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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.


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