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.  

To keep stress at a minimum the dairy shelter “basics” which include providing excellent ventilation, a dry comfortable resting area, good access to feed and water, and a confident footing are the same for all dairy animals. Some minor adjustments to the feeding space and resting area stall and/or pack space are necessary to accommodate the cow’s slightly larger size, reduce stress, and improve cleanliness – especially for those cows close-to, during, and after calving. Avoiding group overcrowding – especially in the close-up and maternity areas – is extremely important in keeping stress to a minimum.

Reproductive performance peaks and valleys caused by such factors as heat stress, environmental stress, and new animals entering the herd create fluctuations in dry cow population. These fluctuations present a design and management challenge trying to match the space available to the number cows occupying it. Increasing building size increases initial cost, however overcrowding the shelter increases stress which can cause health complications such as retained placentas (RP) and left displaced abomasums (LDA) that can significantly affect herd performance and profitability.

Typical grouping for cows from ‘dry-off’ to ‘post-fresh’ include:

‘Far-off’ - dry-off until ~3 weeks pre-freshening

Freestalls:  4” wider than those used for lactating cows (52” typical)

Bedded pack:  80 – 100 ft2 bedded area per cow

Provide 27” – 30” of feeding space per cow

Provide restraint facilities for vaccines & observation (headlocks or chute)

‘Close-up’ – cows ~3 weeks (heifers 4 wks) pre-fresh to a few days (hours) pre-calving

Freestalls: 4” wider than those used for lactating cows (52” typical)

Bedded pack:  100 – 120 ft2 bedded area per cow

Provide 27” – 30” of feeding space per cow

Provide restraint facilities (headlocks or chute)

‘Maternity’- few days (or hours) before to few hours after calving

Box stalls:    16’ x 16’ (12’ x 12’ minimum)

Area for fresh feed & water if kept more than 1-2 hours

Restraint facilities for calving assistance

Freshening pack: 150 – 200 ft2 bedded area per cow

Provide 27” – 30” of feeding space per cow

Restraint facilities for calving assistance

‘Post-Fresh’ -1 – 3 days post-calving

Shelter recommendations similar to ‘far-off’ group

Many designers assume ‘uniform’ calving year-round, 12 month calving interval, first calving at 24 months and a 30% culling rate. In practice these guidelines fail almost immediately since ‘uniform calving’ is difficult to achieve – especially in expanding herds where large numbers of cows are purchased to fill the stalls available.  In an attempt to develop some ‘real world’ guidelines, Dr. Bill Stone, studied the number of freshenings of 160 NY dairy herds over a 365 day period. Approximately 26% of the herds freshened at least 5% more than the total number of cows.  The study also examined the monthly distribution of calving to see if herds exceeded the uniform calving rate by 25, 35 and 50%.  Only 10% of the herds surveyed had no months when the pre-fresh and maternity areas were not overcrowded. Where pre-fresh and maternity areas were sized according to a uniform calving model, 65% of the herds were 25% overcrowded for at least 2 months of the year, while 40% were overcrowded 35% for at least 2 months. For at least one month, over 40% were overcrowded by 50%. Therefore, it seems that facilities for pre-fresh and maternity cows should be sized perhaps 30% larger than the uniform model to reduce overcrowding of these areas. Table 1 illustrates the difference between the ‘uniform model’ and ‘real world’ study for a total herd size of 100 cows.


Of course, increasing facility size increases initial investment as well. While the exact cost of overcrowding pre-fresh and maternity areas is difficult to determine. Overcrowding can lead to increased stress that may increase the incidence of freshening health disorders such as retained placentas (RP) and left displaced abomasums (LDA). Some estimates indicate that each RP and LDA cost a dairy over $200 and $300, respectively. Relatively minimal decreases in each of these disorders can justify the additional costs to provide more space and reduce stress (Stone, 2000).

Keeping stress at a minimum throughout the dry and freshening cycle increases the chance of cows calving without health problems and entering the lactation cycle productive and in good condition. Meeting the environmental and space needs of these special cows is a key element in a successful overall pre-fresh, maternity, and post-fresh management program. Do the numbers add up for your pre-fresh, maternity, and post-fresh needs?

Reference:  Stone, B..  2000.  Defining and Managing Special Cows.  Dairy Housing and Equipment Systems (NRAES-129).  Natural Resources, Agriculture and Engineering Service, Ithaca, NY.  pp 333 – 339.

----- Dan F. McFarland, Sr. Extension Educator—Agricultural Engineering, Penn State Extension