Editor’s note: The following article was written by Phil Durst, Michigan State University extension dairy educator
The calving pen is one of the most strategic locations on the farm. The principals of good calving pen management include:
- Comfortable and low stress for the dam.
- Low health risk to dam and calf.
- Opportunity for seclusion by dam.
- Convenience for people working with the cow and calf.
There are various ways to achieve those objectives. Access to clean, dry pasture is the oldest option that farmers have used and is still ideal during times of the year when weather is favorable. But as we’ve moved cows inside on many dairy operations we’ve tried to keep the best of pasture and add convenience to monitor calving and the ability to feed and water them.
Traditionally, we have recommended individual calving pens as the preferred maternity facility. Calving in individual pens makes it easier to work with the dam and to reduce the opportunity for both the cow and the calf to be exposed to manure-borne pathogens from other cows.
Cows may be in the calving pen anywhere from a day to a week. In cases like this, designing pen layout and managing for access to fresh feed and water is important. Another factor to consider when cows are in individual calving pens an extending period of time is the isolation of these social animals away from herdmates and the potential impact of that on fresh cow performance.
As farms get larger
A disadvantage of individual calving pens can be the number of pens and space it takes for a large herd. According to Cook in “Makin’ Me Dizzy – Pen Moves and Facility Designs to Maximize Transition Cow Health and Productivity,” a 1,000 cow dairy will average 20 calvings per week, with a range of 10 to 45. To accommodate 90 percent of calvings, the author estimates pen requirement as 140 percent of average weekly calvings. If a producer planned facilities based on this estimate and kept cows in pens for an extended period of time, this would mean dedicating more than 4,000 square feet of pen space for calving at approximately 144 square feet per pen.
Therefore, some farms use group calving pens with less than the proportional space. While recommended space for group maternity pens (Graves et al.) is 175 – 200 square feet per cow, some farms have pens sized for far fewer than the 140 percent of weekly calvings. While this reduces the building space, the basic principals of maternity pens including opportunity for seclusion by the calving dam and reduced risk of exposure to manure for both the dam and the calf still apply. Therefore, management becomes even more critical in a group calving pen and potential risks are higher.