Calving Pen Design and Management Crucial for Dam and Calf Success

Published on Fri, 02/17/2023 - 9:43am

Calving Pen Design and Management Crucial for Dam and Calf Success.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 The close-up cow has a big transition ahead of her. In fact, the period from calving through postpartum recovery is perhaps one of the  most vulnerable and critical stages of her life. Many  stressors  come with calving:  a move to a new pen, a change in feed, and closer proximity to herdmates, among others.

A key to ensuring a smooth transition is addressing the facilities in which she will calve and regain her strength. This is also essential for the health of the calf, who faces risks from exposure to  dangerous pathogens  and bodily injury from the moment it  enters the world.

Starting a calf out on the right hoof sets them up for success in the herd. Proper management of the cow not only allows them to recover from calving but to also encourage a productive lactation.

Research tells us that, for the cow, what happens in the transition period will contribute to her lactation cycle and overall health. Because of this, environment is especially important.Depending on the farm and facility flow, a cow could spend anywhere from a single day to a week or even longer in the calving pen. Layout and access to food and water is especially important for this duration.

The farm calving area
In his Michigan State University bulletin Calving Pens: Individual vs. Group, agent Phil Durst says that calving pen location must be a matter of both management practicality and animal welfare. These areas must minimize stress to the cows and also offer a comfortable area that provides calving security and limits exposure to pathogens.
Ideally, this area should be kept far away from the sick pen. Postpartum and close-up cows should not only be grouped separately from sicks or culls, but employees should also observe protocols that prevent cross-contamination.

Cows are the most vulnerable to transitional diseases in the early weeks of their postpartum. In addition to nutritionally complex needs, they are also going through a variety of different biological processes all at once, from calving itself through colostrum and milk production. A low-stress calving environment increases cow welfare and can aid in reducing labor time.
Reducing stress and other environmental factors helps keep the cow’s immune system strong and prevents the hindrance  the calf’s already weakened immunity.

Proper calving pens pay off
There are some systems or setups that don’t move a close-up cow until the last minute, and that requires frequent observation and committed employees to make sure cows get moved, advises Durst.

If these close-up cows are not carefully watched, it can be difficult on the calf management side to make sure the calf and cow get what they need. It could result in a  cow having a long labor, which not only increases the animal’s stress but also puts the cow at a higher risk of contracting diseases.

This may work on a smaller operation that doesn’t have the room for a full-time calving pen or can better track close-up cows. However there are still benefits to having a calving pen.

Other dairies may have a protocol where maternity pens are loaded 2-3 weeks prior to calving and do not add new cows. This system controls socialization and the pen density.
A proper calving pen is designed with the health and comfort of both cow and calf in mind.

Good bedding plays an important role to keep newborns warm and dry and reduces the likelihood of pathogen transfer. Whether pens are individual or grouped, bedding should always be changed (or at least refreshed with a thick top layer) between calvings.

Because environmental changes can impact feed consumption, pens should be designed with ease of access to fresh feed. Feed that is not available or difficult to access will hinder intake.

The change in environment can impact consumption habits alone, so making them comfortable and ensuring they  don’t experience other stressors can help maintain a cow’s intake. Overcrowding pens or insufficient bunk space can also impact intake. Additionally, it’s important to keep feed available 24/7 so they can eat what they want and when they want it.

Designing according to your farm
There are many factors that contribute to a successful transition pen or maternity pen.

Space and labor play a large part in developing a calving pen system. No matter the setup, each system requires close attention to detail from a management standpoint due to it being a critical time for both cow and calf, according to Durst.

In a bulletin for Penn State extension, Pre-Fresh, Maternity and Post-Fresh Space: Getting the Numbers Right, agricultural engineering educator McFarland wrote:

“The importance of proper care and management of dairy cows during the final 60 to 45 days of their pregnancy cannot be overstated. The nutrition, health care, and environment provided during this period have a tremendous influence on their health and performance well into the next lactation.”
Managing all these factors can take time, but having an effective system can help make the operation run smoothly.

Factors such as heat stress and environmental stress (including changes in environment) can create fluctuations that are hard to manage, McFarland highlights.

But reducing stress and maintaining those low levels throughout the dry and freshening periods decreases potential problems during calving and increases the potential for maintaining a healthy and productive cow. In addition, providing an adequate environment that meets a cow’s requirements can lead to a successful overall pre-fresh, maternity, and post-fresh management program.

Maternity pens are an important part of an operation to set up both cow and calf for a successful and productive life. If designed and managed with both health and comfort in mind, these pens will be a crucial element to your management program.