Calf Recognition

Parental care is a valuable and costly resource, and evolutionary theory predicts that parents should take care to dispense care to their own young, but not to the young of others. While there are notable exceptions, such as incidents of cross-species adoptions (a dog, for example, caring for a kitten), this principle holds as a general rule. In herds of ungulates (hooved mammals), switching of young could easily occur and it is not surprising that mothers can easily recognize their offspring. For cattle, there is considerable lore supporting the idea that cows use the odors of their calves to make this identification.

Calves often had difficulty keeping up with a cattle drive. One solution was to give them a ride in a wagon and to reunite them with their mothers at the end of the day. This passage describes how19th century cowboys handled this to ensure that mothers would take their calves back:

“Charlie Goodnight to me that when he began taking a ‘calf wagon’ along, to pick up calves born on the trail, he had much difficulty in getting mother cows to accept their young after they were unloaded from the wagon in the evening. A half-dozen or twenty calves jostling together during the day would get their scents mixed, thus making each a stranger to its mother. Goodnight overcame the difficulty by putting over each calf a loose sack, so marked that it was used by the same calf day after day, being removed at evening; thus the scent proper to a calf would be retained for recognition by its mother.” J. Frank Dobie, The Longhorns, 1961, Castle Books, New Jersey, p. 178.

In some instances calves became orphaned. Here are two passages, from very different ranching situations, a century apart, which describe virtually the same procedure used to induce a cow to adopt an orphan calf. Again talking about 19th century cattle drives:

“If a cow lost her calf and at the same time athere was a calf that had lost its mother, the bloodless hide of the dead calf fastened loosely over the orphan would influence the cow to adopt it.” J. Frank Dobie, The Longhorns, 1941, Castle Books, New Jersey, p. 178. (Dobie quotes a similar procedure used to get ewes to adopt lambs.)

and in a modern ranching context:

“He would live or die by morning…If he died we’d peel his hide and make a jacket for one of the orphan calves in the barn, convince the cow it was hers.” Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean, 2002, Vintage Books, New York, p. 290.

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copyright ©2003 Michael D. Breed, all rights reserved