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SACB Method for Grafting Orphan Calves

SACB Method: (pronounced ‘sawb’) a simple and easy way to graft calves.

Everyone and their dog has a sure fire method for grafting a twin or orphan calf. However, each method takes time and patience. These are things I don’t normally have during calving. Further, the very fact that an animal has to be handled individually, means that the procedure is not scalable. Scalable means a procedure can be replicated without increased labor. If something is scalable, you can grow your business in that direction and still remain a low-cost producer. That being said, there can be significant gain achieved by successfully grafting a calf onto another cow.

When we first started keeping custom grazing cows year round, bottle babies were a bane to my existence. Twice a day someone had to prepare bottles and stand there waiting for all the calves to finish. EVERYDAY! TWICE OR THRICE A DAY! That was not my idea of fun. To get rid of a bottle baby, we had to wait for a cow to have a still born or lose her calf which started another adventure of time wasting and patience!

One day I heard about a drug called Atravet. Atravet is a sedative in powder from that can be added to grain and fed to a cow. Fifteen minutes after consuming the grain, the cow will have a nice buzz and allow the calf to nurse without any fuss. Normally two to three sessions was all it took for the cow to take the calf as her own. We used the Atravet method for several years until we moved away from custom cows to grazing yearlings.

When I went back to calving cows, Atravet in powder form was no longer available. Let me tell you, there was one unhappy cowboy riding the range! My idea of fun was not spending two to three hours skinning a dead calf, tying the hide onto a live calf, then trying to get a cow to stand while the calf nursed. There had to be another way. That other way presented itself though keen observation – some might call laziness – which eventually became the SACB Method.

During calving season I check the herd on horseback three to four times a day. Any twin or abandoned calf is roped, tied, put in the calf sled, and taken back to the corrals. These calves are then started on a bottle. When a cow has a still born, she is immediately trailed to the corral. The cow is put in the head gate and a bottle baby is brought to the cow. Getting down to calf level, I try to get the calf to nurse. If the cow starts kicking, things are made very uncomfortable for the cow until she stops kicking. Once the cow learns not to kick and the calf is nursing, the first steps of the SACB Method are complete.

The next step of the SACB Method is crucial to its eventual success. You MUST let the calf nurse until it is finished. Even if you have never seen a calf nurse for more than 30 mins, let the calf determine when it is finished. If the calf is less than a week old or ‘dumb’ it has been my experience that nursing will take 60-90mins. The calf is finished when it walks away and lies down. You do not decide when the calf is done. This last step is something I forgot to tell a summer student and caused some grief and second guessing of my method.

One spring we had two cows that were not ‘bringing in’ their milk. Both cows started grafting a calf within three hours of having a still birth and by day three they still had thick bloody milk. Further, the grafted calves did not appear to be thriving like they should. It was suggested that I had been lucky with the 18 calves grafted over the previous two years. I too, started to have doubts even though I knew a person cannot get lucky 18 times in a row.

After reviewing everything we did with the two cows, it came to light that the calves being grafted were not allowed to finish nursing. I did not relay this important point to the hired hand. To me it was a no brainer, but to a person who is more caring and nurturing than me, leaving a young animal to its own devices is an unnatural thing. When I graft calves, the cow is put in the squeeze, the lower panel lifted and pinned and the calf is encouraged to nurse. Once nursing, I walk away and go do something else. Every 20mins or so, I drift past the corral to see if the calf is still nursing. If the calf is lying down, I know it is finished and I can release the pair into a small private pen.

Since the summer student had a strong desire to help, they would get the calf nursing then sit on bucket and wait until the calf was finished. The problem, besides being a poor use of time, was that when the calf was taking a break, the student thought the calf was finished nursing and let the cow out of the squeeze. This meant the cow was not milked out and the calf did not get full. Further, the cow did not freshen, did not fully bond with the calf, and the calf did not bond with the cow. Once corrected, we went on to graft another four calves that season.

It has been my experience that if grafting is begun within a few hours of a cow losing her calf, the cow will only have to be put into the squeeze three or four times. Before the newly formed pair is put back with the herd, though, their bond must be confirmed. The first step is to visually confirm that the calf is nursing freely in a relatively small pen. Once achieved, the pair is put with a small group of animals (i.e. cull cows, horses, sheep) to confirm that the calf is following the cow and still nursing freely. When you can confirm that bond, the pair is ready to go back to the herd.

Congratulations, you have successfully and easily grafted a calf – Simple As Can Be (SACB)!

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Tom Krawiec
Tom Krawiec
Tom, along with his wife Jan, started raising & direct marketing hogs, sheep, cattle, turkeys, & chickens in 1999, the same year they completed a Holistic Management course. Their operation slowly morphed into custom grazing cattle on rented land and Tom’s passion for managing grass grew in the process. Tom & Jan completed the Ranching for Profit school in 2003 and found the ‘missing piece’. Since then, Jan has fulfilled her dream of being a nurse & Tom is currently the Production Manager of a ranch in north east British Columbia.

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