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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Graham

Grafting a Calf

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Content Warning: discussion of dead animals and the use of the body parts to provide life for another calf.

With calving season starting for us, I wanted to do a quick post regarding how we take an orphan calf and "graft" it onto a cow. Grafting refers to the process of getting a cow to adopt an orphan calf as her own calf. This may be performed when a cow loses her own calf or when a pair of twins is born and the cow cannot support both. There are many different techniques used for this process. The most important factor when grafting a calf is the scent.

A common way to graft a calf onto a cow is by using the hide of her dead calf. If a cow loses her calf, whether it be stillborn or died as a newborn, the calf can be skinned and this hide can be placed on the orphan calf to transfer the scent. This hide can be left on for a couple of days and then removed. Depending on the time of year and the temperature, the hide may need to be removed sooner to prevent it from transferring a foul decay scent onto the calf. This technique can be performed in the field or in a small holding pen. There are two techniques that we use here to transfer a hide. I personally take the hide from the hock on the back legs around near the anus and up over the tail head. I then take from the knee on the front legs and cut a ring around the neck. By this I mean I leave an intact circle of the neck skin to allow the new calf to wear it like a turtle neck. Then I cut small slits in the leg hide and put the calf's legs through these holes. This allows me to not use twine. Garret cuts from the elbow along a straight (ish) line to the stifle, then proceeds up to the anus. Garret cuts the tail off of the body to include the scent glands with the tail head. Garret then uses twine to tie the hide around the legs of the calf. I am sure there are other ways to do it as well, let us know if you have a different trick.

Another method that we use at P Cross Ranch is to use AXE body spray. Yes, you read that right. Axe body spray is a very (VERY) strong scent and will overpower other scents existing on the calf. We use Acevet to tranquilize the cow, then spray Axe into her nose and mouth. We then spray the entire calf with the Axe to make the smell of the calf match what is in the cow's nose. The calf is placed on the tits of the cow to suck. The calf is left a little hungry with some milk in the udder and the two are let out into a small pen. This will keep the calf trying to suck while the cow is "sleepy" and will give the cow a chance to smell and lick the calf. We have found great success with this method when the hide of the dead calf is not available.

There are a few factors that need to be considered before attempting to graft a calf onto a cow. These include:

  1. The temperament of the cow- if the cow is easily stressed and flighty, then having to bring the cow into a small pen may not be an option. If the cow is aggressive towards humans, this can pose a risk. If the cow is aggressive towards the new calf, the calf is at risk and should likely be pulled away from that cow.

  2. The condition of the udder- does the cow have mastitis? Does she have enough milk to sustain this calf? What is the placement of the teats? Can a calf get onto her udder easily?

  3. The aggressiveness of the calf- Depending on the cow's temperament, the calf may need to get knocked down a few times before she lets the calf suckle. If a calf gives up after one kick from the cow, then the pairing will likely not work.

  4. The age of the calf- did the calf suck off of a cow in the past? Has the calf been on a bottle for an extended period? Often calves that have been on a bottle for long periods will not understand how to follow the cow around to try to drink. They will wait for a human to assist them. These types of pairs may always need to be locked up in a small pen to sustain the pairing.

  5. Availability of facilities- sometimes, if there is a stillborn calf and a new calf can be grafted on shortly after birth, this can be done in the field with the hide from the stillborn. However, the facilities of a headgate and small pen may be needed to perform these types of protocols. These pairs may need to remain in a small pen for many days to ensure the pair is compatible before allowing them back out into the herd.

This video shows cow, B713, who calved 1 week ago yesterday. Unforutanlty her calf was stillborn and there was nothing we could do. We pulled her calf out of the pen immediately and moved it to a location where predators could not eat it. We were hoping to use her if another cow had twins or was unable to mother a calf. However, we went a full week with no calf for this cow and her calf was fully frozen at this point. Therefore we disposed of the calf carcass. Then the neighbor called and said they had a bottle calf that we could buy. Yesterday, we pulled B713 from the cow herd and checked her udder. She still had plenty of milk and there were no signs of mastitis. We then used the Axe/Ace trick on this cow because we no longer had the deceased calf. As you can see from the video, this was a successful graft. This video was taken today when I let the pair into a larger pen to give them a chance to bond and learn to stick together in a larger area before allowing them back out with the herd.


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