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Calving pen management: Insights from the cow’s perspective

Kate Creutzinger for Progressive Dairy Published on 03 May 2022

Most transition diseases occur during the three weeks after calving, many of which are triggered at birth. Creating a low-stress calving pen can have positive impacts on dairy cow welfare by limiting the amount of time cows spend in labor and allowing cows to perform maternal behaviors.

Using maternal behaviors and cow’s preferences can help design low-stress calving environments. Prior to calving, outdoor-housed dairy and beef cows separate from the herd and seek secluded areas with natural resources (e.g., tall grasses and overhead tree cover) to give birth. Recently, new research has found that indoor-housed dairy cows have retained some of their natural instincts at calving. These include the motivation to separate from other cows and hide using man-made structures in the calving pen.

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Whether you are looking to improve a current calving pen or design a new facility, here are a few tips to give your cows what they want in their calving environment.

Give cows the power of choice

Understanding a cow’s preference for calving environments when housed in semi-natural outdoor environments can help us understand calving preferences and motivated behaviors.

A study carried out on a 4.3-acre pasture at the University of Tennessee investigated if dairy cows preferred to give birth in a covered barn, on an open pasture or in an area containing natural forage (i.e., tall grass and tree cover). This study found that most heifers calved in areas containing natural forage (71% of heifers) and most first- or greater-lactation cows calved in a covered barn (72% of cows). Preference for calving environment also depended on weather. Cows were more likely to calve on pasture if the thermal heat index (THI) was below 68ºF.

Many farms in the U.S. use indoor calving pens. A recent collaborative study between Ohio State University and the Miner Agricultural Research Institute investigated if indoor-housed cows in group maternity pens also seek privacy at calving. The study provided four calving pens: two pens with a calving blind created from road barriers and two unaltered pens. More cows calved in the blind pen when it was installed (36% of cows) compared to when a blind wasn’t provided (14% of cows).

Individual variation in calving location on pasture and blind use by cows at calving demonstrates there is no one-size-fits-all approach and preferences vary by cow. Ideally, a calving pen will provide different environments so a cow can choose her preferred calving location.

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Reduce competition for resources

Another factor to consider when designing calving pens is to limit competition for provided resources. For example, a study in the Netherlands provided multiple calving blinds in a group calving pen and the ratio of cows to blinds was 1-to-1. Approximately 50% of cows gave birth in a calving blind, and the other 50% gave birth in the group pen. Comparatively, when housed in the same environment with a calving blind of similar dimensions, only 13% of cows gave birth in a calving blind when the ratio of cows to blinds was increased to 2-to-1. Increasing competition for blind access reduced the number of cows that used them to give birth.

Additionally, a study from the University of British Columbia provided cows a shelter in an open pack area in the calving pen. This study found that when pair housed, cows avoided calving in a shelter, but when housed individually, a greater proportion of cows gave birth in a shelter than the open area. These studies demonstrate the importance of providing enough resources per cow because increased competition will limit use.

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Provide additional space

Providing additional pen space is an easy way to improve indoor calving pens. When housed on pasture, cows generally move away from the herd and isolate in the hours before calving. A collaborative study between the Miner Institute and OSU provided cows with 200 square feet (18.6  square meters – low stocking density) or 100 square feet (9.3 square meters – high stocking density) per cow in group calving pens (Image 1 and 2). Approximately four hours before calving, cows started to distance from their pen mates. Cows in low stocking calving pens also gave birth further away from their pen mates than cows housed in high stocking density pens.

Similar to cows in seminatural environments, indoor-housed cows have retained the instinct to give birth away from other cows.

Create a clean, comfortable space

Finally, it is important to provide a clean, comfortable environment for cows to give birth. Lactating cows avoid laying in wet bedding and will reduce their lying time by up to five hours a day in damp environments. Cows also avoid giving birth in wet bedding and/or high-traffic areas. Creutzinger et al. found that cows avoided giving birth next to a waterer where bedding was frequently wet and/or dirty and in the entrance to the feed alley in group calving pens.

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Creating a clean calving environment is equally important for calves. Calves are born without an innate immunity, and wet, dirty bedding is a breeding ground for bacteria. Studies have found that calving pens that are cleaned regularly (between every calving), have lower disease rates for pre-weaned calves than calving pens cleaned infrequently.

Apply these concepts to the dairy

  • There is no one-size-fits-all approach for calving pens, and giving cows the opportunity to choose their calving environment can reduce stress.
  • If you provide calving blinds to cows, make sure there are enough resources so that cows can use them without competition.
  • Provide at least 150 – 200 square feet  per cow in group calving pens.
  • Make sure bedding is clean and dry for cow comfort and newborn calf health.  end mark

Image 1: Group calving pens with 100 square feet per cow with a calving blind made from road barriers.

Image 2: Group calving pens with 200 square feet per cow with a calving blind made from road barriers. Photos by Kate Creutzinger.

Kate Creutzinger
  • Kate Creutzinger

  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Animal and Food Science
  • University of Wisconsin – River Falls
  • Dairy Innovation Hub Affiliate
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Email Kate Creutzinger

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