Calving pens: individual vs. group

Both individual and group calving pens have advantages and disadvantages. Understanding those and managing for them can ensure success in either.

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% 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 sq. ft. per cow, some farms have pens sized for far fewer than the 140% 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.

To mitigate risk in group calving pens and to lessen the space demand of individual pens, as well as to improve calving performance, some farms are moving cattle into calving pens later in the calving process and keeping them in the pen for a shorter length of time.

Length of time in calving pen
One farm used to move cows from a freestall close-up group to individual calving pens when they noticed the birthing process was started. However, they experienced too many cows that would stop progress on birthing after the move and as a result would require intervention and frequently, pulling calves.

Maybe this was because of the activity level around those pens since the herdsman’s office was located there, but whatever the reason for the interruption of calving, something needed to change. They changed the point in time when they move dams into the maternity pen, waiting until the cow is much further along in the calving process. Now when they move them, cows are seemingly past the point of no return in calving and usually calve within an hour and without assistance.

A system like that depends on frequent observation (every 20 minutes around the clock) of the close-up dry cow pen and knowledgeable and committed employees to move animals at the optimal time.

This type of system also deemphasizes feed availability in the calving pen because it is used for such short periods. That can be an advantage in logistics. Cows on this farm are in the calving pen generally for only 1-2 hrs.

Another producer loads pens with animals two-three weeks prior to expected calving and then does not bring any new animals into that pen thereafter. This controls both socialization and pen density. Cows will leave the pen when they calve.

There is no one best answer for calving pen system. It depends on space and labor constraints on each farm. However, each system requires a high level of management of this critical time for both dams and calves. Keeping the keys in mind, training employees to provide consistent and prompt care, and evaluating the results for both cows and calves will help you to achieve a high level of performance.

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