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Grafting Baby Calves Part 2 – How tos

In Part 1 of this series we talked about choosing the right animals for successful grafting. So, you’ve got a good, loving cow and a ripping good replacement calf. Now is when the work starts.

If you have ever observed a normal birth, you know that the cow typically stands up, turns around and begins licking the newborn calf. She will pay particular attention to the mouth and face, the navel area, and the area beneath the tail. I suspect that during this process the cow becomes intimately bonded to the smell of her new baby. This process imparts some permanent information into the cow’s brain, allowing her to sort through an entire herd of calves and recognize hers. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is pretty important, as this linkage allows her calf a good chance of survival.

If you are trying to graft a new calf onto a cow, your challenge is to overcome millions of years of instinctual behavior and make that cow accept some new, unknown calf. This challenge will require what might seem to some like a radical approach. You will need to fool the cow into believing that the new calf is, in fact, her dead baby come back to life. To accomplish this, you will need to remove the skin from the dead calf and secure it onto the new baby.

Skinning the Dead Calf

Skinning a calf is not a terribly difficult project, but it is daunting for first-timers. If you have never skinned a deer, my advice is to ask one of your neighbors who hunts to come and help. Most hunters would be happy to show you how to complete this project.

A Note About Tools
Do not go to your kitchen drawer and fetch a paring knife. For skinning, you want a knife with a relatively short (4-5 inch), wide, gently-curving blade. It does not need to be super sharp. In fact, once the initial cuts are made in the hide, I prefer a half-sharp blade as it is easier to control and much safer for the humans involved. Here’s a couple of my favorite skinning knives.

Initial Cuts

• Make a circle-cut around the “ankle” or “knee” joint of each leg, and also completely around the neck. Begin this last cut up as close to the ears as you can.

• Make a center-line cut in the hide from the Adam’s apple to the lower abdomen.

• Make connecting cuts from each leg to the center-line cut.

Removing the Skin

This is a place where experience really helps. Basically, you begin by firmly grasping the skin at the edge of an initial cut and puling the hide away from the cut. Use your skinning knife to gently slice through the connective tissue that holds the skin to the body. This can be a fairly slow process. It probably takes me ten or fifteen minutes, but it might easily take an hour if this is your first time. I typically begin at the neck and work my way down. You will note that some areas of the hide are more tightly attached and more difficult to peel off. That’s normal.

You will recall that earlier in this article I mentioned that the cow pays particular attention to the nose, navel and tail area when she is scent-bonding with the baby. This is an important piece of knowledge to keep in mind during skinning. Note: Make certain that you harvest all of the hide around these critical areas, particularly the entirety of the genitalia and anal tissue.  Do not worry about harvesting the nose and face hide of the dead calf, as you will not be able to affix it to the new calf anyway.

In the end, you should have a hide that looks something like this.

Cloaking the Graft Calf

This part of the process is much easier with a helper. One person needs to get the new calf to its feet and then try to hold it steady. The other person drapes the grafting hide over the new calf, arranging it to match, neck to neck and tail to tail. It is very important for the tail to be secured in the proper location, and also that the hide cannot slide off. Take some extra time with this process. You do not need to hurry; the cow will wait.

Next, use a small knife to punch holes in strategic locations around the edge of the grafting hide. (Be careful!).

Finally, use large Zip Ties to secure the grafting hide to the new calf. Be sure to get a Zip Tie placed at the throat, each leg, and at the navel if possible. I have done this many times using plastic baling twine, but Zip Ties are much easier and more secure.

Introduce the New Pair

Put your dog in the truck and insist that everyone keep quiet. This is not a time for stimulation. You want the cow to be able to focus completely on her new baby with no additional stresses.

Hopefully, you have secured the cow in a pen or a relatively small corral. Carry the cloaked graft calf in and set him within sight of the cow. Next, quietly retreat. If the cow is a calm, maternal mother, she will likely immediately approach the calf, perhaps vocalize a bit, then smell its tail, its navel, and its nose. Often, she will immediately begin licking the calf. When this happens, it is time to smile, shake hands and congratulate yourself on a job well done. The calf will likely begin nursing in just a few minutes and the grafting process is basically complete.

I like to leave the cloak on the graft calf for a day or so, just to make sure. One theory I’ve heard is that it helps the pair bond completely if the mother’s milk passes through the digestive system of the calf. In any case, after I’m satisfied that this is true love, I slip in and snip the zip ties, remove the cloak and watch the new pair for a while. If all goes well, this pair can be turned out after another day or so.

What Could Go Wrong?

Frankly, lots of things can go wrong. Many of them can be avoided if you are adamant about the character of the cow involved. A bad cow is a bad cow. Same goes for the calf. If you purchase a defective or sick calf, well, things probably won’t go very well. On occasion a cow will simply decide she is not interested in your replacement calf, or maybe even that she wants to kill it. It is important to watch the new pair closely for a bit before heading to the house. All that said, if you do a good job, your chances of a successful graft are pretty darn good.

Happy grazing, and happy calving, too!


A note from Kathy: Some things to consider.

I asked John how quickly all this needed to happen, and could the hide be stored in the fridge while waiting to find a suitable calf. He said that was possible, and added that the critical issue is the cow and how many days she will stay in a maternal mood after losing her calf. His experience is that is highly variable.

John also mentioned in this article that sometimes there are additional costs associated with grafting. When I asked him about that he reported that his most recent grafting was a perfect example. Although the grafting process went well, the calf fell ill with scours and required four days of treatment with electrolyte drench, pro-biotic paste, and sulfa boluses.

Aside from those costs, consider the time, labor and stress of treating the calf. Then ask yourself if you have the skills and knowledge for this kind of operation.

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

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