Placing calves with surro-gate mothers is a common procedure in spring calving.
In the past, producers bought calves from dairies, but that ran the risk of exposing the herd to new infectious organisms.
With many of the exotic breeds, twinning can reach the five to 10 percent range, with many cows twinning year after year. This leaves an ideal opportunity to take one twin and get it to suck on a foster mother.
Birth is the ideal time to place a calf with a foster cow, if the foster cow has not had a chance to lick its dead calf. Most producers will have the twins close at hand so one calf can immediately be put in with the new mother.
The easiest way to encourage the transfer is to rub the foster cow’s afterbirth or fetal fluid over the calf to change the scent and leave a large amount draped over the calf. This will usually fool even the wisest cows. Heifers are generally easier to fool than older cows, but placing the pair together in a small pen also helps. Watch for signs of bunting or kicking, which indicates the match is not going well.
Twinning mothers often do not accept both calves equally, so if possible keep them together in a small area. Once turned out, be careful because one can be abandoned. Fortunately, twins get inventive at stealing from other cows. They usually suck from behind while the cow’s own calf is nursing.
Mothering can be a problem even in single calf situations if the cow is hyper or a young heifer. In these cases, a few handfuls of grain should be placed over the calf’s back. An alternative is a commercial product called Calf Claim. Some producers use a perfume-like product over the calf and up and around the cow’s nose to trick the scent.
Abandonment is one of the most common causes of death for young calves on large ranches, especially if many are calving in a small area. It is easy for young heifers to get confused about which calf is theirs.
It becomes more difficult when an older calf dies and the mother is expected to take a new calf. At that point, it is best to skin the dead calf and tie the hide over the new calf.
This extra effort usually makes the procedure go smoothly. Tie the largest piece of hide over the calf’s midsection. It is not necessary to skin out the legs and neck. The smell will become strong after a few days, the hide will fall off and usually the switch will be successful.
Producers will often keep a few cows that should have been culled but were pregnant when examined. Especially if these cows were bred early, it may be possible to take their calves when they are born and put them with younger, more productive cows that have lost their calves. With twins, take the calf the mother is not accepting. In the case of mixed twins, select the freemartin heifer.
Several options are available to producers who have more twins than available cows:
- Bottle feed till the fostering opportunity arises.
- Sell or lease the calf to a neighbour.
- Keep high-producing nurse cows around. Nurse cows usually need dairy blood in them and they can often raise three or four calves.
These cows will usually let anything suck, so grafting multiple calves onto the same cow is not a problem.
If possible, it is nice to have them calving early with their own calf so they are producing lots of milk when they are needed. Some producers will buy three teaters or slow milkers from a dairy. Make absolutely sure the dairy farm’s health management fits closely with yours. Isolate the cow and its calves for two to three weeks to minimize disease.
Ask your veterinarian if there is anything they would recommend testing for before bringing a dairy animal onto your farm.
The same precaution applies when buying a calf for foster use. The last thing you want is to introduce scours into your herd. Make sure the calf got a good suck of colostrum when first born. If at all possible, try not to buy calves off the farm.
All these strategies allow use of twins and restore the productivity of cows that have lost calves.
Roy Lewis is a veterinarian practising in Westlock, Alta.