The calving pen is one of the most important facilities on a dairy farm since it affects the well-being of the cow and newborn calf. Properly designed and managed calving pens should: 1) Promote cow comfort and a low stress environment for the cow, 2) provide an opportunity for seclusion by the cow, 3) minimize the health risk for the cow and calf and 4) offer convenience for people working with the cow and calf (Durst, 2012).
Most herds (70%) in the U.S. use multiple-cow calving pens while other herds (26%) use individual calving pens, according to the latest USDA NAHMS Dairy Survey. The use of individual calving pens decreases as herd size increases, presumably due to space and labor requirements. Although most herds use some form of a calving pen, the management related to that pen varies greatly. It’s become common to move cows to calving pens within a day before calving or when the feet or head of the calf is showing (i.e. cows moved “just in time”), with 40% of herds using this management practice. In contrast, other herds keep cows in calving pens for longer durations with 19% of herds keeping cows in calving pens for greater than 14 days.
Unfortunately, group calving pens can cause cows to experience stress associated with social turmoil since cows enter and leave on a daily basis and create a social structure with agonistic interactions. Individual calving pens can cause cows to exhibit distress behaviors, such as increased locomotion, vocalization, and defecation/urination, due to social isolation. This social isolation may be particularly stressful for heifers that experience a move to an individual calving pen for the first time. Some herds practice “just in time” moves when calving is imminent to either group or individual calving pens.
If this move is done at the incorrect stage of labor (stage 1 vs. 2) then labor is interrupted, increasing the risk of dystocia and a stillbirth and negatively affecting the well-being of the cow and calf. Thus, training on calving management for dairy personnel is a top priority.
Calving can be divided into 3 stages. Stage 1 is the dilation phase characterized by cervical dilation and uterine contractions, olfactory ground checks, nest-building-like behavior, licking their own bodies (e.g. hind back and limbs), vocalization, defecation, restlessness (e.g. walking, standing up, and lying down repeatedly), and tail raising. Stage 2 is the expulsion phase characterized by the appearance of the amniotic sac outside the vulva, visible abdominal contractions, the cow lying down and the calf (i.e. feet, nose, and head) progressing through the birth canal. Stage 3 is the expulsion of the placenta within the first 24 hours after birth.
Ohio State researchers recently assessed the calving progress of Holstein heifers and cows and generated reference times for calving assistance during dystocia. In normal births, the amniotic sac appeared about 10 minutes after the first set of abdominal contractions. About every 15 minutes, calving progress was characterized by the appearance of the calf feet, showing feet and head, showing shoulder outside the vulva, and birth. It took about three intense abdominal contractions to complete the birth once the head and shoulder of the calf were out of the vulva. The average time from amniotic sac to birth was 45 minutes and from feet to birth was 40 minutes. Dystocic births were characterized by abdominal contractions for about 95 minutes until assistance and appearance of the amniotic sac for about 80 minutes until assistance. The time from amniotic sac appearance to birth and from feet appearance to birth were 40 minutes and 20 minutes longer, respectively for dystocic births compared with normal births.
Recognizing the signs of imminent birth and the timing for normal calving progress are important to determine whether a heifer or cow needs assistance at calving. Regardless of parity, results from the study suggest that farm personnel should start assisting heifers and cows 70 minutes after the amniotic sac appearance or 65 minutes after feet appearance. These values are based on the mean ± 2 standard deviations time (e.g. 45 ± 25 minutes for amniotic sac to birth) for normal calving. However, earlier assistance should be provided if a malposition (e.g. one leg outside the vulva) is evident.
Durst, P. 2012. Calving pen alternatives. Michigan Dairy Review – January 2012.
Schuenemann, G. M., I. Nieto, S. Bas, K. N. Gavao, and J. Workman. 2011. Assessment of calving progress and reference times for obstetric intervention during dystocia in Holstein dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 94:5494-5501.
Dairy 2007, Heifer Calf Health and Management Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations, 2007. USDA:APHIS:VS, CEAH. Fort Collins, CO #550.0110.
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