The author’s daughter, Andrea, helps a calf nurse for the first time.

Sometimes a first-calf heifer is confused or indifferent toward her newborn calf. She may just lie there after the calf is born and doesn’t get up to lick the calf, and when she does get up she may walk away, ignoring the calf, or kick him when he tries to suckle. Some heifers attack the calf when he tries to get up.

If you had to pull a heifer’s calf, this may disrupt the normal bonding process. If you take a newborn calf to the barn to warm and dry him before his mother has a chance to lick him, this may also disrupt bonding. A heifer or cow may be indifferent toward her calf following a difficult birth or C-section surgery because pain responses can temporarily hinder the maternal hormones. If you had to move the heifer from pasture to a barn or pen for calving and she became upset and nervous, and frantic to get out of the pen or barn stall, this may also be detrimental.

The bonding process, which involves the cow identifying and learning to recognize her new calf, wanting to care for and protect it, is a complex blend of hormone-induced and learned behavior.

Hormones initiate and drive most of what we perceive as maternal behavior, as the cow bonds with her newborn calf. Some older cows become receptive up to a week before they calve, and become interested in any newborn. Their hormone pump is already primed and those hormones are reaching a level that makes them interested in any new calf, even if it’s not theirs. If an older cow starts showing interest in other cows’ newborn calves, you know she will be calving soon.

At the other end of the spectrum are cows that don’t have proper hormone profile or levels when they calve, and they don’t want a calf. We see this most often in first-calf heifers, or some of the females we assist with birth, or delivered their calf by C-section. There may be other hormones overriding the whole system, due to adrenalin, stress, pain, and perhaps some of the drugs that were used during a C-section.


Sometimes if you think a heifer might need a little help with the bonding process after you’d pulled her calf or had to deliver it by C-section, if you smear birth fluids over her muzzle, into her mouth and across the tongue, this can jump-start that hormonal process.

These fluids are a turn-on for motherhood, when she licks the calf for the first time. If she starts gently mooing and licking the calf when she gets up from calving, she will generally mother it. If a cow or heifer is slow to lick her calf, some people pour feed over the calf (something the cow would be interested in eating) to get her to sniff and lick around the calf and taste the birth fluids. This works in some cases.

Usually after the calf has suckled, hormones of motherhood kick in, since suckling triggers release of more oxytocin—the hormone that stimulates milk let-down and mothering. Often when a heifer is reluctant to let her calf nurse, once you gently retrain her and help the calf suckle, she becomes interested in the calf.

But some heifers that reject their calves need to be restrained at nursing sessions for several days or weeks before they accept the calf. In that situation it helps to keep the pair in a small pen and have the cow/heifer hobbled so she can’t kick the calf, or have them in separate pens for a few days. If you feed the heifer at nursing time she will be more interested in eating than trying to avoid the calf, and he can nurse—and won’t be kicked because she is hobbled.

There are always a few heifers that don’t accept their calf at first, if the hormones don’t “kick in” when they are supposed to. Sometimes a heifer or cow that doesn’t have a chance to bond with her calf right away can be a problem just because the optimum window for bonding is past. If the calf was born weak or premature (and you take it away for a while) or born in extremely cold weather and needs warmed up before the cow or heifer has a chance to lick it, she may not accept it when you bring it back to her, not recognizing it as hers.

If a heifer is indifferent and not interested in her calf or won’t let it suckle, help the calf get to the udder. Some people use a combination of a little tranquilizer for the heifer and some good-tasting powder sprinkled on the calf—to entice the heifer to lick him. There are some commercial products that may work for some reluctant mothers.

To make sure she won’t kick the calf, a tranquilizer can help, but must be prescribed by a veterinarian. Only a partial dose is needed--to take the edge off her aggressive resentment when the calf is trying to suckle. Dose is determined by size and weight of the cow, and her attitude. If she is mellow it takes less of the drug than if she is excited and upset.

A proper dose makes the cow just sleepy enough that she doesn’t think about kicking the calf. She will generally let you work with her in a stall or small pen as you quietly help the calf get to the udder, without having to restrain her in a head-catch. With the cow tranquilized, you can be quiet and patient and get the calf sucking, and this stimulates the proper hormones, without getting the cow upset. The key is being able to do it calmly.

The calf must be strong and eager to suck, but even an aggressive, willing calf that gets kicked will back off and quit trying. You want the first nursing to be pleasant for both the cow and the calf. But don’t overdose the cow or she might want to lie down and go to sleep!


Changes in progesterone and estrogen levels initiate the birth process, but rising oxytocin levels are what trigger maternal behavior. Oxytocin is released in the cow’s brain during birth. Its presence in the olfactory part of the brain helps explain the role of smell and the importance of odor in the bonding process; the cow recognizes her calf by smell and is always able to pick her calf out of a group, by smelling the calf.

Stimulation/dilation of the cervix and release of hormones during normal calving initiate maternal behavior. Release of oxytocin is caused by stretching/stimulation of the cervix and birth canal as the feet of the fetus push against it with each uterine contraction, and then passage of the fetus through the cervix.

If the calf had to be delivered by C-section surgery, without coming into the birth canal, there isn’t much cervical stimulation, since the fetus doesn’t have to come through it. This could be a factor when a cow doesn’t mother her calf after surgery. Analgesic drugs used during a C-section to block pain can also interfere with oxytocin release.

First-calf heifers produce less oxytocin than cows who’ve had previous calves—and this may be why heifers may be less motherly. Giving birth primes the system and allows for release of larger quantities of oxytocin with subsequent births. Heifers have a disadvantage because they are less experienced than cows, and have lower levels of oxytocin release during calving.

Since mothering behavior is hormonally driven, it won’t help to punish an unmotherly heifer, yet some people become angry. If the cow or heifer kicks or head-butts her calf, they want to hit her. Yet she is simply treating this calf like she’d treat any calf that wasn’t hers, because she has not bonded with it and doesn’t know it is hers.

She needs more oxytocin. The main reason a non-motherly cow or heifer eventually accepts her calf is because she gets more of this hormone circulating after the calf nurses, though in a few instances it may take several days, and sometimes weeks.

We can’t resolve the problem by giving her a shot of oxytocin, however, because it doesn’t get to the brain. It goes to other places in the body, such as the cervix (to help with dilation during calving) or the uterus to stimulate contractions, or to the mammary gland for milk let-down. If you restrain the heifer (so she can’t attack her calf) and let the calf suckle, this stimulation of the udder can cause milk let-down and is a stimulation coming from an oxytocin release in the brain. Many of these cows/heifers become more motherly after the calf has nursed a few times.

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