Calvin Pen Alternatives
• comfort and low stress for the dam,
• low health risk to dam and calf,
• opportunity for seclusion by dam, and,
• 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 features 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 for an extended 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...
Some farms use group calving pens with less than the proportional space. While recommended space for group maternity pens (Graves et al., 2005) is 175 to 200 sq. ft/cow, some farms have pens sized for far fewer than the 140% of weekly calvings. While this reduces the building space, the basic principles 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 greater.
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 cows 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
On this farm, they changed when they moved dams into the maternity pen, waiting until the cow was 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.
This type of 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 system also de-emphasizes feed availability in the calving pen because it is used for such short periods of time. That can be an advantage in logistics. Cows on this farm are in the calving pen generally for only 1 to 2 hr.
Based on short occupancy in calving pens, researchers from Kansas State University and Double A Dairy of Jerome Idaho, recommend sizing calving pens for 70 percent of daily calvings with a minimum of 2 pens. Using a 1,000-cow dairy as an example, an average 90th percentile of 28 calvings per week, would equate to 3 calving pens.
Importance of a Commitment to Observation
Access Provided for Self-Seclusion
Managing Pathogen Exposure
In addition, the newborn calf is exposed to pathogens when it is very vulnerable due to its undeveloped immune system. Calving pens sampled in an environmental study on Michigan Johne’s Disease Control Demonstration Project farms were found to be contaminated with the pathogen that causes Johne’s Disease, 17% of the time. This was on farms where there was an awareness of disease transmission, a knowledge of some of the infected animals, and a commitment to reduce herd prevalence. And yet it still occurred.
Manure can be left on gates dividing pens and stay there long past the contributing cow’s residency. Cows in neighboring pens may spread manure through gate dividers and bacteria may survive on the floor or walls. Producers must work to reduce exposure, but elimination of all pathogens is not attainable. Therefore, removing calves from calving pens as soon as possible after they stand reduces the opportunity for exposure.
Because the animals at greatest risk of infection and development of Johne’s Disease are newborn calves, having a separate pen for dams identified as Johne’s test-positive can reduce the risk to the majority of calves born in the herd. That pen should be separated from others if possible and be at the end toward which pen manure is scraped so that risk of contamination of “clean” pens is reduced.
Health of Calves Born in Individual Pens vs. Group Pens
The risk of diarrhea, pneumonia and morbidity due to any other cause was not significantly different between calves born in single-cow vs. multiple-cow calving pens. This study does not mean that there isn’t potentially greater risk to multiple cow pens, but that it can be managed.
Importance of Close-up Pen Space
In regard to socialization, one producer loads pens with pregnant cows 2 to 3 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 leave the pen soon after they calve.
Graves, R.E., Tyson, J.T., McFarland, D., and Wilson. 2005. Dry Cow Bedded Pack, Maternity, Post-Fresh Freestall Shelter, Drive-Through Feeding. No. DIP 441.
Pillars, R.B., Grooms, D.L. and Kaneene, J.B. 2009. Longitudinal study of the distribution of Mycobacterium avian subsp. Paratuberculosis in the environment of dairy herds in the Michigan Johne’s disease control demonstration herd project. Can Vet J. 2009;50(10):1039-46.
Pithua, P., Wells, S.J., Godden, S.M. and Raizman, E.A. 2009. Clinical trial on type of calving pen and the risk of disease in Holstein calves during the first 90 d of life. Prev Vet Med. 2009 May 1;89(1-2):8-15. Epub 2009 Feb 3.
Smith, J.F., Harner, J.P., Brouk, M.J. and Mosley, S. 2010. Pros and Cons of Centralized Calving. High Plains Dairy Conference Proceedings:61-70.
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Intensified Feeding Programs for Calves