In human terms, the word “mis-mothering” sounds like a word one might use to describe a neighbour who, say, allows her kids to stay out late on school nights. In the bovine world, however, mis-mothering refers to more troubling maternal behaviour: the outright rejection of offspring. It’s an enormous, little-understood challenge that plagues the neglected calf who, without parental attachment, is left vulnerable to illness and predatory attack. For the rancher, mis-mothering has significant economic impact. The challenge is how best to improve the bond between cow and calf or — in cases where the mother has died due to childbirth or illness — between calf and foster cow.

A new study from the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine aims to understand why cow-calf bond formation sometimes fails, how it can be encouraged and how ranchers can mitigate the problem easily and efficiently.

Ed Pajor is a UCalgary professor and global leader in animal behaviour and welfare, and is currently in the third year of a five-year appointment as the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Welfare. Since the fall of 2014, the Chair endowment has allowed Pajor and his colleagues to increase activities related to improving the welfare of beef cattle — an area that historically has not been well funded. That support has already put the faculty at the vanguard of veterinary research, fuelling the collection and analysis of data that aligns with new federal animal-welfare regulations for industry. “We’ve been able to provide scientific evidence around pain mitigation and recovery in production animals,” says Pajor. “This kind of research helps us make further improvements to animal care and welfare, which has positive economic benefit to industry.”

The bond-formation project, likewise funded by the endowment, serves to address another vexing challenge to the beef industry. PhD student veterinarian Anneliese Heinrich, who shares Pajor’s interest in pain mitigation in production animals, has opened up a conversation with ranchers about what they already do to decrease the occurrence of mis-mothering, improve bonding and help cows adopt young calves. Those discussions guide her and Pajor’s efforts as they investigate the behaviour of post-natal cows and calves who may have experienced a particularly difficult birth. “A cow who goes through a great deal of pain may need time to recover, and that delay in recovery time may have an effect on bonding,” says Pajor. “Basically, the cow can’t stand up to smell and lick her calf. Maybe helping her recover faster would help the bonding, which improves the viability of the calf.”

The mis-mothering project will experiment with managing the pain of the cow and calf after a difficult birth, as well as evaluate whether the administration of oxytocin (a.k.a. the “love hormone”) to cow and/or calf can help kick-start the cow-calf bond. As well, the study will aim to develop simple management techniques that might improve the rancher’s ability to encourage a bond with the mother or a foster cow. “Industry needs solutions that are science-based,” says Pajor. “We want solutions that are a win for the calf and for the rancher.”

Building on a commitment to best practices and the use of technology in their own operations, J.C. (Jack) Anderson and his daughter, Wynne Chisholm from W.A. Ranches, made a $5-million gift to establish the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare to promote research and innovation in Alberta’s cattle industry and beyond. The cow-calf bonding project is supported by data collected through ongoing calf survivability research by PhD candidate Jennifer Pearson (above left), co-supervised by Ed Pajor and Claire Windeyer, assistant professor production animal health. Their efforts have been expanded and enhanced thanks to the chair endowment.

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