Getting Your Milk Cow to Adopt a New Calf

Ollie nurses from Sienna while she’s in the stanchion.

Before I get into the unexpectedly difficult process it has been to get Sienna to accept the new calf I brought home, I would like to announce the name I picked for him. I had some good name suggestions from my last post, and I want to thank everyone who submitted a name. I decided to name the calf Ollie. Ollie was suggested to me by Heather, who rightly commented that it was as if I was trying to “graft” the new calf onto Sienna. (Just as you would graft an olive branch onto an olive tree.) Also, the name Ollie makes me think of the orphan Oliver Twist, because there were times it seemed the calf was begging, “I want some more.”

Ollie was about 10 days old when I brought him home from a Jersey farm in the area. The evening I brought him home, I pushed him up to Sienna’s udder while she was happily eating in her stanchion. No problems. The calf nursed great and even nursed a little from every teat (which can sometimes be an issue). That night, I left the calf in the barn pen and put Sienna out. 

I duplicated this basic procedure for a couple days, because I know it takes a couple days of drinking the cow’s milk before the calf will start to take on her smell. During the day, I would put just the two of them in an acre pen all day, so they could be together.

The calf was easy. He decided quickly that Sienna was his mama, and he should follow her and feed from her. Sienna has been much more difficult. And this surprised me. 

This is the first time I’ve ever tried to graft a calf onto Sienna. Since I’ve owned her, she’s only nursed her own two calves. However, I had been successful with getting my previous milk cow, Callie, to adopt an orphan, and it only took two or three days. After the calf had nursed off her a few times, Callie was convinced the little one was hers and happily ever after. It has not been so with Sienna.

Ollie has really filled out on Sienna’s creamy milk since I brought him to our farm.

Any time Ollie would come up to nurse from Sienna, and she didn’t have food, she would kick him away. Aside from then, she was friendly to him and didn’t mind him following her around. She would stay close to the calf, even if he was penned up. But, she was not letting him nurse unless forced. 

After the first couple of days, I started leaving them together all the time. I wanted her to bond with the calf, so I sought outside help on how to do this. I first tried looking online. One trick was to smear molasses on the calf, so the mama cow will lick it off. Licking the calf should equal bonding with it. Made sense. I tried this. It didn’t seem to do anything, and I’m not sure if Sienna licked the molasses off of Ollie or not. I didn’t see it happen. 

I next tried asking for help at my vet’s office, because I also read that you can give a mama cow a shot of oxytocin to help her mothering instinct kick in toward a calf. (But you have to get that shot from a vet.) I was told at the vet’s that oxytocin is just the milk let down hormone and won’t help with the bonding. While there, I was also told that I should just whack my cow with a stick when she tried to kick the calf, so she would learn not to kick him. 

If you are the type to cringe at the previous sentence, skip this paragraph. I actually was already whacking Sienna when she tried to kick Ollie. She needed to learn to stand still and be nice to him. You see, I decided to tie her up outside of the barn, and without feed, so she would learn that Ollie could nurse off of her wherever he wanted, not just in the stanchion. The only way to accomplish this without her hurting Ollie was to whack her leg every time she tried to kick. It worked. She stood still while he nursed. However, she still wasn’t letting him nurse when I didn’t have her tied up. 

Ollie scratches his head on the stanchion in the barn.

The other trick the vet suggested was to pour Sienna’s milk all over the calf, so he would continue to smell like her. Nine days after I brought Ollie home, I finally saw something change. I had poured the milk on him the night before (not sure if this helped but surely didn’t hurt), and the next morning, he had nursed off of Sienna by himself before I came out to milk her. I was very happy and relieved. I mistakenly thought my problems were over. That evening, he had not nursed on his own. 

I’m now on day 12. Ollie nursed on his own this morning. However, it hasn’t been consistent. Sometimes when I get Sienna in the stanchion, I can tell Ollie hasn’t eaten yet. Still, I’m happy to see some progress. That gives me hope that Sienna will soon let Ollie nurse whenever and wherever he wishes, just as she would her own calf. However, I’m not really sure. I still see her kicking him away sometimes.

I don’t know why Sienna has been so stubborn about accepting Ollie. He should have started to take on her smell just a couple of days after nursing from her. I separated her calf, Seven-Up, the morning before I brought Ollie home. He was far enough away that she couldn’t see him, but for the first couple of days, I could still hear him bawling from a distant pasture. That did not help my cause, I’m sure. But since then, he can’t be heard or seen.

In short, the steps I took with my milk cow and the new calf should have worked. Jerseys are usually very motherly and accepting of calves. But, as all humans know… Things don’t always work out the way they should or the way you expect.

Hopefully, Ollie will be the helper I need him to be by taking all of Sienna’s milk whenever I can’t milk her. So far, the process has been frustrating and more work than I expected. Apparently, Sienna is as stubborn as I am.       

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