Research seeks answers to why some cows shun calves

University student hopes to discover risk factors for mismothering and develop methods to get cows to accept calves

CALGARY — It’s a hassle for cow-calf producers when mothering issues appear between cows and calves.

A cow may not accept its calf or a twin might have to be fostered to another cow.

Whatever the circumstance, it takes time and effort to get a cow and calf together if they aren’t inclined to do so on their own.

Anneliese Heinrich is studying the mismothering issue as the focus of her PhD research at the University of Calgary. She showed the initial stages of the study in the poster portion of the Canadian Beef Industry Conference held Aug 15-17.

“There is currently little research identifying risk factors for why cows mismother. There is also little to no research offering solutions as to the best way to get a cow to accept a calf — her own or a foster,” reads Heinrich’s poster.

A survey through the Western Canadian Cow-Calf Surveillance Network is designed to provide her with more data to study the matter.

Her work also began with a survey of 15 cow-calf operations near Calgary to gauge prevalence of the problem and how producers deal with it.

The small sample size does not allow Heinrich to draw conclusions but she was surprised that cows were culled in only three of 10 reported cases of mismothering.

She suspected producers would take a harsher approach to cows that had mothering issues after calving. As well, five of 10 reported cases occurred in heifers, although anecdotally the problem occurs more frequently in heifers than in cows.

Producers who reported mismothering issues spent anywhere from an hour to a week of their time trying to resolve them. The most common reasons for fostering were twins or death of the mother.

The initial survey also asked producers how they dealt with cross-fostering calves when the need arose. Most simply leave the pair in a pen together, but draping the hide from the cow’s dead calf onto the foster calf was also common.

Reasons for mismothering are unknown, said Heinrich.

“We’re trying to figure it out basically, and then hopefully come up with some solutions to help people get cows to accept calves better,” she said.

Her study will also involve studying hormone profiles of cows and heifers around the time of calving to see if there’s a difference be-tween cows and heifers and whether calving difficulty or caesarians have a relationship to mothering.

Producers interested in providing information or learning more about the research can contact Heinrich at

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