Grafting a Calf to a New Cow/The Yellow Calf

Today was an interesting day with a lot of surprises, and one first for the ranch, a yellow-ish calf.

This morning we found the calf that was missing in the meadow. It was in a tree row, dead. The cow that had the calf is 5 years old. When things like this happen to a younger cow, we take a calf from an older cow and graft it to the younger one. We have some cows that are 13 years old. Sometimes with older cows, raising a calf can be kinda hard on them as it gets more difficult to keep a good body condition on an older cow supporting a calf. To make her life easier, we graft the calf to the younger cow.

There are different ways to graft a calf and we did two of them today. The most frequent situation requiring a graft is when we have twins and then a cow that has lost a calf. Those situations are easy if the cow has not smelled or seen her calf. The new calf will be easily accepted as her own. Our situations weren’t as simple.

There is a product called “Calf Claim” that is a powder you rub into the calf. We have tried this method and while the cow will lick the powder of the calf looking like she’s claiming it, the tactic only works until the powder wears off.

What we do is an old trick used in ranching for ages. The hide from the dead calf is removed, then it is attached to the new calf using twine. Cows identify their calves by scent and bond with that scent. When the new calf is wearing the hide of the dead calf, the cow smells a mixture of the two and accepts the calf. There are rare instances where the calf is reluctant to accept the cow and that makes things more complicated.


The calf only has to wear the hide for about 12 hours. By that time we can remove the hide (you want to remove it as soon as possible, especially if the weather is warm, it will start to smell).


Now onto the next graft we did today, which was somewhat bizarre.

When we went to tag this morning, there was a cow trying to claim another’s calf. We separated the cow so she would calve on her own. Mad as she was for being separated from “her” calf, she threw the gate to her pen off its hinges and made an escape. By afternoon, she had not produced a calf but was starting to show a water sac. We decided it was time to bring her in and see what the problem was.

Usually we never rupture the water sac, but in this case we knew something was wrong. When we broke open the sac the fluid that came out was yellowish brown. Inspection of the calf revealed a normal sized calf, in normal position. We decided to pull the calf. The calf pulled very easy, but it was basically stained yellow (that’s a first, and very odd). It was responsive and alive.

We took it to a pen and headed to release the cow when my father in law called us back. The calf had just stopped breathing. Efforts to resuscitate started by pumping its lungs using its leg. A check of the airways was clear but we noticed a lot of fluid.  My husband held the calf up by its hind legs to drain the fluid (usually this is frowned upon as it applies pressure to the lungs keeping the calf from breathing, but in our situation there was too much fluid). A large amount of fluid drained out and we kept trying to keep the calf breathing. I noticed its hind legs were stiff and immobile. Despite our efforts, the calf’s eyes glazed over and it died.

What in the world was happening??!!

I had seen a picture of a yellow calf once, and did some more research.

Our calf died of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome. Typically, “meconium” is the term used to describe a newborn’s feces. This syndrome is the result of fetal stress in which the calf defecates while still in the womb. The meconium mixes with the fluids in the womb (turning it yellow) and during calving the calf inhaled the contaminated fluids. The condition puts the calf at an extremely high risk of death. If the calf lives, it will have long-term respiratory problems.

My assumption is that the cow had started to calve when she claimed another’s calf and had her mind set that she’d had her calf so she quit trying to calve. This put the calf under immense stress, causing the Meconium Aspiration Syndrome. This made the transition from the womb to the air world deadly.

The yellow color is staining to the fur and my gloves are still stained despite repeated washes. A few articles that talk about the condition can be found here:

Calfology, Respiratory Disease of the Bovine Neonate
Calf Sessions, Newborn Calf With Rapid Shallow Breathing
Colorado State University, Determining if the Cow/Heifer Needs Your Help (picture of a yellow stained calf)

The last article has a picture of a stained calf. I did not take a picture, I don’t like photographing dead things. We grafted another calf to the cow from an older cow. This method was easier as we just took some of the afterbirth and applied it to the calf.

This made for a rough busy day on the ranch as we also had about 18 calves born today. We usually lose some calves every year, but this year has been particularly rough as we’ve already lost 5 calves. Hopefully things get better; it would be nice to have some twins to make up for our losses.

At any rate, I am thankful for our 109 successful births so far and pray for better luck. The little calf playing in this picture makes me smile.



2 thoughts on “Grafting a Calf to a New Cow/The Yellow Calf

  1. Eileen Bonin

    We used to graft calves…worked pretty good. I have never seen a yellow calf with the meconium staining … (human babies have a dark green fluid) Love reading your stories and seeing the pictures!! Hope to see you guys soon! e


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