by Tamara Scully

Animal welfare isn’t only about physical health. Biologically healthy dairy cows can be mentally or emotionally stressed, and unable to express their natural tendencies or preferences. Dr. Katy Proudfoot, Ph.D., of the Ohio State University has been researching cow behaviors in the maternity pen since her undergraduate days at the University of British Columbia. Proudfoot presented research findings from her own research as well as from that of colleagues in a recent Dairy Cattle Welfare Council webinar.

The dairy industry has been very responsive to preventing illness during the period ranging from three weeks prior to three weeks after calving, when the disease threat is high. But the cows’ mental health and natural behaviors during this time surrounding parturition hasn’t been as well examined.

Animal welfare requires “measuring natural behaviors in animals and applying that to cows around parturition,” Proudfoot said. “We need to understand what the domesticated species does in the natural environment.”

Scandinavian studies have attempted to determine the natural behavior of cattle on pasture when giving birth, using both beef and dairy cows and providing them 50 acres of land with various topographic features. Researchers then observed where the cows chose to give birth.

Of 14 cows that calved during the two-year study, nine secluded themselves by separating from the herd. First time heifers were the most likely to seclude, particularly if they had been bothered by other cows during labor. Of the cows secluding themselves, high altitudes, tall grass and tree cover were characteristics of their preferred calving spots.

One theory, Proudfoot explained, is that other pregnant cows in the vicinity can interfere with the bonding of dam and calf. In beef herds, this maternal bond is extremely important for calf survival. Another theory is that by secluding, the pair is hidden from predators, but as cows are herd animals, secluding may actually increase the risk of harm.

Calving in the barn

Dairy producers utilize either group pens or individual maternity pens when calving in the barn setting. There are pros and cons to both. Individual pens tend to be easier to keep clean and allow closer observation, but the cow has to be moved during labor. Group pens avoid moving cows but often don’t allow the cow to seclude if desired, and about 30% of the time other cows allow the calf to suckle. Difficulties over when to regroup cows, and the social stress caused by doing so, are other challenges when utilizing group maternity pens.

In order to better understand the cows’ preferences when calving indoors, researchers provided cows with two choices: birth in an open area or in a sheltered one, both located within an individual pen. Cows were acclimated to both options. Cows more frequently utilized the shelter beginning about six to eight hours prior to calving. Eighty percent of cows chose the shelter if they calved during daylight hours, while 50% did so if calving during the night.

“The use of the shelter to give birth was dependent upon the time of day,” Proudfoot emphasized, hypothesizing that perhaps the cows required less shelter at night, when the barn was quiet and the darkness provided cover.

Another study involved an individual pen adjacent to a group pen. The 150-square foot individual pen was covered from view of the group pen on one end, and open to the group pen on the other. Eighty percent of the cows who gave birth in the individual pen chose the sheltered region.

Cows tend to seek seclusion when calving, as these studies have determined – at least when in individual pens. Further studies showed the cows did not show a preference for the size and shape of the shelter overall. However, cows with prolonged labors selected hides with more coverage. Whether the prolonged labor caused them to desire more seclusion, or the secluded area caused prolonged labor, has not been determined.

The preference study for open or closed calving areas was repeated with two cows per pen. While researchers expected a more pronounced preference for the shelter, what they found was the opposite. The laboring cow wanted to be away from the other cow in the pen, particularly once at the six hour pre-calving mark and throughout the birthing process. For those who calved in the shelter, resource guarding, or kicking out the other cow, was observed. The proximity of the other cow did not seem to be a factor to those cows opting to birth in the open area, however.

Follow-up studies where conditions were created for cows to self-isolate via the use of shelters were conducted. Cows in group pens were given access to individual sheltered pens with gates that locked once a cow entered, but where the cow could freely leave and go back to the group pen or to sheltered pens with no gate. Results showed an even 50/50 split between cows choosing to calve in the gated or no-gate sheltered area. Bolder and dominant cows selected the gated option.

Some cows did select to calve in the group area, and the likelihood of doing so increased if another calf was already present in the group pen. Cows seem to be attracted to birth fluids, possibly due to pheromones, and are more inclined to give birth in group or open areas, rather than to shelter, if another calf has already been born or is present in these areas.

The gated option obviously prevented the calves from “suckling from dams that aren’t their cow,” Proudfoot said. The non-gated shelter saw a reduction in this practice, with only 10% of the calves doing so. Calves born in the group pen area, however, suckled on other dams 35% of the time.

Group maternity pens should allow cows the option of moving away from the others, as they seem to naturally prefer, Proudfoot said. If shelters are provided, competition should be limited to prevent resource guarding, or they should be big enough for multiple cows to use and still separate.

In practice

Creating ways to allow cows to self-isolate is the optimal maternity pen management. Proudfoot highly recommends using cameras, which “allow you to watch the cow, but still give her private space.” The use of cameras, which are now inexpensive and can send images directly to a computer or smart phone, eliminates the risk of letting cows seclude themselves when calving.

Some examples of how to creatively provide more privacy in the maternity pen include erecting a privacy curtain to divide the maternity pen areas from the feed alleys and the rest of the herd. If using individual calving pens, a wall dividing part of the pen from its neighbor can provide the cow with the option of secluding or not. In a group pen, providing some type of barriers which give privacy would be key. However, resource guarding can occur if there are too many cows competing for the area.

Studies, including a joint one involving OSU, the University of Tennessee and Miner Institute researchers, continue to explore the parameters for providing seclusion in group pens. They are looking at how many square feet of lying space the cows prefer for comfort when calving in a group pen.

This type of research promotes “understanding the natural behaviors of animals and provides insights into better management,” and can be applied practically on the farm, Proudfoot said. “We just haven’t really figured out the best way to do it yet.”