Training Your Milk Cow to be a Nurse Cow

Twix nurses from Marabelle for the first time. He shows no hesitation.

When things go smoothly for me, there’s always a big sigh of relief involved. That was certainly the case when Marabelle accepted the calf we brought home to her. After only three days, my newest milk cow allowed an adopted calf to nurse without my intervention. Hooray!

The reason I had to put an adopted calf with my cow was because she had a stillborn calf. I posted about that last time.

I wasn’t sure how the process would go this time around, because I had a terrible time with it the last time I tried. That was with my main milk cow, Sienna. You can read about that in two separate posts here and here. Sienna did FINALLY accept the adopted calf, but it took nearly three weeks of persuasion.

So far, I have been able to train three different milk cows to accept adopted calves. The training of the first and third cows went pretty much the same and quite smoothly. Here’s what I did for Marabelle and Twix to bond:

I knew it was important to get a calf nursing from Marabelle as soon as possible after she calved. She had her calf very early in the morning, and I was able to locate a calf and bring him home to her around noon the same day. I thought about rubbing the placenta or some of the amniotic sac from Marabelle’s dead calf onto the new calf. I’ve heard this can help the mother accept a new baby sooner (since it will have her smell). However, I decided against this, since the afterbirth had been sitting out in the hot Texas sun for several hours. 

As soon as I got the calf home, I put Marabelle into the stanchion with some feed and let the calf nurse off of her. I was lucky that the calf immediately went after her. There was absolutely no hesitation on his part. This surprised me since, as far as I knew, he had previously been fed with a bottle only. Perhaps the dairy let him suckle from his mama for the first day or so, I’m not sure. The calf was supposed to be only a few days old. He was very tiny and thin. (It didn’t take long for him to put on weight once he started nursing from Marabelle.) 

Twix is to the far right. He’s the youngest calf out in the pasture.

Twix ate greedily from all four teats. Marabelle only kicked at him a couple of times, which did not slow him down. I’m going to go into more detail about this, because kicking is really the key. If the cow doesn’t kick the calf away, you’re golden. That’s the goal. Half of it is getting the calf to nurse from its adopted mama. That’s usually the easy part. The other, much more difficult part, is getting the mama to allow the calf to nurse. 

I have a friend who raises calves with nurse cows. These cows are trained to allow any calves to nurse from them. However, they are put into their stanchions to allow the calves to nurse. It’s a whole other ball game to get a cow to allow a calf to nurse when the two are out in the pasture. Milk cows already know they should not kick when they are in their stanchions eating. They should not kick the milker or a calf. Sometimes, if they are not used to a new calf nursing on them in the stanchion, they may try a kick when the calf “bumps” their udder.* It’s pretty easy to remind them not to kick by either harsh scolding or a quick swat. They usually don’t try too many kicks while they are distracted by eating feed. (And, usually, the kicks are half-hearted.)

However, there are different levels of kicking. Sienna was fine letting a new calf nurse while she was in the stanchion eating, but she threw some nasty kicks when he tried to nurse any other time. She would also head butt the calf and push him away from her. She wanted nothing to do with him for a long time. 

I watched Marabelle with the calf when she was not in the stanchion. She was never severe with him. She never pushed him away. She would kick when he tried to nurse but not big blows. You don’t want your cow to hurt the calf or let the calf get kicked so much that he’s scared to nurse from your cow. Since Marabelle was not hurting Twix, I left them together as much as possible. I made sure they had time alone together for the first couple of days, too. (I didn’t want Twix to try and nurse from any other mama.)

After a couple of days of nursing from a cow, the calf will naturally take on her smell. This is usually when she will allow it to nurse without any more kicking. In most cases, the calf must smell like the cow in order to be fully accepted by her.

To help with the smell factor, I did wash Twix with the hose to try and get some of his “old smell,” a.k.a. manure, off his hindquarters. That’s really the only extra step I took with him. I had to do a lot more with the last adoptee. 

In summary, supervised feedings at least twice a day is how I got my milk cow to accept an adopted calf. Every morning and evening, I put Marabelle in the stanchion and made sure Twix nursed from her. If that’s the only time a day the calf eats, he will be hungry and have no problems nursing. If the udder already looks drained, and the calf is not hungry, you know the calf is nursing on its own. (Or, you can just keep an eye out and see if the mama allows the calf to nurse when she’s not forced.) The calf usually tries often, but the mama doesn’t always allow it. You can keep the two together if it’s safe for the calf. If not, just put them together at feedings until the calf takes on her smell. This process is a lot of watch and see, then adjust accordingly. 

Twix bonded with Marabelle quickly and was persistent with following her around and trying to nurse from her. For the first couple of days, Marabelle tolerated him and even seemed to like him near her, even though she would kick some when he tried to nurse. Letting the calf stay with the mama as much as possible is helpful to persuade her, “This is your baby.” I was thankful the process was quick and successful! 

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