How to graft an orphan calf

Orphaned calves happen. So do cows that lose a calf. Here are some ways to turn that into a happy outcome.

Heather Smith Thomas

February 20, 2019

10 Min Read
Suckling calf
Sometimes it takes a little intervention to help a cow that has lost a calf accept a grafted orphan. This can be done in a chute, but better success happens in a pen. Note, however, the rope tied to the cow’s leg. Flying hooves hurt calf and human alike, and safety is always paramount when grafting a calf.

In spite of your best efforts, it sometimes happens. Maybe a first-calf heifer refuses to accept her new baby. Maybe a cow has twins or you lose a calf to bad weather, predators or any number of hazards that come with ranching.

More than likely, at some time or another, you’re going to have a calf without a mother or a mama cow without a calf. When that happens, it’s necessary to graft the orphan or substitute calf onto another cow. 

Buddy Westphal, a Charolais breeder with Valley View Charolais Ranch near Polson, Mont., has many years’ experience and good success adopting a calf onto a heifer or young cow that loses her own.

“I occasionally have a 15- or 16-year-old cow I’ll pull the calf off [to sell the older cow] and let a younger cow raise it. We also have a dozen or more sets of twins each year and graft the extra calf onto another mother,” he says.

The traditional method is skinning a dead calf and putting the hide on a substitute calf.  “This works, but there are easier ways. For the past 20-some years, we have been using a combination of a little tranquilizer for the cow and ‘bonding’ powder sprinkled on the calf,” he says. 

“We use a commercial product that smells terrible, but cows seem to like it. We put some on the calf [dampening him with a wet towel, sprinkling the powder on and massaging it into the hair] and also take a handful and smear it on the cow’s nose. It has a salty tang, and the cow wants to lick it off the calf,” he says.

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“The first time someone tried to sell me some of that stuff, I smelled it and thought it was a bad joke. But once I tried it, I was convinced. The label says it’s 95.24% animal protein and 4.76% ammonia — which is probably why it smells so bad and burns your nostrils and makes your eyes water,” Westphal says.

The salty taste may be why cows love it. Amniotic fluid around the calf — which the cow licks off to get him dry — is very salty. “A cow will lick a calf after you put this powder on, but to make sure the cow is receptive and won’t kick the calf, I give her a tiny bit of tranquilizer. Even an aggressive, willing calf that gets kicked a couple times will back off and quit trying,” he explains.

Sleepy time

“You only need a small dose of tranquilizer, but you need a prescription from your veterinarian, and directions to use it; only a partial dose will make the cow sleepy.”  Dosage is determined by her size, weight, and also her attitude. “If she is mellow, it takes less than if she is excited and upset with a lot of adrenalin pumping,” Westphal says.

A proper dose makes her just sleepy enough that she doesn’t think about kicking. “She’s mellow and lets you quietly help the calf nurse without having to put her in a chute. You can take time to get the calf sucking, and this stimulates the proper hormones, without getting the cow upset,” he says.

“I don’t recommend this with a wild cow that’s trying to jump out of the pen; the key is being able to do it calmly. The combination of the powder and sedative works well.”

The last thing you want to do, however, is overdose the cow and make her want to lie down and sleep. “If you do it right, it works very well, and it’s worked 100% of the time for us,” Westphal says.

“When the cow wakes up, the calf has already sucked, and she’s a mother. With the powder on the calf’s back, she wants to lick it. The calf is happy because he’s had dinner, and the cow is happy because she smells that stuff on him and licks it.” The calf has nursed, which stimulated oxytocin release in the cow’s body, and she’s more motherly.

“Giving her an injection of oxytocin can also help because it stimulates milk letdown. Your veterinarian can prescribe the oxytocin,” he says.

Having cows that are easy to work with, without stirring them up, really helps, and a tranquilizer enables you to do more with the cow — without having to restrain her. “For many years, I had the calf suck with the cow in a chute so he wouldn’t get kicked. After I learned that I could use a tranquilizer instead of having to restrain the cow, it was a lot easier, and easier on the cow.”

You can do this in a small pen or barn stall and leave the pair together, right where the calf learned to suck. “That’s much better than letting the cow run out of a chute, with the calf not knowing that was his mama. Using a chute can make a calf think that’s the only place to suck, but if he’s loose and rubbing against the cow when he learns, everything is correct from the beginning.”

Hobbles help

Most cows or heifers accept the calf after one nursing, but a few still try to kick him and may need hobbles for a few days. “We often put a substitute calf on another cow because we have so many twins, and with the tranquilizer trick, you know within an hour whether she’ll love it,” he says.

Homemade hobbles

When getting a cow to accept an orphan calf in the pen, it’s often helpful to hobble the cow so she can’t kick the calf. Homemade hobbles can be made from baling twine.

If some are a little slow to accept the calf, he runs the dog past, and the cow’s protective instinct kicks in. “That’s usually a good test; the cow will generally look up that calf and want to protect it from the dog,” Westphal says.

“Another test to make sure a cow is mothering the calf is to move the pair from one place in the barn to another, to see if the cow is looking back and saying, ‘Come on, baby!’ If she’s keeping track of the calf, you know they are bonded. If she just marches off and never looks back or isn’t worried about that calf at all, she’s not ready yet.”

A few more tips

If the cow or heifer that lost her calf has just calved, it helps to smear some of the birth fluids or mucus from the placenta onto the substitute calf before you bring it to her. If he’s lively, however, he may startle or confuse the cow or heifer, because her dead calf was unmoving.  

If the bouncing baby scares a heifer, or the cow is suspicious that this lively youngster is not her newborn, tie him to the side of the stall or pen for a few moments so he can’t run around, or lay him on the ground and tie his legs together so he can’t get up. But make sure she doesn’t try to hurt him.

This gives a cow or heifer a chance to sniff and start to lick the calf without becoming alarmed or suspicious by his boisterous actions. Once she starts licking him, untie the calf. This tactic often works with a first-calf heifer and she’ll think the calf is hers, but an older cow may be harder to fool. 

The oldest trick is to skin her dead calf and put the hide over the substitute calf. The cow knows the smell of her own calf even if it was dead at birth — if you gave her a chance to smell and lick it before you take the body away. This “smell bonding” can be used to advantage by skinning the hide off the dead calf and using it to disguise the imposter. 

The substitution works best when a cow loses her calf at birth or soon after. Her mothering instinct, due to hormonal changes during the birth process, is strongest right after she calves; she can be more readily convinced to accept another young calf. If her own calf dies after it is a few days or weeks old, it’s harder to trick her into taking a different calf.     

The dead calf should be skinned while fresh and the hide put over the replacement calf like a jacket, with his legs going through the leg holes of the dead skin, and his head coming through the neck hole of the skin. This holds the jacket in place. If there’s a lot of size difference between the dead calf and live one, simply tie the hide under the belly to help hold it. You can trim the hide if the dead calf is a lot bigger than the substitute.


The tried-and-true method of grafting an orphan calf is to skin the dead calf and drape or tie the hide to the orphan. The cow that lost the calf will smell the hide and think it’s her calf.

Make slits in the hide for anchoring twine to tie with. The tail of the dead calf should be left attached, if the hide isn’t too big for the live calf, or the end of the hide drapes over his hindquarters. The cow will smell and lick his hind end, and it must smell like hers. 

If she lost her calf at birth or soon after and is still in a barn stall or pen, leave her there, where she last saw her own calf. Skin it, put the hide on the substitute, then bring it to her like you were bringing her baby back to her. If you have moved the cow, put the new calf in the stall or pen where she lost her own calf — where she last saw and smelled him — and bring her back there. 

If she’s worried about her missing calf, she may think the calf you bring or take her back to is her own. The more you can do to trick her into thinking this is her own calf, the more likely you will succeed in fooling her.        

Bring the “new” calf when he is hungry and eager to nurse. The sooner he nurses her the better, if she lost her own calf at birth. Nursing triggers release of oxytocin in the cow, which stimulates motherly behavior. You want her to accept the calf before she becomes suspicious. Once the substitute has nursed a few times and the cow is accepting him, it is safe to take off the old skin. 

It takes time

If none of your attempts — skin trick, powder on the calf, etc. — fool her and she refuses to mother him, keep the pair in adjacent pens for a few days so she can’t hurt the calf, and leave hobbles on the cow’s hind legs so she can’t kick him. Put them together two or three times a day for nursing, until the cow resigns herself to accepting the newcomer.        

It may take two days or two weeks to change her mind, but she will eventually accept the calf. If she’s hobbled so she cannot kick him, feed her and let the calf in with her at nursing time. She will usually stand relatively still without trying too hard to prevent the calf from nursing. Being fed helps take her mind off trying to hurt the calf.

If she is still obnoxious, trying to butt the calf, you may have to tie her while she eats her hay and baby gets his dinner. Leave a halter on her, dragging the halter rope. Then you can get hold of the rope, tie her or hold her while she eats the hay, enabling the calf to catch up with her. After dragging the rope and stepping on it, she learns to respect this restraint and is halter-trained.

Usually after a few days, even stubborn cows will resign themselves to letting the calf nurse.  Once the cow starts to show a change of heart, mooing at the calf, licking him, or worrying about him when you put him back in his own pen after nursing and no longer trying to move away from him or hurt him when he’s with her, start leaving them together. Leave the hobbles on a day or too longer to make sure she doesn’t kick him when he tries to suck, but once she changes her mind and accepts the calf, your grafting job is successful.

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