and attracted to the calf’s smell.

If all gentle methods fall by the wayside the only remedy seems to be to secure the cow in a head gate and squeeze, tie back her rear legs one at a time and allow the calf to assault her as she stands humiliated, frustrated and angry. This is where a week-old calf has it hands down over a newborn. He/she knows exactly what’s needed and how to go about getting it.

Others I know have resorted to outright violence by tying and actually beating the cow until she sub-

mits to being sucked. A bit of dark humour — a fellow I know was partial to this method and tells of an instance where he had eventually persuaded his cow that the only way to avoid a serious beating was to allow the foster calf to suck. To this end he carried the handle of a hockey stick in his half ton and a few times each day would step into the holding pen, rope and beat this cow into submission at which time the calf would then suck. In due course a pattern developed. The calf sort of hung around the cow and as soon as this guy appeared at the gate with his hockey stick in hand the calf would rush over to the cow which would allow it to feed. But only then and at no other time was this calf fed voluntarily. The principle of cause and effect may well be taught to animals, if not humans.

We preferred a combination of psychology and oblique persuasion. Recognizing cows are deeply ingrained herd animals we capitalized on this trait by removing that comfort. We built a holding pen inside the barn, approximately 130 square feet, large enough not to be too confining. At the far end we built another pen approximately 40 square feet, which was separated from the main pen by a metal gate about a foot or so off the floor and 3-1/2 feet high with iron bars spaced every three inches. This gate opened by swinging up and closed by swinging down rather than moving sideways in the usual arc.

The foster mother to be was confi ned in the large pen and her adoptive baby placed in the small enclosure. The cow could see, hear and smell the calf but not get at it. When the barn was otherwise empty the only company she had was this calf.

At mealtime we opened her access door, which led to a head gate with a ration of high-quality grain at the front of it. The routine worked well enough. Open the pen gate, close the head gate and bring junior to the table. The first few times we’d tie her hind leg back for the calf’s safety but in most cases it was not needed after a few tries.

When the cow began to show an interest in the penned calf by talking to it we knew bonding was in progress and shortly after mother and calf would make their way outside good as new.

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