Optimum Strategies for Dairy Sick Pens

Published on Fri, 06/09/2023 - 3:37pm

Optimum Strategies for Dairy Sick Pens.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

One of the important management strategies for dairy farms is efficient operation of well-planned sick pens—optimizing pen location and consistent management for cow health.  Dr. Kelly Still-Brooks, Assistant Professor of Dairy and Livestock Production Medicine at Colorado State University says her main focus for sick cow management is minimizing stress on the cow and providing the necessary resources for the cows to have the attention they need.  “This includes a supportive environment (shelter, etc.) where they can recover/recuperate and hopefully get back to the lactating herd,” she explains.

“There are many different approaches; every farm is working with different sets of constraints.  Most farms are on an external welfare audit system, so when I initially evaluate the operation I look at that dairy’s need to make sure they are doing the right thing for the cows. If you look at the major welfare audit programs, the general theme is centered on the idea that sick or injured animals should be segregated from the healthy members of the herd, in separate facilities where they can be managed with adequate and comfortable space to lie down, environmental protection, and constant access to feed and water,” says Still-Brooks.

“Specifically, we need to provide appropriate protection from sun, cold, wind, precipitation, and pests. We also should be managing pain for animals that are injured or sick.”  Alleviating pain is an important welfare measure that can help the animal feel better, improve intakes (feed and water), which can promote recovery.

In terms of designing facilities and managing a sick pen, the herdsmen need to think about the populations of animals that will be in that pen. “As they look at the animals flagged for exam and treatment, I encourage dairies to ask themselves if every animal needs to make the sick pen move. We know there is stress associated with pen moves.  If we’re going to move an animal to a sick pen and back, that’s two pen moves she will be experiencing. It can take 3 to 5 days each, to work through the social hierarchy and stress. If there are animals that can be appropriately treated and cared for while staying in their home pen, that’s better for those cows. It will also decrease the risk of those cows being exposed to infectious pathogens such as mycoplasma mastitis and salmonella, from other sick cows,” she explains. You don’t want cows bringing those pathogens back to their home pen.

“If we are looking at a cow that is fundamentally stable but has diarrhea or a digestive problem that we can manage--and still have an animal that is healthy and still has milk of saleable quality--it’s best if she can stay in her own pen. We want some facilities that allow us to pull that animal off to the side temporarily for an hour or so while we do an exam and some basic treatment, and get her back with her group. That should be plan A for those cows,” she says.

There are cows that do need to go to a separate sick pen—such as cows on medications that require a milk withhold or don’t have saleable quality milk, due to mastitis, or that require more TLC and attention from the farm crew, or are contagious to herdmates.  “That population should be limited to mastitis cases, lame cows, or sick cows.  I don’t want to see any fresh cows in the sick pens,” she says.

The sick pen should be completely separate from maternity facilities. “Those transition and early-fresh cows tend to have some degree of compromised immune function, from the stress of calving and metabolic transition; they are more vulnerable to infectious disease so we don’t want them exposed to any animals that are sick and potentially contagious. This is especially important in western dairies where mycoplasma mastitis is more prevalent, and on farms where salmonella is endemic.  If we put fresh cows in with cows in the sick pen, we can create new sick cows,” says Still-Brooks.

On larger dairies, we should consider segregating the sub-populations that normally comprise the sick pen. “Ideally for lame cows, we would like to see a separate space, possibly a bedded pack that is close to the parlor, with good footing. This gives them an opportunity to recover as they are treated, and be in a place where they can get back to the main herd and be productive,” she says.
From a space standpoint, the sick pen should usually have capacity for about 1.5 to 2% of the total lactating herd size, assuming it will only be used for sick, lame, and mastitic animals. “That pen should be located and designed to have enough space to ensure that doing the right thing is made easy for the farm crew.”

The pen needs access to headlocks or treatment chutes, access to the herd record systems, and be located near medication and veterinary equipment stores and near cleaning and hygiene infrastructure.  “It should also be located in a way that facilitates farm flow—so the sick pen can be handled last, or be handled by a specified individual. For example, we don’t want any manure from that pen to be pushed down to other pens,” she explains. It must be in a location that makes consistently doing the right thing easy. This is a big part in success for having the proper protocols implemented and followed.

“The actual design of that pen should be similar to what we’d want in a transition cow pen, with overcrowding kept to 85% or less. We usually recommend a two-row barn with slightly more bunk space than average at 30 inches of bunk space per cow. It should have deep, loose-bedded stalls or pack to facilitate lying-down time with at least 100 square feet per cow. Each pen should have its own waterer that is not shared with neighboring pens and we need to make sure it is kept clean on a daily basis. The core idea is to have plenty of room so there isn’t competition and crowding for food, water or lie-down space. Otherwise some of the cows that need these resources the most won’t be able to fight for them,” she says.
Pressures on sick pen utilization will be seasonal. “In the late fall/winter/early spring when I visit a farm, I would expect to find the sick pen to be relatively empty.

Often what fills a sick pen will be cows that are treated for mastitis but are otherwise healthy at that point; they are just waiting out the milk withholding time. On the farms where there is good control of contagious mastitis, we tend to get peaks of mastitis cases in summer. This is the time we are most likely to see an increase in pen utilization. If we are dealing with heat stress in the summer, this is also a time we may struggle with additional sick cows that are at risk during their transition period. We may have challenges helping these cows become healthy again--and increased time spent in the sick pen,” says Still-Brooks.

She advises the farm managers to think about an alternative or an overflow plan if they wish to size the sick pen to more closely match non-peak utilization. “If we can keep some of those relatively healthy but on-withhold cows in a different space or implement protocols that reduce milk-withhold or excessive antimicrobial use, this can be beneficial.”

Depending on the risks on the farm, another thing to think about is the exit protocols for cows that will be coming out of that pen. “For farms that are at risk for contagious mastitis, I highly recommend paying specific attention to cultures of the milk from that pen, including a mycoplasma culture of the tank and individual cow mycoplasma cultures on exit,” she says.
Any animals that are at risk for developing new infections during their time in that pen can thus be identified. Close monitoring is crucial.  It’s important to try to be ahead of the game on these things.

Every farm is a little different regarding what they have for facilities, so it is important to have plans in place to make the facilities as functional as possible.  “I can create a perfect protocol in theory, but this won’t help if it’s not something that my clients can actually implement on their operation.  It is important to include the key herds-people in conversations about protocol or pen changes, with feedback on what their barriers are in performing their job. We need to look at how we can devise a system that makes it easy and time efficient to properly manage sick cows—making it easy to do the right thing.”  Sometimes a small tweak here or there can make it better.