The Art and Science of Calf Grafting

Ranching is not always nice. It’s not always pretty or kind. Bad things do happen, but as cattlepeople our job is to attempt to mitigate those bad things to the best of our ability. I covered bottle calves a few posts ago, in this post we are going to talk about what happens when you need one of those bottle calves as a replacement calf.

My Dad starts by skinning the dead calf.

Calves die. Sometimes they will get sick, sometimes they will get hurt, sometimes they will fall into a ditch and drown. It never gets easier seeing a dead calf. But thankfully it doesn’t happen that often and when it does, we have methods that soothe the grieving momma cow, and gives a bottle calf a new lease of life – grafting.

This calf died because a cow stepped on his back and broke it. He was paralyzed and was in a great deal of pain. The decision was made to euthanize him.

Once the calf is skinned, you place his hide on the bottle calf that will be taking his place. This is done because the dead calf’s hide smells like the cow. The cow will think it’s her baby because it smells like him, making the graft much easier.

A leg hole for the new baby. This is a trade secret many producers don’t think about doing. If you cut 4 holes in the hide, it acts like a “jacket” so you don’t have to use string (that a cow could eat, and then die from).

The new calf getting his “jacket”

The calf is placed with its new mom. We put the pair in a dark room in the barn, we like the cow to really be able to smell the calf and not see it as much for the first few hours. We think it helps with the graft.

The cow thinking her baby came back and a very hungry bottle calf in a “jacket”.

The “jacket” will be removed from the calf in about two days. In the meantime the calf will be licked and loved by his new Mom, and he will be drinking her milk. This will make the baby really smell like her’s even when the “jacket” is removed.

Mom and calf, happy and eating! Success!

Calf grafting is one of my first memories of working on the Ranch. I remember being a very little kid and my Dad teaching me how to graft one of the bottle calves I was taking care of, to one of our old Hereford cows. My Dad claimed to learn his particular method of grafting from an old cowboy, but I can’t remember who. It’s always felt like a pretty big deal to me, giving a calf a new mom and mom and new baby to love.


Filed under Ag, Beef, History, photos, Ranch life, Uncategorized

17 Responses to The Art and Science of Calf Grafting

  1. Gilda Franco

    Loved this story. It made me tear up a bit.

  2. Anjanette

    I always wondered how that was done. Nice story and well told.

  3. Wow – kudos to you for writing this story! I’m sure you will get some negative comments – not from this gal! This was a great post!! Thanks for explaining this practice – especially the way you did! We need more posts like this! Keep up the great work!

  4. Taysha R

    Excellent article!! We have done this multiple times and it is great to see you explain it in such an educational manner! Great work!!

  5. Thanks for writing this post – while there is no joy in death on the ranch (especially with the babies,) there is nearly always opportunity for new life, as with grafting. It’s good for people to see and understand the not-so-romantic part of ranch life.

    Bravo, as usual!

  6. Meg, this is bold blogging and I thank you for it. Grafting is a practice I was raised with around my uncle and grandpa and our Hereford cattle. I always thought of it as a part of the circle of life on the farm. Being a farmer or rancher is an act of selfless love for your land and animals. You demonstrated that in this post. Again, thank you for being bold and showing your passion to care for and respect your animals, even in tough circumstances.
    Katie Pinke

  7. I just found your blog – although I’m not sure how I’ve missed it before. Thank you so much for writing this post. Fortunately we’ve never had to do this yet, but I know it happens all the time. This is so educational – even if it’s not pretty, it’s a fact of life and you are so brave for showing us. I hope you don’t get any negative comments – if so ignore them – you are awesome!

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  10. Love the post. It is very sad when a calf dies, but you are right – it is our responsibility as farmers to make the best out of situations. Hope this momma loves her baby as much as her original one.

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  13. I had no idea this was a thing. Thank you so much for sharing and showing the rest of us how this works and why.

  14. Julia Chilicas

    Beautiful! I had no idea this was a thing! Man, the things you know! Your strength is amazing.

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  16. Richard

    Very interesting. I have never heard of this practice before. My neighbor has beef cattle and I will have ask her if she knows of this.


  17. Jennifer Johnson

    Thank you for posting this – I too did not know of this practice although it makes perfect sense. Life is not always pretty or easy when you have farm animals – but you always strive to do your best by them no matter what.

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