While motherhood is a natural thing for cows, sometimes it does not always come so easy. New heifer mothers or young cows sometimes don’t understand the responsibility they have to their calf, or else want nothing to do with it.
Hormones, mainly oxytocin, play a huge role in the heifer and cow mothering experience. When they start the labor process, their hormones release that make the mother more open and susceptible to bonding with a calf, and also start their milk production.
If there is an issue with the calving process, a hard labor, needing a C-section, or having to help pull the calf out, the mother may be less adamant to bond with her calf. For one, if the birth wasn’t natural, there may not have been enough time for the hormones to release. If it was stressful, other hormones such as adrenaline and stress hormones may override the oxytocin. Also, she may see the birthing experience as a very negative one and will be less apt to enjoy the fruits of her labor. If you are able to observe or assist with the calving experience, it is more likely the mother (especially a new one) will have a smoother, more positive experience. If the calf comes out and appears weak, isn’t moving much, or there is a medical issue the mother is able to sense, she may be more likely to reject he calf.
Other heifers find motherhood comes very naturally. Through instinct and observing other cows and how they interact with their calves, new moms understand that they need to clean and feed their new little one.
Some reluctant mothers eventually come around once their milk lets down. They realize they are in need of a calf to take care of, and will be a lot more receptive to bond and feed their calf. Calves should ideally be suckling within 2-5 hours from birth, after they’ve been cleaned by their mother. The cleaning processes allow the mom the smell and learn her calf’s scent, as well as bond and start a relationship with her calf.
Some new mothers are aggressive towards their new calve and kick or attack them. They are being protective of their new baby, but focusing their aggression towards the wrong thing. This confusion will hopefully settle after some time. Keep an aggressive mother in a pen separated, but next to, her calf so they can get to know each other. Restrain the mother and assist the calf with a few feedings. Hopefully, after a couple feedings the mother will start to bond and accept her calf.
At times, there is nothing you can do to help a mother accept her calf. In this case, if possible, try to have another mother “adopt” the rejected calf. This can be a tricky process. If the adoptive mother’s calf died, smear some of the birth mucus on rejected calf so she thinks it’s her own. Sometimes putting honey on the calf to encourage licking works, or some sort of product needs to be put on the mother’s snout to confuse smells. Putting the hide of the mother’s dead calf on the rejected calf can also help the mother accept this new calf.
Thomas, Heather Smith. “Maternal Behaviour in Cows.” Canadian Cattlemen
Thomas, Heather Smith. “Essential Guide to Calving.” Storey Publishing, 2008. Print.