Newborn Mimicry: Persuading Farm Mothers to Adopt Orphans


The author with newborn lamb. 

Assisting a newborn lamb. Photo by Jackie Klar

An unavoidable problem for animal husbandry is the management of orphans, or of mothers who have lost young but are still in milk. In both cases, animal health, profits, and time management improve when a newborn can be bonded to an unrelated lactating mother.

Obviously, different methods are employed in various circumstances, and for different types of livestock. Sheep, for instance (despite their reputation as stupid), are particularly sensitive to adopting young not their own: shepherds around the world will resort to skinning a ewe’s stillborn lamb and tying it onto a needful imposter. The ewe’s milk is utilized, and mastitis risk reduced: the lamb gets colostrum and natural milk at the perfect temperature and times, maximizing growth rate while minimizing human labor. Worth skinning the lamb carcass, if the plan works…

Cows are a different matter. If separated from her calf too long, a cow won’t accept her own -- we once had to hobble a massive Hereford cow in a head stanchion daily to get milk for her own calf when she wouldn’t accept it after a separation. Farmers do get orphaned calves to graft to unrelated cows, but the wary cow is not much easier than the ewe. The skinning and cloaking method is an old cow trick too, but some modern farmers instead employ low doses of tranquilizers (for mother), coupled with commercially available “bonding” powder which attracts the cow to lick the treated calf. 

The porcine category of mother is a different breed indeed. Sows are notoriously mercurial at farrowing, and are known to eat or kill their young. Farrowing pens or bumpers are used to prevent sows from unintentionally crushing their piglets, which (in mom’s defense) are generally numerous and boisterous. The farmer too must be careful around these moody mommas -- they are smarter than other animals, quick, and extremely rugged. And new sows can be notoriously ugly, especially in the first three days after farrowing.

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