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What to Do When a Cow Won't Accept a Calf

| Updated September 26, 2017

Whether you have one breed cow or a herd of breed cows, when a cow gives birth, you never know what will happen. Generally a cow will have no difficulty giving birth to her calf. It is what may happen after she delivers her calf that becomes a problem. One of the most common, particularly for first-time-mother cows, is rejection of her calf.

First-Time Heifer Mother

Oftentimes a maiden cow, referred to as a heifer, will initially reject her newborn calf. One of the reasons for this is that the new mother has no experience with a calf nursing on her teats. It is an unfamiliar sensation, and the mother's first reaction is to move away. Therefore, it is important that as soon as possible after the birth of the calf, you observe the cow/calf pair to determine whether the mother is allowing the calf to nurse.

If she is not, isolate the cow and calf into a small corral or pen. If the cow is manageable, where you can halter and rope her, do so. Then, as she is tied to a post or someone holds her steady, guide the newborn calf to a teat, squeeze a little milk onto the calf's face, and guide the calf's mouth onto the teat. The calf should have a natural instinct to begin nursing. You may need to do this several times over the next 2 to 3 days until the mother cow feels comfortable with the calf nursing.

Mother cows that are not easy to handle will need to be placed in what is called a head chute. This restricts the cow from moving around or away from the calf. Once she is restrained, follow the same method of introducing the teat to the calf as you would for a tamer mother cow.

It is important that you get the calf to nurse from its mother as quickly as possible, because the first milk in the mother's udder is rich with colostrum, a natural fluid of antibiotics for the calf. Without colostrum, the calf has no resistance against infections and diseases. You can purchase colostrum formulas, as well as calf milk substitutes, to supplement your calf or, in the case of total rejection of a calf by its mother, to completely supply the calf's nutritional needs by bottle feeding the calf. If you choose to bottle feed your rejected calf, you should bottle feed it per the instructions on the milk substitute formula package.