Calving area changes lead to better results

Phil Durst
MSU Extension
Some farmers prefer individual calving pens, but as cow numbers increase, that that can be a problem. One farmer created a hybrid area that has improved calving performance.

What has been a positive change you have made in transition cow management? When that question was asked of Norm Buning, of Buning Dairy in Falmouth, Michigan, Buning talked about their calving pen arrangement because it reduced problems; thereby improving performance at this critical time.

Michigan State University Extension educators Phil Durst and Stan Moore visited with Buning for a recorded conversation about transition cow management. The calving pen arrangement was a change that considered the cows, the labor, and the results.

Buning shared his consideration for the social aspect of cows. Cows are herd animals that generally prefer to be with other cows, except when they prefer to be alone. Often, they prefer to be alone at calving time. Sometimes, we meet that need with individual calving pens. Yet, as the herd grew, individual calving pens became problematic.

Their close-up pen was a head-to-head free stall pen in a four-row, drive-through barn. They decided to take out the stalls on the back side, break out the curb and pour new concrete, and create a bedded pack area. As a result, the pen is half free stalls on the feed alley side and half straw bedded area on the outside wall. This arrangement provides benefits of efficiency of housing close-up cows in free stalls and the extra area and opportunity for solitude for cows that are calving. There are also headlocks that enable them to catch cows for treatment or handling.

Cows have access to the straw bedded area whenever they want to stretch out and be comfortable but are most likely to use it when they are getting close to calving. Tip gates can be used to keep calving cows in the bedded area if necessary, but most will seek out that area on their own as they approach calving time.

Part of recognizing the social aspect of cows is knowing that they will reestablish an order of dominance when new cows enter the pen. Therefore, they move small groups of cows into the close-up pen once per week, versus daily. This minimizes the times of disruption to the group and doesn’t single out new arrivals where cows can be unfriendly to pen additions. The bedded area also provides a place for cows to take refuge away from the majority of the group, while still providing access to feed and water.

One of the metrics tracked by the Bunings is DOA (calves “dead on arrival”) rate. The arrangement of calving area and close-up pen that they use has helped decrease their DOA rate significantly. While DOA rate is low – less than 5%, they are not content, but are always striving to eliminate DOAs, even while knowing that it is difficult to get to zero. Still, they ask themselves if there was something else that could have been done to prevent a DOA.

Sometimes, average rates for the incidence of fresh cow problems can cause farmers to accept a certain level as “normal.” Complacency can set in and we accept the abnormal as normal. The reality is that problems are not normal. Therefore, while there may be targets to achieve, those levels are not normal. While it may be difficult to eliminate problems, whether DOA, retained placenta, ketosis, metritis or mastitis, accepting them doesn’t lead to improvements.

The calving area arrangement has enabled the Bunings to maximize two values that they hold for transition cows: considering the social aspect of cows and minimizing problems, including DOAs. These are building blocks of animal well-being and dairy profitability.

Phil Durst

Phil Durst is a field-based MSU Extension Dairy Educator with emphasis on cattle health.