How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf.

I have successfully grafted several calves onto 3 different Jersey cows.  These were calves that the mama cows did not give birth to.

3 different cows.

3 different calves.

There were actually more if you count the calves (and the stinkin’ bull)  that our Jerseys adopted that I never intended for them to adopt.  The problem with Jerseys is not ‘getting’ them to adopt a calf.  The problem is stopping them from sliding a teat to the nearest bovine in their field.  Yes, we had a 2000 pound bull here to service our ladies & he decided he would like to go on a milk and meadow diet while he was visiting.  Dude.  Pick a side.  You don’t get to be the stud and the baby.  Eeew.

Getting a cow to adopt a calf is not hard.  I have some tried and true tips that can help get you on your way to a new, happy, mama-baby pair.

Calves we have grafted onto our milk cows:

  • There was Crumple.
  • Then there was Norman.
  • Then there was Deadpool (who was never intended to be adopted).
  • Then there was Shirley.

Yes.  We have a calf named, “Shirley.”

These are the things that happen when you let your children name your animals.  Buy only if you REALLY let them name them.  It’s one thing to say, “Sure, you can name the calf.”

And then you veto every name they come up with until they find one that suits you.

It’s quite another to let a small child be the complete decision maker in the naming process.

You end up with cows named, Shirley…. and Crumple, and Deadpool, and Hulk, and Natasha, and Lola, and Bessie, and Gwenevere, and you get the picture.


If you are a homesteader who has decided to make the “jump” to dairy cow ownership you will want to know how to get a new calf on your milk cow.  This is a skill that will come in amazingly handy.

Why would you want to graft a new calf onto your cow?

  1. Your calf may die.  We had a cow who had a miscarriage 2 months before the calf was due.  She delivered the (already dead) tiny calf & the placenta and the afterbirth and everything else…. and guess what?  The milk came flowing like mad.  Just because the calf was born early and did not survive did not stop our cow from turning into to full-blown, cream-making machine.
  2. You may eat your calf & need a new one to help with the milking.  Yes, there are those years when the hunts were unsuccessful, the pork has been consumed and your freezers are empty.  This is when you begin to look around your homestead and decide that the 7-month-old calf looks pretty tasty.
  3. Your calf may get too big to continue to nurse on your milk-cow.  There comes a point when you look in the field at your sweet milk cow and her baby and you can’t tell which one is the mom.  Yup – those babies grow fast – especially when they are being raised on “milk & meadow.”  When our calves are about the same size as the mom, it’s time for them to move on.  It’s just too much (we think) on our milk cows.
  4. You may end up with an orphan who needs a mama.  

    After Faith died, we had a calf without a mama. Here you can see Rosie with her calf, Gwen, and Norman – who she adopted. Gwen is the black calf.

    We have turned down calves that people have tried to give us….. for free.  This is the kind of thing that happens when you own a pawn shop.  Our customers are hilarious.  We’ve traded chickens for ammo.  We’ve been given rabbits, cages, feeders, and other random farm accessories. We have some trails that need to be cut in our woods. DH talked to our favorite contractor about it the other day.  His response was, “Yeah, I can get out there Sunday… you’ve got a gun I want at the shop.”  When you own a pawn shop – you don’t need money…. which is a good thing because we don’t have any.  No money – but we’ve got a bunch of stuff.  LOL.  We’ve even traded a calf for a gun and $50 bucks.

  5. It can be healthier for the udder.  When you have a calf waiting int he filed for that blessed milk and cream you don’t have to stress about udder health or stripping her out or milk holding.  I know that a calf is definitely not fool-proof, but it certainly helps in my case.  No matter how milking goes in the barn, I know that the calf in the field is going to finish things up and empty that udder like I never could.  Additionally, when there is a calf in the field, milk is constantly being moved through the udder.  When I have had a mastitis-prone cow, a calf was about the only thing that would keep it away.  Without a calf, the milk would hang out in that udder until I milked – which could be a recipe for problems.
  6. A calf is mandatory if you don’t want to milk every day.  Which I don’t.  I love owning milk cows.  I love milking my cows.  I wouldn’t change it for the world.  BUT  I want to take weekends off.  I want to go on vacation.  I want to have the OPTION to not milk if I don’t feel like it.  Am I a spoiled brat or what?  A few weeks ago we separated our calf from our milk cow, Trinka.  Her baby (Minnie) was over 9 months old it was time for her to be a big girl and start thinking about raising some calves of her own.  We relocated her calf to another farm where we have a herd of beef cows.  That day panic set in and I was all over DH to find me a calf – now.  From the day that calf left until we could find a calf to graft onto Trinka I was the sole responsible milker.  Someone get me a calf.
  7. You may not want to milk at all.  I know of families who have Jerseys and use them for nothing but calf raisers.  Because Jerseys make so much milk and are such good mamas, they will often accept more than one calf at a time.  I have a friend who puts 2-3 calves on her Jersey & doesn’t milk her at all.  That Jersey raises 3 beef calves for her at a time.  This is healthier than buying a milk substitute and cheaper too.

Now that you know why you may want to put a new calf on your milk cow – let’s talk about how to do it.

It’s not hard at all, especially if your mama cow happens to be a Jersey.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #1: Bath Time

Depending on where you got your calf, you may need to give the little guy or gal a little scrub before you plop her into a field with your cow.  I am a bit paranoid thanks to miserable experiences.  If I have a questionable animal and I don’t know where it’s been, who it’s been around, or what toxic waste it’s been exposed to, I’m going to give it a bath, a little time and maybe even a thorough vet visit before turning it loose with my mama cow.

Some things can’t be “undone” and I don’t want to put the health of my Jerseys in jeopardy.

Once the calf has been given a clean bill of health and is all squeaky clean…… it’s time to let the lovebirds meet.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #2: Solitary Confinement

First, I get everyone else out of the picture.  If your cow still has her own calf (that she gave birth to), or even 8 other cows as companions it can be a distraction and hurt your chances of getting her to accept the new calf.

I move all the other cows, calves and distractions out of our main cow field so there’s no one but the mama and the new baby.

I think it actually helped that Trinka was alone in her pasture for a good week or so before we found a new calf.  When the new baby arrived she was so dang happy to see another bovine companion that there was just no way she could refuse that sweet baby.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #3: Separate but close

Let them get to know each other in separate fields first.

When we first bring our babies home they are “held” in a separate pasture.  This ‘holding’ area shares a fence with the milk cow’s pasture.  They can see each other, sniff each other and run the fence line together for a bit before we put them in a field together.

This is usually when we are cleaning, examining and prepping our new calf for her mama.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #4: Together at Last!

Turn them loose and watch.

We have had calves who go straight to the udder and nothing by God Himself could stop that little guy from slurping as much milk as he could hold (Hello, Norman). We have had other calves who weren’t so sure who this new mama was and what they were supposed to do.

Don’t panic.

Watch and see what happens.  We are pretty laid back at our place.  I will usually give them until the next morning before I decided to intervene and take matters into my own hands.

Some mamas and babies are more private than others.  These are the ones you will never see nursing, but the udder is constantly empty.

If you want to know if your mama has accepted the new calf and if he/she is actually drinking any milk just slather the teats with some molasses.  The molasses will turn her teats brown.  If you go up to the field the next morning and the teats are squeaky clean you will know the calf is eating.

Milking out your cow will also be a good indicator.  I usually get a gallon and a half each morning.

The day after we gave Trinka her new calf, Shirley (LOL), I got 1 tablespoon of milk.  ONE TABLESPOON.  Yup.  She’s accepted the milk thief calf.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #5: What to do if the calf isn’t eating

If you have given them some time to get acquainted and are concerned that the calf isn’t eating, or your mama-cow isn’t allowing the calf to nurse it’s time to get involved.  Don’t worry, it’s all gonna work out.

First, go back and get some more of that molasses & smear it on your new calf.  This should get your mama calf to start licking the calf.  When a mama calf begins to lick the calf she is bonding with it.  It will begin to smell like your mama & she will (hopefully) start to think that this little one belongs to her and she should feed it.

Second, you may need to tie your cow up and let the little one eat.  It’s OK and sometimes necessary to tie your cow up in the milking barn (or the field) so the new calf can get some groceries.  I have heard of folks doing this a few times a day for a couple days & the mama got the picture.

How to Get a Cow to Adopt a Calf #6: Last Resort

If you still can’t get your mama to accept the new calf after the cleaning, bonding, molasses smearing and tying up there is one more trick you can try…..

Milk your mama cow & feed the milk to the calf (in a bottle).  When the calf begins to poop out your mama cow’s milk it will have her smell and she will think it’s her calf.  Crazy right?

Like I mentioned, if you have a Jersey, this process should happen very naturally and easily.  I’ve never had a Jersey not accept a calf.

Good Luck!

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