Cowcalf Behavior

Cows strive to isolate themselves at birth to allow for calf bonding during the initial 24 to 48 hours after birth. When cows are kept in close confinement, preventing isolation from the herd, it is not uncommon for a calf to become orphaned or to incompletely bond with its dam. This has obvious well-being consequences because nonbonded calves are unable to obtain milk from their dams and are subject to starvation. Ensuring an isolated area for each cow will prevent this problem. Another area of concern for calves is unthriftiness, weak calf syndrome, and calves that do not suck, a condition known as dummy calf syndrome. Close observation of newborn calves will identify these problems. If calves can be helped to suckle during the first several days, they often learn to suck on their own and regain a healthful status.

During the first week or more of life the calf will be left on its own away from the herd, which is termed hiding behavior. Good management dictates that producers find each calf to ensure that it is in good health and receiving adequate nutrition. The cow should respond to the stockperson's approach by coming to the side of her calf. It is also common for calves to form nurseries, in which calves congregate while their dams graze elsewhere. At least one cow will stay close to the nursery. If they are disturbed, the cow will vocalize, at which point her calf comes to her and the cows in the herd return to their own calves. Nursery formation is normal and should not be taken as a sign that the cow has abandoned her calf.

In terms of maternal care, there is a necessary balance between a protective dam and an aggressive dam. Cow calf production on the range requires that dams are protective of their calves. However, overly aggressive dams are dangerous to stockpersons and should be culled to prevent injuries. Care should be taken by producers to not select overly passive cows that may in turn neglect their calves.

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