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Pen settling: The simple secret to increasing intakes and reducing stress

Jim Lewis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 April 2019

Whether moving weaned calves into a new group or bringing springing heifers into the transition barn, many dairy producers have come to accept that a pen move will likely result in temporarily decreased feed intake, reduced gains or production, and the potential for a few sick or “off” animals.

But it’s time to challenge that thinking. Pen moves and environment changes don’t have to be stressful. With an understanding of how various transitions an animal faces throughout its lifetime can cause stress, and the knowledge of how to decrease that stress, dairy producers can see better intakes, gains, and overall health and performance at any stage.



Watch the video below as a group of calves are introduced to a new pen for the first time. Notice the four men are using pressure and patience as a low-stress method to encourage the animals to explore the pen and find the feedbunk. Taking a few minutes to do this pays off, as these calves are now less likely to drop in feed intake as they acclimate to the new environment. 

Change, stress and performance impact

Stress, by definition, is a body's reaction to a challenge or demand made upon it. Events occurring on a dairy on a daily basis may induce stress, thus causing a negative response. This author has long supported the belief that poor animal-handling practices create stress and ultimately result in the creation of adrenaline. At its lowest levels, stress may simply be an unmeasurable disruptor, but at higher levels, stress may result in lower dry matter intake (DMI) and impaired immune function, which has been shown to reduce performance.

Implementation of change at any point requires thoughtful consideration of the process by which it is introduced. Management of the process and the conditions surrounding a transition can significantly lessen the negative impact on an animal. Transitions are a necessary occurrence throughout a cow’s life cycle. It starts with birth and continues through maturity as a contributing member of a herd, including at partuition, pen moves or transportation. Mitigating or minimizing the impact of transitions happens by controlling the manner in which transition occurs. 

Within the dairy industry, transitions and/or changes are recognized as events that can be stressful for animals. In fact, it is almost expected. The negative impact may be a reduction in DMI after weaning, reduced milk production after a pen move, difficulty in calving after an untimely move event, etc. This negative impact is then attributed to the change or transition without recognizing or understanding it is the process by which change is introduced that determines the level of impact, and thus the level of stress.   


Use proper livestock handling techniques to reduce stress

Use of proper livestock-handling (PLH) techniques is one approach that can be used to make transitions occur more smoothly and reduce the level of stress. Proper livestock handling occurs when one understands the principles surrounding an animal’s behavior and translates this knowledge in a way that enables them to work in accord with an animal’s natural response to a change, such as a new environment and even the process of being moved.

Understanding proper livestock-handling principles and applying the techniques when working with animals can minimize or even mitigate negative impacts of change. PLH skills are not always inherent, but those who handle animals can learn the principles and develop the techniques. Applying these techniques daily can build a handler’s skill level to help overcome the natural tendencies of waving hands, shouting, striking and so on. Proficiency is built through daily, intentional application in a variety of settings. The techniques can be mastered and honed to a point of being second nature. 

Pen settling

Application of a PLH practice called "pen settling" can help to minimize or eliminate the stress caused by changing animals from one location and/or pen to another. Taking the time to “settle a pen” is an investment that can yield multiple dividends. The practice is fairly simple, which may cause it to be discounted by those who do not understand it, but its use has been proven to have dramatic effects. 

Pen settling is a simple practice that begins with evaluation of the group as a whole to determine what the group needs to adapt to a new environment. Based on that evaluation, one of two techniques could be applied: invoking movement or reducing movement. 

Both techniques are focused on teaching animals to adapt to their new environment. 

  • Invoking movement may be appropriate, for example, when calves are moved from hutches to a group pen. Pressure is applied to drive the calves to one end of the pen and then release them back to the other end. Performing this action as soon as possible upon entry into the new environment and then several times over the course of the next few days works to familiarize calves with their new environment, including the food and water source. While it is often accepted that animals will have a decreased DMI during transition, this is actually the result of being placed in a new environment in which they are unfamiliar with the location of food and water sources. Thus, stalled intake may negatively impact rate of gain, performance and health. Minimizing or mitigating the level of stress caused by any change can lead to consistent intakes and sustained performance, as measured by growth rate.

It is also worth noting that something as seemingly innocuous as an 8-inch curb, a slant bar and/or lockup or grate, etc. can create a temporary barrier. The practice of pen settling can help the animals overcome such barriers. A quantifiable measure of success of adaptation to a new environment is sustained or increased DMI.


  • Reducing movement is appropriate when there is evidence of distress and extreme mannerisms being exhibited by individual animals. For example, when a group of heifers is put in a pen and they continue to mill about instead of lying down, eating or drinking, it may be due to the energy of one or two animals. The handler identifies the animals exhibiting nervous behaviors, such as holding their heads high with ears in the forward position.

Pressure and release techniques are then applied to the energetic individuals to calm them. Taking the energy out of one or two animals can result in the rest in the group calming since their behavior was being driven by the few agitated individuals. Again, sustained DMI can be used to gauge the effectiveness of this process. 

The second part of the practice of pen settling is placement.

Placement in a pen involves the introduction of pressure from a specific angle to create movement in a desired direction. The release of pressure on the animals prior to their arrival at the desired spot is an important part of the animals’ understanding of where you want them to stop. In the case of pen settling new arrivals, the end destination could be the feedbunk, water tank or resting area.

Transitions are unavoidable during an animal’s life cycle. However, once it is recognized that the impact of transitions can be significantly lessened if change is introduced in a way that does not invoke stress, it can have less of a negative impact. This may mean being diligent in moving an animal at the optimal time and in the proper manner for the situation to help minimize creation of adrenaline.

The introduction of proper livestock-handling techniques represents an investment in personnel that work with a dairy’s primary asset. Providing education and training in the principles and techniques is a critical component. Similar to any other new practice or procedure, it will require ongoing support and reinforcement to ensure the techniques are performed consistently and properly by all personnel with any livestock-handling responsibilities.  end mark

VIDEOProvided by Jim Lewis.

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