Editor's note: The following article was written by Heather Dann and published in the Miner Institute Farm Report by The William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute.
A properly designed and managed calving pen should: 1) promote cow comfort and a low stress environment for the cow, 2) minimize the health risk for the cow and calf, 3) offer convenience for people working with the cow and calf and 4) provide an opportunity for seclusion by the cow. In the December 2013 issue of the Farm Report, I discussed the need for seclusion by the cow and the research we have done showing that heifers had a shorter duration of labor when left to calve in a bedded pack enhanced with a calving blind than when moved “just in time” to an individual calving pen. Since then, researchers from the University of British Columbia have published 2 papers regarding maternal isolation at calving and flooring preferences of cows at calving. The majority of work done on cow comfort and animal welfare has focused on the lactating cow. The importance of cow comfort and a low stress environment for our cows around the time of calving is being realized.
Close-up cows were housed in a freestall pen and moved as pairs based on expected calving date to a maternity pen about 1 week before calving and remained in that pen until they calved. Once the first cow of a pair calved (pair-housed cow), she was removed and the second cow remained in the pen until she calved (single-housed cow). The maternity pen contained 2 packs (~8’ x 24’) each with a mattress base and a layer (2.4”) of sawdust. The maternity pen contained a “shelter” with an 8’ tall plywood barrier around 85% of the width of one pack. The opening to the shelter was 8’. The maternity pen was understocked and provided over 600 ft2 per cow. While this is impractical on dairies, the extra room allowed cows to express their preference for isolation. The pair-housed cows began seeking a calving site and separating from its pair approximately 8 hours before calving. The pair-housed cows were more likely to calve in the open area, regardless of time of day. In contrast, the single-housed cows were more likely to calve in the shelter but only during the day.
Within 48 hours of calving, a cow will increase the number of times that she switches between standing and lying with the majority of the increase occurring in the last 6 hours before she calves. Given the frequent transitions between standing and lying, the flooring must provide proper traction to prevent slips and falls by the cow while providing a comfortable surface for the cow to lie on. Common flooring surfaces in calving pens are grooved concrete, sand, and rubber mats or mattresses with a thick layer of straw or sawdust added to the flooring surface. In a preference study, cows were housed in an individual calving pen and allowed to choose a flooring surface (4” of sand, pebble-top rubber mats, or concrete floor) covered with 6” of straw. Before calving (24 to 29 hours), cows spend more time lying down on sand and concrete compared with rubber. However, the number of transitions between standing and lying were similar between the flooring surfaces. At calving, 59% of cows chose sand, 35% chose concrete, and 6% chose mats. Also, cows that calved on sand spent more time lying on sand within the 6 hours before calving compared with the other 2 flooring surfaces. It is clear that cows preferred sand to rubber mats during calving.
As we design or remodel calving pens, let’s keep in mind the needs of the cow. Cows seem to seek isolation or separation from other cows when calving. We can create a secluded area by using plywood or tarps on pen dividers and gates that minimizes distractions by people and other cows. However, we need to make sure that the area remains dry and clean to minimize the health risk for the cow and calf. In addition, the flooring surface of the calving pen or secluded area needs to provide the best footing surface for cows that frequently transition from standing to lying. Sand or concrete flooring covered with thick straw seems to be preferred by cows.