Crafting an Optimal Dairy Sick Pen

Published on Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:40pm

Crafting an Optimal Dairy Sick Pen

Byu Jaclyn Krymowski

One of a dairy’s primary management concerns is ensuring all the components are in place to keep cows comfortable, well-fed, and set up for optimal production. However, it is equally important to have the same thought and attention given to ill or injured animals. While it is best to prevent a transition out of the main herd, a designated sick (or hospital) pen is always necessary to isolate vulnerable animals to protect them and (the rest of the herd) throughout recovery.

The sick pen can be a challenging environment for cows and management. There is lots of room to do things poorly or insufficiently, making injury or illness even worse. It’s essential to be very conscious about protecting animals with depressed immune systems and their unique needs. A well-designed environment for sick animals will enable managers, employees and veterinarians to provide cows with individualized treatments and protocols to fit their needs.

Elements of a sick pen
A sick pen should be designed with the principles of isolation and quarantine in mind. It allows animals to recover in a secluded environment away from more energetic herdmates, and it also prevents the spread of contagions to the rest of the herd.

This is one reason why a designated sick pen needs to be differentiated from areas designed for fresh or pre-fresh cows. Besides physical location, sick pens should also have protocols focused on quarantine, such as washing clothes or boots after working with the animals. The overall pen design and site should be conducive to such a workflow. Remember, sick animals need to be cared for last during the daily routines to prevent disease movement to other animals.

Good stocking density in a sick pen is of pivotal importance to eliminate stress and additional illness once animals are moved in. Moving a cow from her original group to a new environment with new penmates is already stressful in its own right. Adding excessive crowding to that equation is even more disruptive and may cause an animal to spend less time eating, drinking or laying down necessary to recover.Even when appropriately stocked, managers and employees should regularly monitor sick pens. This allows a quick reaction to adverse circumstances and observing animal behavior.

As such, the sick pen should also have good recordkeeping to ensure communication is clear with all staff. This includes easy access to veterinary information, appropriate contacts posted and a way to document all treatments and animal progress.

The design
As with all facility design, and even more important for the sick pen, cow comfort and safety must be prioritized while still accounting for workability and efficiency.

In an ideal world, stocking density doesn’t exceed 100%, with 100 sq. ft. of resting space per animal. At the feedbunk, animals should have a minimum of 30 inches of space and one foot each at the water trough. Appropriate spacing for food or water prevents weaker animals from being pushed out of the way.

Remember also to have a way to provide food and water for lame or down cows unable to get feed or water on their own. In these cases, it may be best to have a few private box stalls set aside where these animals can be provided for.

Remember to keep all medications and equipment in proper storage units. Farm use only refrigerators specific for storing drugs and samples should  be relatively nearby, kept clean and properly labeled. Veterinary tools, medication and any working facilities should be near the pen. Non-slip footing is essential in all these areas for the safety of people and animals.

Placement is another crucial consideration. Hospital pens should not be directly across from or next to fresh cows or maternity pens as these animals are also immunosuppressed and vulnerable to pathogenic transfer.

In his article Calf and Heifer Housing, Penn State Extension Education Daniel McFarland explains: “A separate maternity pen should be provided for every 20 to 25 mature cows. These maternity pens should not be routinely used for treating or holding sick animals. In the event a maternity pen is used to treat a sick animal, the area should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before being used for calving.”

Generally speaking, the main objectives of a sick pen is providing adequate protection for inclement weather, accommodating for heat abatement, access to fresh feed and clean water, bedding that enables cow comfort, and access to assist non-ambulatory animals as needed.

Proper function
Properly designed sick pens help employees pay better attention to animal detail and easily provide daily care to accelerate the healing process. When a pen is kept organized and easy to work in, animals can be identified and cared for more quickly. It also allows for veterinarians to work as efficiently as possible.

Remember that trained employees who regularly monitor sick animals and know how to follow the treatment protocols will greatly maximize a good pen. For more extensive operations, it may be practical to limit specific employees to these tasks.

Employees working the sick pen should wear the proper protective clothing and be trained on appropriate equipment for animal handling. It’s a good practice to have periodic trainings on best practices when dealing with common issues such as downer cows, euthanasia, IV administration and more.

On many dairies, sick pens contain predominantly mastic cows under milk withdrawal. However, this can quickly overwhelm the area’s capacity. Because there are many ways farms can manage these animals, if they are not clinically ill, it may be best to limit the number of them that are accepted into the sick pen.