Cow maternity pens under development

Danish researchers will develop a self-operated maternity pen for dairy cows to take advantage of cow's tendency to seek isolation prior to calving.

Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, in collaboration with the company Jyden Bur, recently announced that they will develop a self-operated maternity pen for dairy cows.

The idea is to take advantage of the cow's natural tendency to seek isolation from the herd before calving, which has the potential to improve animal welfare, because the cow can calve undisturbed while the risk of calving difficulties and complications is reduced, the university said. This may also reduce labor and costs for the farmer.

Aarhus said some of the expected benefits of the project are fewer cows suffering from production diseases and lower veterinary costs.

The project will be launched at the Aarhus department of animal science this fall.

"The idea is to develop a housing design where the cow is able to withdraw from the herd during the early stage of calving in order to calve alone in an undisturbed and clean maternity pen, where she can stay with her newborn during the first hours after calving," explained project leader Margit Bak Jensen with the animal science department. "The project investigates what a cow perceives as an optimal calving site with a sufficient level of isolation. Further, the project investigates the prerequisites for the cow to be able to operate the maternity pen's gate, which ensures that she remains alone within the pen. The concept will be developed based on this knowledge."

In order to ensure undisturbed calving and to prevent infections, a new law in Denmark states that calving must take place in an individual maternity pen and that the cow and calf must spend the first hours after calving together.

It is, however, difficult to predict the time of calving, and many cows are either moved too late or calve in the group pen with other cows, the announcement explained. This may result in poor animal welfare due to prolonged calving and increased risk of dystocia, metritis and calf mortality.

Considering this, Jensen said she foresees positive effects of implementing the project's concept.

"The concept has the potential to improve animal welfare and health and to reduce expenses due to reduced milk production and veterinary treatment. Fewer cows with production diseases will also result in a lower environmental impact per unit of milk produced. On top of that, labor may be reduced by implementing our concept," she said.

The project will identify which features of a sheltered area stimulate isolation-seeking behavior prior to calving. This will be investigated by housing pregnant close-up cows in experimental pens, where they can choose between various calving areas. Differently shaped pen walls enclose the different calving areas in order to determine which enclosure is the most attractive, Jensen explained.

Subsequently, a self-shutting gate will be developed and tested. A prerequisite of the concept is that only one cow at a time may access the self-operated maternity pen and that the cow and the calf can remain alone and undisturbed within it during the hours after calving.

Once the calving pen and gate have been designed and developed, the aim is to investigate how much experience cows need with these individual maternity pens and their self-operated gate prior to calving. Furthermore, the researchers will examine at which stage the cow seeks isolation in relation to the time of calving and whether all cows calve in the individual maternity pens, the announcement said.

Finally, the project's partners will test the concept in a dairy herd. This test involves one group of cows calving in the new housing concept and a control group calving in traditional calving pens, and at least 75 cows will be included in each of the two systems. The effect on the occurrence of calving difficulties, production diseases, calf mortality and health as well as milk yield will be investigated, Jensen said. Furthermore, the level of labor required in each of the two systems will be compared.

The project is expected to last until 2017.

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