By Lorna MacPherson, dairy consultant SAC Consulting

Use of 'just-in-time' individual calving pens are a great way to help minimise disease risks for both the cow and calf over group pens.

However, they do require careful management and attention to detail for a successful outcome and there are pros and cons of this system over a group calving pen.

It can work well in large herds where there is dedicated staff for looking after the 'maternity unit' round the clock – a management system derived from large North American dairy herds.

The benefit of individual calving pens is that they allow closer observation and attention to cows at calving. Restraining and administering treatment is easier and safer, and the new-born calf is less exposed to pathogens from other cows and calves, although this is dependent on the pen being thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between calvings.

There is the potential to achieve excellent hygiene status if managed correctly, helping reduce diseases such as calf scour and navel ill.

The ideal environment is for cows to calve in a pen on a rubber matt with a covering of sawdust or sand, which can be easily cleaned and disinfected between calvings. There should also be a dedicated pen for calving Johne’s positive cows.

The crucial decision is when to move the cow to the calving pen and the aim is for the cow to spend as little time here as possible. She should be moved at the point of calving or the second stage of the labour process when either the foetal membranes or feet of the calf are visible. At this stage, calving should occur fairly quickly and usually within 2-3 hours.

A survey carried out by Teagasc indicated that 43% of farmers moved cows at the first signs of calving, such as relaxation of the pelvic ligaments and/or colostrum leaking from the teats (anywhere from six to 24 hours before calving). The labour process can often be halted if cows are moved during this first stage of labour, increasing the risk of stillbirth, slow calvings, retained foetal membranes, and metritis.

Once calved and the calf is snatched, the cow should then be moved to the fresh cow group with unrestricted access to the milking ration and water.

If the calf is snatched shortly after birth, this procedure should be written into the herd’s health plan with justification for this practice.

There is a risk that if moving cows at the point of calving, some animals may be missed. This is especially true if calving occurs through the night and there is less staff on hand, resulting in a small percentage of cows calving in the cubicles. However, if cows end up in the calving pen for longer than desired (i.e. if moved too early or calve through the night) without adequate supervision or access to feed or water, the risk of milk fever and other metabolic diseases may increase.

Nutritional and management strategies for controlling calcium status and a low milk fever prevalence are very important if implementing this just-in-time calving system.

Although cows are social herd animals, they prefer secluded areas to give birth. Space is important as activity greatly increases as calving approaches, with cows changing positions from standing to lying up to twofold more on the day before calving, due to contractions and calf movements causing pain and discomfort. For this reason, lying space should be significantly greater than for lactating cows and individual calving pens ought to be a minimum of 140 square feet (just over 13m2).

There is no right or wrong system for where to calve cows and the decision will depend on shed design, space and labour availability.

Regardless, a high level of management and attention to detail is critical for successful calvings and to ensure the health of both cow and calf. Minimising stress, stable social groups, bedding management and hygiene, lying space, stocking rates, nutrition and feed/water availability all play a big part.