Newborn Mimicry: Persuading Farm Mothers to Adopt Orphans

Reader Contribution by John Klar
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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.

But that excess of piglets can be employed to advantage. The method is simple: separate the sow’s own piglets out, mix in the orphaned piglets, and spray or rag them all with cheap perfume. When they rush in hungry to mom, she will instinctively flop on her side and feed the lot — distinguishing her own from the newcomers is hopeless. 

An unnecessary but intriguing twist is to have mothers share babies. I once bred two (sister) sows who farrowed within 24 hours of one another. Celia had 11 piglets, all survived: Petunia (nicknamed the more olfactorily-descriptive “Tuna”) had 12, and was at first utterly terrified of each and every one of them. I housed the 400-pound sows in adjoining stalls, separated by a grid of 2×6’s that had been the sidewall of a flatbed truck — with 6-inch spacing that permitted the young piglets to scramble back and forth between their respective mothers and aunties. The mothers worked in shifts — as did the insatiable swarm of 23 piggies. 

It is frustrating to lose young that can be adopted by other available animal resources: perseverance and creativity reward the resourceful farmer.

John Klarraises grass-fed beef and sheep, and seeks to educate people about where their food comes from and how large corporate interests wish to dominate food production. He moved to Vermont and began farming in 1998. John and his wife, Jacqueline, built and operated an artisanal raw-milk cheese house, and have raised pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, cows, and goats, and grown many varieties of vegetables and herbs. You can connect with John onFacebook.

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