Mimic Nature in Maternity Pens

John Maday

When humans first domesticated animals, they began replacing natural living environments and animal behaviors with managed and controlled systems. And while today’s cattle breeds show little resemblance to their wild ancestors, scientists and producers find they still respond favorably to management and conditions that mimic nature wherever possible.

In a recent webinar from the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council, Ohio State University Dairy Scientist Katy Proudfoot, PhD, outlined how dairies might benefit by allowing close-up cows to express some of their natural preferences in where they deliver their calves.

Proudfoot, who researched the topic for her PhD program at the University of British Columbia and continues that effort at Ohio State, says cattle managers try to balance three aspects of animal welfare:

  • Biological function.

  • Affective state, meaning their response to psychological factors such as pain, fear or anxiety.

  • Natural state, such as the animal’s preferences for particular environmental conditions and diet.

Most research in animal sciences has focused on biological function, Proudfoot says, with less known on the other two. So while we cannot directly compare modern cows with their wild relatives, researchers have conducted studies to identify their natural preferences and determine if encouraging those behaviors could benefit welfare and performance.

Proudfoot cites research from Sweden, where researchers observed groups of beef and dairy cows allowed to calve in large, open pastures. In this trial, 64% of pregnant cows isolated themselves from the herd to deliver their calves. The remainder chose to calve in a covered barn. Heifers tended to separate furthest from the herd, especially if they were disturbed by other cows. Cows generally sought out areas at higher elevations with tall grass and/or trees for their calving locations. Cows nearing parturition also tended to separate most from other pregnant cows, leading researchers to theorize the behavior results from the cow’s instinct to bond with her calf.

Dairies, Proudfoot says, generally use one of two systems for calving. One is to move cows to individual maternity pens at the beginning of calving. The other is to move close-up cows into group maternity pens. Each method has its advantages and challenges.

Individual pens provide more isolation from other cows, easier observation and easier clean-up between births. However, these pens often are located in high-traffic areas subject to human disturbance, and the timing can bring higher risk of calves delivered in the freestall or elsewhere.

Group pens require less human disturbance of cows and, because cows are moved earlier, less risk of calves born outside maternity pens. Cows in group pens however have less opportunity to seclude themselves, there is more risk of mis-mothering and the pens can be more difficult to keep clean with cows continuously rotating in and out.

Proudfoot has conducted several experiments to evaluate cow preferences for various calving environments. In one test, her team provided individual cows a choice between calving in the open or in a plywood-walled shelter within the individual pen. Among cows that calved during the daytime, 80% chose the shelter. For those calving at night, preference was evenly split between the two options.

The team also has compared the same system with pairs of cows in each pen, and found that the cow calving first was more likely to calve in the open than its pen mate.

Proudfoot acknowledges that shelters in individual maternity pens are not practical for most dairies, and the team currently is evaluating various options in group pens, such as providing more space per cow, providing barriers for isolation and limiting competition for those barriers.

The standard recommendation for 102 meters (1102 feet) per cow in group maternity pens probably is less than ideal, Proudfoot says, suggesting that providing 150 to 2002 feet allows better opportunities for cows to isolate themselves somewhat.

When the team provided six temporary barriers in pens holding 12 cows, they saw little difference in preferences. When they reduced competition by providing six barriers in pens holding six cows, they saw increased use of the barriers for calving.

For on-farm practicality, in addition to providing more space in group pens, Proudfoot suggests using some type of barrier to isolate individual or group pens from other activities in the barn. Some type of barriers inside group pens give cows a choice for more isolated calving if they want it. The group currently is testing the use of plastic water-filled road barriers for creating isolated shelters within pens. She also suggests using video cameras for observing cows in maternity pens to minimize direct human interaction during calving.

The next DCWC webinar, scheduled for May 8 at 5:00 Eastern, will feature Dr. Rick Grant; President, Miner Institute, discussing “Overcrowding Dairy Cattle: Behavior, Health, and Productive Consequences.” Online registration is available through the DCWC.