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Understanding Maternal Behavior Helps In BondingUnderstanding Maternal Behavior Helps In Bonding

Understanding maternal behavior in cattle can be beneficial in aiding the bonding process between cow and calf.

Heather Smith Thomas

January 27, 2011

9 Min Read
Understanding Maternal Behavior Helps In Bonding

The bonding process is how a cow identifies her new calf and commits to caring for and protecting it. It’s a complex blend of hormonal-induced and learned behavior.

Of course, experience is part of the equation. Mature cows are more apt to quickly and successfully mother their offspring than first-time heifers. Older cows tend to be more consistent mothers and have more maternal drive than heifers, but hormones are the key factor.

“The cow is most receptive to wanting her newborn calf when she gives birth,” says Joseph Stookey of Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. “But, some cows become receptive up to a week before calving. Their hormone pump is already primed, and maternal hormones are reaching a level that makes them receptive to any new calf, even if it’s not theirs.”

At the other end of the spectrum are cows that lack the proper hormone profile or levels, or simply don’t want their calf.

“We see this most often in heifers, or in females we assist or deliver by C-section. If it’s a rodeo getting the cow in for assistance, or she undergoes too much trauma, she may be less interested in the newborn calf,” Stookey says.

There also may be other hormones overriding the whole system due to stress and pain, or perhaps some of the drugs used during a C-section, he adds.

Oxytocin is the trigger

Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels initiate the birth process, but rising oxytocin levels released during calving trigger maternal behavior.

“Oxytocin’s presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the important role of smell and odor in the bonding process. A cow recognizes her calf by smell; she can always pick her calf out of a group,” Stookey says.

He says cervical stimulation is crucial for proper hormonal triggers, as stretching or stimulation of the cervix and birth canal causes release of oxytocin.

“With a C-section there isn’t much cervical stimulation, since the fetus doesn’t come through it. Analgesic drugs used during a C-section to block pain can also interfere with oxytocin release,” Stookey says.

Additionally, first-calf heifers produce less oxytocin than experienced cows. “Giving birth seems to prime the system and allows for release of larger quantities of oxytocin with subsequent births. Thus, heifers have two disadvantages – they’re less experienced than cows and have lower levels of oxytocin released in the brain during calving,” he explains.

While some heifers seem initially indifferent to their calves, they become more motherly within 12-24 hours as their milk comes in. If a heifer is indifferent or actively rejects her calf, assisting the calf in nursing generally helps a heifer become more receptive, as it stimulates release of oxytocin.

“If you can stimulate milk letdown a few times by assisting the calf in nursing, the hormone comes on board and improves maternal behavior,” Stookey says. “Oxytocin can switch off the heifer’s aggression, reluctance or fear and turn its interest to mothering.”

Other factors in bonding

The dam reacts to sensory clues provided by the calf and birth fluids. If she’s lying down as the calf slides out, she’ll generally raise her head to get a glimpse of the calf.

“Any movement of the calf (raising or shaking its head) is a strong stimulus to the cow to get up and turn around to smell the calf and start licking it. A vigorous calf elicits a stronger response than a weak or dead calf,” Stookey says.

In fact, Stookey explains in a study, in which he tracked more than 200 cows and heifers that required veterinary assistance (C-section or pull), he found that a significantly higher percentage of calves judged as weak at birth were rejected, compared to calves judged average or strong.

“The smell and taste of birth fluids is another strong attractant that drives maternal behavior and stimulates the cow to lick the calf,” Stookey says. “If the mothering process is interrupted before she licks the calf, likelihood for rejection increases. Females that had difficult deliveries and required human assistance more often reject their calves.”

If you pull a calf, it helps to smear birth fluids across the muzzle and tongue of the dam following delivery. “This seems to jumpstart the maternal response. Simply placing the newborn in front of the mother may not be sufficient stimulus to start maternal behavior, especially for some first-calf heifers.”

Pouring feed onto a newborn calf may entice some reluctant mothers to approach the calf and eventually come in contact with birth fluids as they eat the feed, he adds. “Any attractant that can stimulate the cow to lick the calf would be useful.”

If cows are closely confined in groups, they don’t get a chance to isolate themselves to calve. Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist, says that allowing cows and heifers plenty of room can help prevent problems. Some cows may try to claim another’s newborn. If older cows intimidate a heifer, she may not mother her calf.

“First-calf heifers are more likely to isolate themselves from the herd. Researchers who have studied this behavior suspect that heifers leave the herd to move away from more dominant individuals that might disturb the bonding process,” Stookey says.

“There are always a few individuals, particularly heifers, that initially lack a strong mothering instinct,” Whittier explains. “Allowing them to calve out in the field by themselves is best. If they don’t bond quickly, moving them into a pen with their calf can sometimes work – so they can continue the bonding process without interruption by herdmates. Getting from point A to point B can be a challenge, however, and may confuse a heifer more and make it worse than if you’d left her alone,” he says.

In fact, determining which females to help and which to leave alone comes with experience and understanding of cattle behavior. “An operator’s facilities will be a factor, along with knowledge and understanding of how cattle move and how familiar the cattle are with being moved into a confined area,” Whittier says.

If it’s cold or windy and the calf’s survival is at risk, you may have no choice but to bring the pair in for shelter. “In a blizzard, the need for protection overrides everything else,” Whittier says.

If weather necessitates shelter, it’s best to quietly move each calving female to a private place to calve – such as her own barn stall. Moving her and her calf afterward can be more disruptive, especially for a heifer.

Older cows are more likely to follow you and the calf, especially if you put the calf in a sled or some other conveyance low to the ground so the cow can follow and keep sniffing her calf. But heifers may become confused, especially if they haven’t had time to lick and bond with the calf. She may run back to the birth site to seek her calf, rather than follow you or allow herself to be herded to the barn.

“You can’t just take the calf in the house to warm, then put it in the barn and move the heifer to the barn and expect her to mother it. She’s more apt to accept the calf if you take it back to the birth site. If you grabbed the calf before she filled in that template of recognition/bonding, she may not recognize the calf in the barn as hers. She’ll try to get back to the spot where she gave birth to find her calf,” Stookey says.

Make sure the cow has a chance to smell the calf. “If you move a calf from the birth site, make certain the cow follows. And, don’t totally dry a newborn because birth fluids are a strong stimulus in eliciting maternal behavior,” he says.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.


There are a number of tricks to get a cow to claim a calf, such as ranchers grafting an orphan calf onto a cow, says Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist. Some of those methods can help with a bonding problem.

Proximity is number one – keeping them close to one another – as sometimes hormonal triggers are slow to kick in.

There’s a complex hormone system involved in causing birth and initiating lactation. Like any biological system, it can get a little out of sequence; so just giving the heifer a little time may work things out, Whittier explains.

“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, of course, but I caution producers not to be too anxious. Let the mother and calf figure it out,” he says.

Whittier says producers with many years of experience in calving heifers often develop a “sixth sense” in assessing a situation. “There’s no substitute for experience. Inexperienced people would do well to work with someone like that, and be observant and teachable. Many of these things aren’t written in a book,” he says.

If a cow is aggressive and kicking or hitting the calf with her head, some type of restraint may be needed to prevent injury to the calf or to help the calf find the udder. Often, it just takes one nursing to change her mind, but some females are still determined to attack the calf. House the calf in a small pen next to the cow’s, or in a paneled-off corner of the barn stall, and let the calf out for nursing only while you can supervise.

Another trick is to feed the cow her hay at nursing time. If she’s interested in eating, she’ll focus less on attacking her calf or moving away. Stand guard while the calf nurses and then return it to its safe corner. You may need to hobble the cow so she can’t kick, until she becomes more accepting.

If the cow won’t stand still, leave a halter on her, dragging the rope. Then you can easily get hold of the rope, and tie her while she eats her hay, enabling the calf to catch up with her and nurse. After dragging the rope and stepping on it, she quickly learns to respect this restraint.

It may take up to two weeks to change her mind about motherhood, but she’ll eventually accept the calf. Once she starts showing interest, mooing at the calf or licking it as it nurses, you can leave them together. Leave her hobbled until you’re sure she won’t try to kick him.

Another trick with an aggressive heifer is to lightly tranquilize her during the first day. This may mellow her attitude to allow the calf to nurse, which will help stimulate the hormones of motherhood. Ask your vet about proper use of tranquilizers.

Sometimes, the problem is physical. A heifer with a painful udder may kick at her calf just because it hurts. Injured teat or frostbitten teats may be too sore to allow suckling.

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

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