Maternal Behaviour of Beef Cows

by Joseph M. Stookey


Cow licking newborn calf


    Maternal care consist of a wide range of activities directed towards the young by the mother. Basically maternal care represents the mother's willingness to sacrifice her time, energy and resources towards the rearing and protection of her offsping.

    How does maternal behaviour in beef cattle work? What do we know about the bonding process between the cow and her calf? How does the cow and calf recognize each other, remember each other and discriminate against other calves and cows? What are some of the factors that can interfere with this process and how can we manipulate it? Knowing the answer to some of these questions will help provide us with a knowledge base about maternal behaviour in beef cows that may aid us during the calving season.

Hormones and Behaviour

    For most behaviours we observe there is an element of learning or experience interacting with some innate response. But in general, hormones tend to initiate and drive most of the maternal behaviour. It is hormones that cause the cow to be receptive to a newborn calf and form an attachment. They switch on her ability to recognize and remember her own calf so she can discriminate against other calves. It is the changes in progesterone and estrogen levels which initiates the birthing process, however, the hormonal profile and specifically the hormone oxytocin triggers maternal behaviour (Malven, 1993). Most of us think of oxytocin as the hormone associated with uterine contractions and milk letdown, but it is also the key hormone which stimulates maternal behaviour.

    Oxytocin is released in the olfactory bulb of the brain during parturition (Kendrick et al., 1987). Its presence in the brain appears necessary for facilitating memory and recognition of the offspring (Levy et. al. 1995). Its presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain also helps explain the role that the sense of smell may play and the importance of odor in recognition and discrimination of the calf by the cow.

    The release of oxytocin is caused by stimulation and stretching of the cervix and the birth canal (Kendrick et al., 1991). One interesting finding is that primiparous females release less oxytocin than multiparous females (Levy et al., 1995). Giving birth one time seems to prime the system and enables the release of larger quantities of oxytocin on subsequent births. Heifers may therefore have a disadvantage on two counts; not only are they less experienced than cows, but they also have lower levels of oxytocin released in their brain during calving. This may explain why heifers have a higher incidence than cows of abandonment and rejection of their calves. This may also partially explain why females having a C-section (and less cervical stimulation) have a higher incidence of mis- mothering. Also, analgesic drugs used during a C-section, to block pain, can interfere with oxytocin release (Levy et al., 1992). It is uncertain if an injection of oxytocin can adequately stimulate maternal behaviour since plasma levels are quickly metabolized and may not adequately elevate cerebral levels.

Preparturient behaviour and isolation

    Maternal behaviour actually begins prior to calving. Cows do not prepare a birth site per se, but they demonstrate some tendencies to select a birth site. A common question is whether cows isolate themselves at calving? Some studies (and some producers) will report that a high percentage of cows will seek isolation at calving. Yet other research studies (and other producers) will claim the tendency to isolate is not that strong. Is this discrepancy explained by genetic variation? The answer appears to depend upon the age of the female and the environmental conditions in which she is kept. Unlike some behaviours which are rather rigid or fixed, the behaviour to seek isolation at calving is more "flexible" in nature and the cow appears to adjust her behaviour depending upon the conditions in which she finds herself. Cattle, bison and reindeer all seek isolation at calving when they are in an area that has adequate cover or forest. Without cover they appear content to calve within the immediate vicinity of the herd (Lidfors et. al., 1994). It is likely that the plasticity of the behaviour would be beneficial for reducing predation; hide the offspring if possible or use the defenses of the herd when unable to hide. It is also possible that the physical separation from the herd helps the cow to form an attachment to her calf without interference from other cows. It is interesting to note that first-calf-heifers are more likely to isolate themselves from the herd than mature cows (Lidfors et al., 1994). The researchers who have studied this suspect that because heifers tend to have lower dominance ranks within the herd they are more easily disturbed by older cows and therefore more prone to move away from the herd and the dominant individuals at calving.

Two cows claiming one calf

    Females that do not isolate themselves from the herd at calving run the risk of having other females interfere with the bonding process, especially by other females who are near parturition and are also receptive to newborns. Heifers would probably benefit more than cows if kept in an area of low stocking density at the time of calving (a guess would be 750 sq. ft/animal or more). As the density of cattle increases within a pen or pasture, the likelihood of mis-mothering appears to increase. Through our past experiences at the W.C.V.M. during the 1980¹s (when we sent veterinary students to a large commercial ranch to assist in calving over 1000 heifers) we observed as high as 10% of the heifers showed signs of mis-mothering. The mis-motherings included cases of two or more heifers trying to claim the same calf, heifers abandoning calves and heifers ³stealing² calves from other heifers. Based on behavioural observations it may be that heifers would benefit if they were provided areas or partitions which allowed them to isolate themselves at calving if they so choose. We already know that providing ewes at lambing time with free access to lambing cubicles has been successful in reducing mis-mothering (Gonyou and Stookey, 1983). However, to date no studies have been done to test if cattle would use partitions or barriers in order to isolate themselves at calving or whether there would be any benefit of providing such areas. I could envision the idea back-firing if there were only a few partitions, if they also served as shelters and attracted the bulk of the herd. In such a scenario a female might actually leave a crowded shelter (partitioned area) to seek isolation from the herd and she could end up calving in a harsher environment than the rest of the herd was enjoying. Again the key would be to have enough space (or shelter) to provide isolation if the females seek it. We found 1 cubicle for every 10 ewes to be an adequate ratio for providing a continuously available isolated area for ewes at lambing time.

Calf Vigor

    If we took a detailed look at the behaviour of the cow immediately following birth we could identify numerous types of behavioural events. To the casual observer these behaviours may seem random. Upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that there is a sequence of behavioural actions by the cow as she reacts to the various sensory cues provided by the birth fluids and the newborn calf. The completion of one behaviour leads directly to the next behaviour, in sort of a cascade of events unfolding in a set order. For cows which give birth lying down, most will look back over their shoulder while they are still lying down and they get their first glimpse of the calf as it is pushed free of the birth canal. The movement of the calf at this stage is a strong stimulus to the cow to get up and turn around and face the calf. Calves that shake their head and are vigorous, elicit a stronger response and are more attractive to the cow than weak or dead calves. In one study at the W.C.V.M we tracked over 200 cases of cows and heifers that required veterinary assistance (either a C-section or pull) and found that a significantly higher percentage of calves which were judged as weak at birth were rejected compared to calves judged as average or strong. (Weak calves were often larger calves and were physically exhausted due to a prolonged and difficult birth.)

Birth Fluids

    The smell and taste of the birth fluids is another strong attractant that further drives the maternal behaviour and stimulates the cow to lick the calf. If the process is interrupted before the cow licks the calf, then the likelihood of mis-mothering or rejection of the newborn increases. It is not uncommon to find that females which have had difficult deliveries and required human assistance show signs of rejecting their young. There may be several reason for this, but one technique that has been successful in facilitating proper maternal response has been to smear birth fluids across the muzzle and tongue of the dam following delivery. This technique seems to "jump-start" the maternal response in females. Simply pulling the newborn into the front of the mother may not be a sufficient stimulus to start the maternal behaviour, especially for some first-calf-heifers. Pouring feed onto a newborn calf may also help some reluctant mothers to approach the calf and eventually come in contact with the birth fluids as they eat the feed. I have heard that some producers in Argentina pour milk onto the calf to get the cow interested in the calf. I suspect any attractant that can stimulate the cow to lick the calf would be useful.

Cow licking newborn calf     As the cow licks her calf she begins the process of learning the features (smell and sight) that will help her to identify her calf and discriminate against other calves. You will notice that the newborn calf does not gain access to the udder for sometime after birth. Calves do not jump up and approach the udder prior to the cow "learning" something about the calf, such an event would be out-of-sequence. In fact, cows will rarely let a calf nurse unless they are certain that the calf belongs to them. Therefore, if you want to cross-foster an older calf onto a cow immediately after you have pulled a dead calf (the ideal time when she is most receptive) it may be beneficial to replicate the sequence of events and the conditions of a newborn calf. In other words, since birth fluids are such strong attractants, you should smear birth fluids* onto the cross-fostered calf. In addition, you should tie the legs of the calf so it does not immediately try to nurse the cow. Both conditions will simulate a newborn calf. Once the cow has ³learned² some characteristics of the calf (once she has licked the calf) the legs can be untied to allow the calf to stand and nurse. By this time the cow is more likely to let the calf nurse than she would have been if you simply turned a hungry calf in with a cow and it headed straight for the udder.

  • Birth fluids maintain their attractiveness after freezing and thawing. In addition, they do not seem to be animal specific. Fluids collected on rags from other births can be stored in plastic bags and frozen. Once they are thawed they will be attractive to other females that have just given birth.
  • Recognition

        It is not by accident that a cow rejects the approaches and nursing attempts from all calves except her own. If females let all the calves in the herd nurse, then only the oldest calves would survive. Natural selection insures that females will invest in their own offspring and no other. Therefore there is selection pressure on cattle (and most species) to be able to recognize their own offspring. But why is recognition and bonding between a cow and her calf completed so quickly after parturition for cattle? Many species such as swine, dogs, cats, bears, etc. fail to recognize their own offspring for some time after birth. Crossfostering young a few days after birth for such species is relatively easy. As a general rule of thumb, we find recognition between the mother and her offspring is complete prior to or near the time when the young of the species could mix (Gonyou and Stookey, 1987).

    Cow returning to calf hidden in grass     Many species which are nest builders have very helpless young that are physically uncoordinated and are unlikely to wander from the nest immediately following birth. Nest builders use spatial recognition to identify their young. By spatial recognition, I mean they remember where the nest is located and have no "need" to recognize the young in the nest. By simply returning to the nest they are guaranteed that they are providing care to their own offspring. Cattle on the other hand give birth to young that are precocial and are able to move around shortly after birth. Because newborn calves can mix with other calves fairly soon after birth, natural selection has put pressure on the bovine to recognize and discriminate between calves soon after birth. It is interesting to note that cattle are a hider species which leave their newborns hidden while they graze. Cattle also demonstrate good spatial memory (they remember where things are located)(Bailey et al., 1989). They can remember migration routes, watering holes, shelter and the location of their newborn calf. It is very possible (though not scientifically tested or proven) that cattle are using spatial memory to assist them in determining if a newborn calf is their own. Cows may have help "deciding" if a calf is their own based on where they find the calf. Picking up newborn calves and moving them into a barn for protection from the cold, may confuse a new mother if she is unable to visually follow the move. One rancher told me that he makes sure to return newborn calves to the birth site after he warms them and gives them colostrum. Through his experience he noted some cows would not claim a calf after he has dried them off, warmed them up, fed them colostrum and placed them in a bedded area within the barn. This suggests that cows may initially be using spatial memory to help them identify their calf. I suggest that if you do need to move a calf from the birth site you make certain the cow follows the calf. I would also be reluctant to totally dry a newborn calf because the birth fluids are such a strong stimulus in eliciting maternal behaviour.

    Factors influencing mis-mothering

    Veterinarian pulling calf     Occasionally some cows or heifers will give birth and show no interest in their calf. What contributes to this poor (or lack of) maternal behaviour? The situations where this seems to be the most common is in those females requiring assistance. When all the factors associated with assisting a calving are considered it is not surprising that improper maternal behaviour is displayed. Fear, stress, analgesic drugs (for C-section), and pain (following C-section), plus the general disturbance and activity associated with assisting a calving are just a few factors that can potentially interfere with subsequent maternal behaviour either directly or by altering the hormonal profile of the cow.

        Results from our 2 yr. survey of over 200 assisted cases were revealing in several ways. There was a large portion of heifers within the population (over 30%) which required assistance at calving (much too large in my estimation). Both heifers and cows were more likely to show signs of rejection following an assisted delivery compared to unassisted females. One year of our study we had as high as 23% of the assisted heifers showing signs of rejecting their calf following delivery. We also found that cows were 6 times more likely to reject their calf if they had a C-section versus a pull. Certainly this does not mean producers and veterinarians should avoid providing assistance when necessary, but it does suggest that conditions which cause dystocia (e.g. breeding to bulls which sire large calves) are an extra expense and increase the risk of rejection and the subsequent frustration in trying to mother-up pairs.

        Breed did not seem to influence the level of rejection, nor did the body condition score of the cow, though breed has been identified as a source in variation in maternal behaviour (Le Neindre, 1989). In sheep, both the breed and the body condition influence the level of abandonment. Ewes in poorer condition have a higher rate of abandonment (Alexander et al., 1983). Perhaps our study had two few cases to show a breed or body condition effect. We did not find a difference in the level of rejection for those cases attended at the client's ranch versus those treated at the clinic. However, the number of rejections tended to increase as more time elapsed from the moment the producer noticed a problem until a veterinarian attended the case. The message appears to be you should use whatever route is faster in providing assistance. Cows giving birth to twins in our study also tended to have a higher incidence of rejection, something other researchers have noticed (Price et. al., 1986).

    Cross-fostering and mothering-up calves

       There has been very little research conducted on crossfostering calves, but fortunately a great deal is known on how to successfully crossfoster lambs. I believe some of the same principles which have been successful in sheep could be applied to cattle. Both species form rapid attachments to their young and both use odor as the primary method of recognizing their newborn. Over time both species learn to recognize their young by sight and voice. And most importantly both species seem to readily accept a foster young if they have lost their own offspring.

    Cow restrained to allow calf to suckle     A cow which loses a calf, but was showing adequate maternal behaviour is an ideal candidate for raising a calf. By skinning the dead calf and covering the orphan calf with the hide a successful graft is possible. Often times this is not even necessary and some cows that have lost a calf switch their focus onto another calf after very little restraint and penning together. In fact, females that have lost their calf, but showed proper maternal behaviour take an orphan calf easier than some cows take their own calf that they rejected immediately after birth. In other words, do not waste your time and effort forcing a cow to accept her own calf after she has clearly shown signs of rejecting it and no signs of maternal behaviour, when you might have a better candidate (one that has lost her calf) who already has shown maternal behaviour. Sometimes we get hung up on the concept that the mother should raise her own calf when in reality we just want a cow, any cow, to raise the calf.

        Can odors be applied to a calf to mask the smell and help facilitate acceptance? Each year the same ideas or newer versions of the same idea surface that using Vicks Vap-O-Rub, hair spray, or some other strong smelling compound on the calf or in the cow's nose will help facilitate cow-calf bonding. However, the logic and the results are not convincing. Everyone seems to agree (including the cow) that smell is very important in the cow-calf bonding process. But for a cow who rejects a calf because it smells "unfamiliar", the addition of strange smelling compounds does not improve "familiarity". Why would a cow which has rejected a normal smelling calf decide to accept a calf because it smells like Vicks, hairspray, cologne, etc. when in fact her initial rejection was based on unfamiliarity in the smell? Controlled studies in sheep (where crossfostering is a much bigger concern and much more research has been done) have shown that strong smelling compounds do not improve bonding when applied onto the newborn or smeared on the dam's nose, but do work when the ewe has opportunity to learn the odor by associating it with her own lamb over a 24 hr period (Alexander et al., 1987). If the ewe had time to "learn" the new odor and associate it with her own lamb she will readily accept a strange lamb with the same odor. This is the same principle at work when a cow that has lost her calf accepts an orphan calf wearing the skin of the dead calf.

        Using strong smelling odors, at least in sheep experiments, DID NOT improve the level of acceptance over controls groups. Research suggests it is not the addition of the strong smelling odor that is important, but the additional conditions (such as separate penning) that help to facilitate bonding. In sheep experiments 50% of the control ewes will accept an orphan lamb if you simply pen the orphan lamb and ewe together and remove her own lamb (Alexander et al., 1985). I believe some cattle producers report some success in getting cows to accept an orphan calf, not because they used strong smelling odors, but simply because the cow and orphan calf are penned together and the cow can not find her own calf, therefore she redirects her maternal behaviour towards the orphan calf. Separate penning seems to be the key. Additional restraint is sometimes needed, but within a couple of days a successful graft is possible (Alexander and Bradley, 1985).


        Maternal behaviour is strongly regulated by the hormonal profile of the female and influenced by previous maternal experience. Heifers are more likely than cows to show signs of mis-mothering a newborn calf and the assistance at parturition further increases that probability. Steps that can be taken to reduce mis-mothering include providing adequate space for females at calving, prompt attention for female requiring assistance and insuring that the female comes in contact with birth fluids (smell and taste) after calving. Crossfostering a calf onto a cow who has lost her calf is often an easier option then forcing a reluctant mother to accept her own calf.


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    Kendrick, K.M., E.B. Keverne, and B. A. Baldwin. 1987. Intracerebroventricular oxytocin stimulates maternal behaviour in the sheep. Neuroendo. 46:56-61.

    Kendrick, K. M., E. B. Keverne, M. R. Hinton and J. A. Goode. 1991. Cerebrospinal fluid and plasma concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin during parturition and vaginocervical stimulation in the sheep. Brain Res. Bull. 26(5):803-808.

    Le Neindre. 1989. Influence of cattle rearing conditions and breed on social relationships of mother and young. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 23:117-127.

    Levy, F., K. M. Kendrick, E. B. Keverne, V. Piketty and P. Poindron. 1992. Intracerebral oxytocin is important for the onset of maternal behavior in inexperienced ewes delivered under peridural anesthesia. Behav. Neurosci. 106(2):427-432.

    Levy, F., K. M. Kendrick, J. A. Goode, R. Guevara-Guzman and E. B. Keverne. 1995. Oxytocin and vasopressin release in the olfactory bulb of parturient ewes: Changes with maternal experience and effects on acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid, glutamate and noradrenaline release. Brain Res. 669(2):197-206.

    Lidfors, L.M., D. Moran, J. Jung, P. Jensen and H. Castren. 1994. Behaviour at calving and choice of calving place in cattle kept in different environments. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 42 (1):11-28.

    Malven, P. V. 1993. Mammalian Neuroendocrinology. CRC Press, Inc. Boca Raton, Florida. pp 229-231.

    Price, E. O., V. M. Smith, J. Thos and G.B. Anderson. 1986. The effect of twinning and maternal experience on maternal-filial relationships in confined beef cattle. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 15:137-146.

    This paper was presented November 18th, at the 1997 Saskatchewan Beef Symposium held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The paper is printed in the Proceedings of the 1997 Saskatchewan Beef Symposium.

    For a copy of the 1997 Saskatchewan Beef Symposium Proceedings send request:

    Mr. Grant Wood P.Ag.
    Extension Division
    University of Saskatchewan
    117 Science Place
    Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
    Canada -- S7N 5C8
    Telephone: 306-966-5586
    Facsimile: 306-966-5567
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