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Paisley: Grafting calves should be done with caution

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

For many ranchers, the inability of a cow to birth a live calf and keep the calf alive is a selection tool for ranchers when it comes to culling decisions, according to University of Wyoming Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley.

However, Paisley notes there are benefits to grafting motherless calves to cows in the herd. 

Why we graft

Paisley explains ranchers often encounter situations where a cow is without a calf or a calf without a mother. Grafting calves is a useful practice to match cows to calves and avoid having to bottle feed. 

“Some of the reasons we may graft a calf to a new cow is if the mother dies,  is injured or is too old to nurse,” says Paisley. “Sometimes, we might have a cow who loses a calf to neonatal sickness or other issues. 

“We need to look at whether or not the death of the calf was an issue with the mother. Cows producing poor colostrum or little mothering instinct may need to be culled as opposed to paired with a new calf,” Paisley explains.

He notes some ranchers will purposely breed older cows to have extra calves to match up to able cows that lose a calf. 

“Grafting to a new cow allows calves to meet their nutritional needs better than if they were bottle-fed,” Paisley says. “People have yet to be able to replicate cow’s milk.” 

He comments having the calf on a cow as opposed to bottle feeding also allows him to eat their normal five to seven times per day. 

With bottle-feeding, calves will generally eat less and wean lighter than if they were on a cow. 


“A lot of times, the knee-jerk reaction when we lose a calf is to run to the sale barn to pick up an orphan calf,” Paisley explains.

“I always caution producers against going straight to the sale barn and purchasing a calf for the sake of a cow having a calf to nurse,” Paisley stresses. 

Paisley explains calving season and the subsequent breeding season are a very volatile time for cattle producers. 

“When we bring a calf from the outside into the herd, we run the risk of introducing outside diseases into the herd,” Paisley cautions. “Young calves are really susceptible to diseases anyway, and we don’t want to add to it.” 

He notes if a rancher feels it absolutely necessary to bring in an outside calf, they should look into the vaccination schedules and health of the herd the calf is coming from. Private treaty sales amongst neighbors or other familiar parties is better than purchasing a random calf from the sale barn. 

“If we can get a calf from within the herd, that is the best-case scenario with grafting,” says Paisley. 

“We also need to remember that not every cow is going to be willing to take on a new calf right off the bat,” he says. “Keep in mind, it’s all about the smell and getting her to start licking the calf.”


“There are a lot of different ways to get a cow to nurse an orphan calf,” Paisley notes. 

“The method I use personally is pretty old fashion and, in my opinion, is pretty bulletproof,” Paisley says. “If the cow lost a calf, skinning the dead calf and affixing the hide to the new calf will give the cow a familiar smell, and she will begin licking the new calf and allowing it to nurse.” 

Paisley says the idea is to get the cow to start licking the new calf and giving him attention as she would her own. Aside from the labor-intensive process of skinning the dead calf, there are other methods to introduce the orphan calf. 

“Some ranchers will put finely ground cornmeal on the calf’s back to attract the cow to start licking it off,” Paisley explains. “There are also commercially available products to assist in the process.” 

Commercially available products include O-No-More™, previously Orphan-No-More™. This product consists of 95 percent animal protein and five percent ammonia. According to their website, the product is designed to mask the smell of the calf and replace it with a highly desirable scent to the cow. 

On the same basis of hiding smells, Paisley explains using Mentholatum can also be an effective method. 

“Mentholatum has such a strong smell it covers up pretty much all smells,” Paisley comments. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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