cows in field

Calf Imprinting

Imprinting on day-old calf by massaging ears

Calf Imprinting
Learning from the “old” as we go into the future

By Sonja Heyck-Merlin, Clovercrest Farm, Charleston, ME

What do some Kentucky Derby racehorses and the Jersey calves raised on our central Maine farm have in common? Both have gone through a process known as imprint training or imprinting at birth. Roughly five years ago we were encouraged by an experienced horse trainer with a background in natural horsemanship to experiment with imprinting our newborn heifer calves. We took her advice because she stressed that it wouldn’t take a lot of time, it was virtually free and we would see positive results two years later when we milked these heifers for the first time.

The term imprinting was popularized by Dr. Robert Miller, a veterinarian, in the early 1990’s and according to Miller the practice “offers a singular opportunity to permanently mold a horse’s personality. For a short time, the new born foal is programmed to imprint stimuli. The right procedures at the right time yield dramatic results. There is no time a horse will learn faster” ( Some advantages of imprinting include developing a bond between the newborn and its owner and desensitizing the animal to certain sensory stimuli.

Although the practice of imprinting foals varies it generally includes hand rubbing all parts of the body including the ears and inside the mouth and picking up the feet. Some people also expose the foal to electric clippers, squeeze a girth around them and put a halter on and off a few times. The process is not stopped until the foal relaxes and accepts what the trainer is trying to teach; the foal must submit to the process. Basically, the idea is to expose the foal to any stimuli that it will eventually experience when it begins formal training at around the age of two. These steps are continued for the first few days of the foal’s life.

Calf Imprinting_calfimprintinguddermassage

Massaging the teats on a day old calf

We generally imprint our calves within a few hours of birth when they are first separated from their mother. If a calf was born during pasture season the imprinting might occur up to twelve hours post-calving. The first colostrum feeding is the perfect opportunity to spend a few extra minutes imprinting the calf.

Because we are expecting that each of our heifers will become a milk cow, we focus our imprinting on stimulating the udder and we pretend to dip the animal and then proceed to go through the same motion we use when wiping a mature dairy cow. They often respond by kicking their hind legs or tossing their head but it is important to stick with the process until they stop resisting. Usually they calm down within the first strokes of the imprinting process.
We also simulate the experience of having a collar changed by rubbing the animal’s neck as well as spending some time rubbing the animals ankles preparing them for the leg bands that they’ll eventually adorn. In total we spend about five minutes imprinting a heifer but research for this article has convinced us that we should focus on repeating this process over the next few days.

Freshening first calf heifers can be a time consuming struggle; unpleasant for both the cow and the milkers. Since instituting these basic steps, milking heifers has become a job our team of primarily female milkers is able to accomplish without help. Although it still often takes two people, one with the milking machine and one standing by holding a tail or soothing the animal, it is an entirely different experience than it used to be. The first calf heifer seems to remember the imprinting and quickly accepts its new role as a milk cow.

Roughly one third of our first calf heifers show no signs of stress when they are milked for the first time; they stand in their tie stall without backing up, there is no kicking during the wiping process and they do not kick off the milking unit. Within a few days these heifers are able to be left alone during milking. The next third of our first calf heifers are not as easy to handle during the first week of milking- they often need to be short chained and are more irritated by our milking prep procedures. They may also kick off the machine once or twice. However, they are still able to be milked safely by one person. The remaining third are more challenging to milk but often all we need to do it have a second person stand by and stroke the animal or occasionally hold up its tail.

Unfortunately because we haven’t kept comprehensive imprinting records dating back to the beginning of this practice we can’t clearly correlate the behavior at freshening with imprinting at birth.

It is important to do a more scientific study of the effectiveness of imprinting on dairy heifers. It could prove to be valuable for all dairy animals and farmers. Regardless of future scientific studies, we will continue to use this gentle non-invasive technique and we would be greatly interested to hear if others have similar experiences. The only difficult thing is that it takes two years to see results.

For a demonstration of calf imprinting, please see Sonja’s video at: