Heifers That Don’t Mother Their Calves

By: Heather Smith Thomas

Some heifers reject or are slow to mother their newborn calves. Dr. Jack Whittier, University of Nebraska, says maternal behavior can be unpredictable. Producers can minimize confusion, however, by having heifers in small groups and not confined.

The calving female usually leaves the herd to go off by herself to give birth. This helps ensure that another cow or heifer won’t steal the calf, and that the calf will bond with its mother.

“Allowing them to calve out in the field by themselves is best, moving them into a pen with their calf only if they don’t bond quickly. Getting from point A to B can be a challenge, however, and may confuse a heifer and make it worse than if you’d left her alone,” he says. Knowing which ones to help and which ones to leave alone comes with experience and understanding cattle behavior. If it’s cold/windy and calf survival is at risk if bonding will be slow out in the field, you’ll have to bring the pair in for shelter.

“When the newborn gets up, it seeks the mother, until it reaches a point where it gives up—if it gets cold and weak. Monitor the pair and don’t let the calf become weak and dehydrated. Make sure it gets colostrum in a timely manner,” says Whittier. If the calf has quit trying because he’s cold, or discouraged by the heifer moving away or kicking, you can feed him another source of colostrum to give him energy and enthusiasm to continue searching for more.

If a heifer won’t let the calf suckle, restrain her and help the calf. Suckling stimulates production of oxytocin in the dam, which triggers milk let-down and mothering behavior. In many cases, a confused or indifferent heifer will accept and bond with the calf after it nurses. If the heifer is kicking the calf, hobbling her hind legs for a few hours or for the first day or two until she stops kicking will allow the calf to nurse and she will become more motherly.

If the heifer is aggressive, kicking and bunting the calf, keep them separate a day or so, in adjacent stalls or pens. They can be put together every 8 hours to allow the calf to nurse with supervision, so she doesn’t hurt the calf. In some instances a halter can be left on her, so you can pick up the trailing rope and tie her (and feed her some hay) during nursing sessions, so she won’t bunt the calf or run off. Most reluctant mothers become more interested in the calf after a day or so, but some individuals take a week or two before you can take hobbles off and leave them together.

“There are tricks to get a cow to claim a calf, such as ranchers do when grafting an orphan onto a cow that’s not its mother, and some of these can help with a bonding problem,” says Whittier. If the heifer is indifferent, stockmen use various products (to sprinkle on the calf) that encourage her to lick him.

Some heifers don’t have much milk at first and ignore their calves until they come to their milk, and then suddenly decide to mother the calf. “A complex hormone system causes birth and initiates lactation. Like any biological system, it can sometimes get a little bit out of sequence. Often if you just give the heifer a little time, things work out. I prefer to wait and see, rather than immediately jump in and try to change something. There are occasions when you need to do that, but I caution producers not to be too anxious, and let the heifer and calf figure it out,” says Whittier.

“If a cow is aggressive and kicking, or hitting the calf with her head, restraint may be needed, so she won’t hurt the calf. Don’t punish her. I’ve seen cows abused, with a stick or something, when they kick at the calf. Hurting the cow does more harm than good.” It won’t improve her attitude, and may make her harder to handle.

Patience, good husbandry, astute observation and being in tune with the cattle can be most helpful. Look for ways to overcome the problems,” says Whittier.

Sometimes a physical problem is to blame for a heifer being slow to mother the calf. A heifer with a swollen, painful udder (with hard edema or “cake”) may find nursing painful; she kicks at her calf because it hurts. You may have to assist nursing until her udder is less sore.