Facility Focus: Managing The Maternity Pen
In order for a calf to get off to the best start, she needs to be born in an environment that allows her to do so. For your producer clients, this means paying special attention to the maternity pen – a clean, comfortable space for a cow to deliver her calf with minimal stress.
“The biggest reason why a well-designed [maternity] pen is so important is because you need to provide comfort and safety for both the animals and for the people who work there,” says Sandy Stuttgen, an agriculture educator for UW-Madison Division of Extension. “It’s also about making sure that you’ve got a very clean place for a newborn calf to be born. The calf represents quite a bit of investment, so you want the calf to be born in the cleanest facility you can have.”
A well-planned calving pen gives producers the opportunity to provide the best treatment for both the cow and the calf. But what goes in to creating the ideal pen? Here are a few things to consider:
Cow comfort should always be at the forefront of every producer’s mind, and the maternity pen is no exception.
“[Calving] is a very stressful time for a cow, so you need to try and make a quiet environment for them to calve in and reduce social stress,” says Jennifer Bentley, a dairy specialist at Iowa State University. She recommends analyzing cow flow to help minimize disturbance and improve overall privacy.
Another big-ticket item is to furnish an ample amount of clean, dry bedding. According to Stuttgen, the amount of bedding supplied should be enough to provide cushion, traction and soak up urine and calving fluids while providing cows a comfortable place to lie down.
Similar to cow comfort, pen cleanliness should also be top of mind.
“It’s not practical to be sterile on a farm, but you need to be clean,” Stuttgen says. “You want [the pen] to be well designed to make it easy and not so labor intensive to keep clean.”
Stuttgen recommends positioning gates correctly in order to easily get skid loaders in and out, keeping as few cows in the pen as possible and having a separate location to put sick, pre-fresh animals in to lower the risk of disease spread.
“It’s about making sure [the pen] is as clean as possible because you’re trying to lower the potential pathogen load that the calf will be exposed to,” she adds. “If you’re in your work clothes and it’s been a long day and you think, ‘Man, I wish I could sit down,’ you should be able sit yourself down and relax for a few minutes in your clean maternity pen.”
While it’s easy to focus on building the maternity pen around the cow’s needs, it’s important to remember the needs of your employees and veterinarian.
“You want to make it easy for your veterinarian or employees to help if they need to,” Stuttgen says.
Bentley adds that it’s important to not only provide a safe environment for the cow to calve in, but to offer up a safe place for you to work in as well.
“You should be able to easily assist when needed in a safe manner,” she notes. “Employees need to be able to monitor animals regularly during calving and feel comfortable helping in the delivery process.”
Additionally, it’s important to not just let your construction team design your calving pen, Stuttgen warns. Instead, reach out and gather input from the people who actually have to work in the pen, such as your veterinarian or calf manager.
“They’re the boots on the ground,” Stuttgen says. “They may have experience working through some things that need to be addressed. Nothing beats experience. All ideas can be vetted, and all ideas can be great, but once you pour the concrete, you’re kind of stuck with it.”
Don’t Forget the Details
No matter how much planning we put into designing the perfect maternity pen, there will always be a few details producers forget. Stuttgen says some of these details include adequate lighting, the number of waterers and cow traffic flow. Additionally, Stuttgen recommends finding a way to milk the animal while she is still in the pen.
“If you can somehow figure out a way to individually milk the cow right away to timely harvest colostrum and not have to wait for the next milking shift, you’ll be happy to have that,” she says.
Bentley advises producers to also keep seasonality of calving in mind and to build pens large enough to fit groups of pre-fresh cows throughout the entire year.
“I know people don’t like to overbuild, but this is one case where you may want to consider going larger to factor in calving booms,” Bentley says. “We really don’t want to be overcrowding animals during [calving] time.”
She also recommends heat abatement strategies during the summer months.
“Research shows that calves who are born from heat-stressed dams do not perform as well as calves born from cooled dams. That’s a major factor that we don’t think about and depending on how long animals are kept in a certain building, [heat abatement] can make a big difference,” Bentley adds.
Whether you’re building a brand-new facility or upgrading your current one, keeping cow comfort, cleanliness and accessibility in mind is the best way to bring a newborn calf into the world while also taking care of your cows and employees.