Selecting and Managing Your Calving Pen System.

Published on Wed, 12/19/2018 - 2:22pm

  By Bruce Derksen for American Dairymen.

 I’m sure it doesn’t always happen on purpose but on some farms there is a noticeable preference given to the milking cows, parlors and equipment associated with them in comparison to the dry cows and facilities in place to take care of their needs.  In the time cycle that is the life of a dairy cow, there should not be a weak link in the chain during the dry period that could allow potential negatives to exist.  A proper calving pen system is a good way to strengthen this chain.

Whether you see the birth of a calf as the end result of your reproductive program, or the beginning as the new cycle will start for the cow, the importance of the delivery directly affects both the mother and the newborn calf.
As I researched some calving pen internet sites, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the variety that is now available.  You can choose from basic design, stanchions, panel and head-gate, with or without tub, straight or winding alleyways, and gates pointing in every direction including up.  Advertisements threw out words like versatility, ease, optimum, comfort, user-friendly, automatic, self-catch, dual split, safety, heavy duty and one even proclaimed that calving heifers would be a breeze.  Imagine that!  Where do I sign up?

It’s a good idea to remember what the purpose of the calving pen is.  First, it is a location of seclusion for the mother to relax and produce an unassisted birth- failing that a place to reduce calving stress that might impact fertility down the road, a safe zone for both the cow and the handler and a designed system that offers an efficient means of delivering a healthy live calf as simply as possible.
Don’t be caught up in the extravagance of the layouts, designs and salesperson code words when you purchase or upgrade your calving pen or pens but decide what will fit your needs and facilities plus operate efficiently and safely.
Likely more important than choosing a specific calving pen, is the on-going management of it.  Consider that a cow will often switch between standing and lying in the 48 hours leading up to giving birth, with the majority of changes occurring in the last 6 hours, so an important aspect of the pen is the flooring.  It should provide proper traction and stability, but also offer a comfortable surface for lying, walking or standing.  Grooved concrete, sand and rubber mats covered with thick layers of straw or sawdust are good options with some studies claiming that given the choice, cows will usually choose either concrete or sand with a thick clean layer of straw.
Cows naturally seek seclusion and isolation when giving birth so move them into a pen one to two days in advance or at the first signs of labor.  Plywood panels or tarps can be added to pen dividers or gates to minimize distractions and give as much privacy as possible from other cows or handlers. 
An unassisted birth is the first goal.
Beyond proper flooring and seclusion, make sure that a work process of cleanliness and proper hygiene is established and followed.  Regular cleaning, drying, disinfecting and re-bedding between births is extremely important to limit exposure to harmful pathogens.  Uterine infections, Johne’s disease and calf scours can easily get a foothold in your operation if strict hygiene is not practiced.  Train all calving pen personnel in the proper handling of pregnant cows and delivery assistance procedures to cut down on bacterial contamination of the uterus.  Have clean working supplies at hand including rubber gloves, antiseptics, replacement colostrum, calf pullers, chains and ropes.
The choice of a new or upgraded calving pen system is more than just choosing a fancy design with a multitude of gadgets and options.  It should be simple, workable, safe and efficient for all involved.  Beyond that, it is key to properly manage the surrounding and connected components such as flooring, seclusion and hygiene to give the best odds of delivering a healthy live calf and mother.  It doesn’t matter if you consider birth the last or first step in the reproductive cycle, a well designed and managed calving pen system will play a large part in keeping this chain of life strong and complete.