Behavioral needs of the transition cow and considerations for special needs facility design

Moving cows into new pens is stressful due to an increased level of confrontational behavior between cows. Facility design can either increase or reduce stress depending on cow comfort factors. Reducing stress in the dry period should reduce the risk of cows developing metabolic disorders

This article reviews elements of building design that have an immediate impact on the health and welfare of the transition cow. An understanding of dairy cows social behavior is essential to any discussion of housing requirements. We begin by considering the behavioral stresses encountered by dairy cows in modern free-stall barns, the challenge of pen moves to different management groups, and the effects of over-stocking within these groups.

Behavioral needs of the individual cow

Compromised environments do not affect all animals equally. Ill health does not affect all animals in a pen at the same time; rather, some cows are unaffected and perform well, while a few succumb to the disease and perform poorly. Monitoring based upon group mean DMI and milk production is likely to miss the outlier cows that are unable to compensate for the compromised environment. To improve cattle facilities, we must provide for the needs of each cow so that she can behave as a herding animal, eating with the herd, resting ith the herd, and socializing without fear.

Grouping Cows

Traditionally, the tie-stall cow was milked in the stall, fed in the stall, drank water from a cup in the stall, and stood and lay down in the stall as she required. In most situations, cows were allowed outside of the barn for 2 to 4 hours per day for exercise and to display signs of heat.

In essence, management was brought to the cow in her tie-stall. In contrast, the cow in a free-stall barn moves to management groups. And, as she moves she finds herself in a different space, surrounded by different herd mates, and subject to the management change for which she was moved. Investigations in problem herds have led to increasing concern about the frequency and character of these pen moves on the well-being of the transition cow.

Pen moves

Effect of pen move on the group mean

Moving cattle between groups leads to a period of increased social interactions, many agonistic, before a social hierarchy develops (2). Grant and Albright (3) report that the social impacts of moving lactating cows lasts around 3 days; and the impact duration is almost always less than 7 days.

Agonistic interactions between cows can be physical, which includes bunting, pushing, and fighting, or nonphysical interactions that included threatening and avoidance behaviors. The frequency of agonistic interactions was high for the first 48 hours after group changes, averaging over 300 events per 2-hour recording session. After 48 hours, the frequency had stabilized at about 100 events per session. During the first 48 hours, approximately 65% of interactions were physical and 35% nonphysical.

After the second day, this ratio had reversed to around 40% physical and 60% nonphysical. When cows are moved into existing groups, the moved cows are involved in more agonistic interactions than unmoved cows.

Obviously an increase in physical interactions during the first 48 hours of joining a new group may have an effect on other behaviors performed during the day---feeding and restin time in particular, which may in turn, influence milk production.

Generally, a pen move reduces milk yield of the transferred cows approximately 2% to 5% for a short period (4, 6). This has not been seen in all situations (7, 8). It should be noted that many of these studies were conducted with mature cows in mid-lactation and not with cows in the transition period.

Studies on the effect of the number of cows moved at one time have generally found that movement of a single animal should be avoided. It is believed that familiarity and social bonds between three to five moved animals may reduce the social stress of integrating within a larger group (9). Sowerby and Polan (5) did not find significant production differences between groups where between 2% and 14% of the cows were transferred at one time. However, the effect of the size of groups moved into large pens of 100 to 300 cows has not been reported.

Effect of pen move on individual cows

While the impact of a pen move on the average cow appears to e modest, the effect appears to be more significant on low-rank cows. The subject of rank and social dominance is complex. Lamb (10) describes three different ranking orders in cow herds; dominance, leadership and parlor entrance order. The rankings for each are not the same. For example, the “leader” cow is not likely to be the most dominant cow.

Dominance hierarchies in cows are strongly associated with age, body size, and seniority in herd (11). Changes for individual cows, such as weight gain or loss, will result in rank changes (12). Pen moves can also cause changes in rank. Dominance relationships between pairs of cows are gradually learned, but once formed tend to last for a long time (3). Cattle moved to a new pen will tend to maintain their rank relative to the cows that were moved (14), but occupy a low rank with respect to the other cows, even first lactation, that already occupy the pen. However, the situation may become more complex. Hook (15) observed a complete reversal of social ra k in a group of six heifers with the removal of the high-rank individual and the simultaneous introduction of a new heifer.

Primiparous cows are usually subordinate to multiparous cows. (16) Unmixed groups of either primiparous cows or multiparous cows produced 3% more milk in the first week than equivalent cows in a mixed group. Both primiparous and multiparous cows spent more time standing and less time grazing in the mixed group.

Hasegawa et al (6) described the effect of pen moves on dominant, middle-rank, and subordinate primiparous cows. Dominant animals showed little change in behavior and production, but middle-rank and subordinate cows produced 3.8% and 5.5% less milk in the second week after movement to a new pen. Subordinate individuals spent more time eating than dominant cows, stood longer — especially on day 2 after the move, and had a greater frequency of short lying bouts of less than 15 minutes in duration, suggestive of disrupted lying behavior.

Exposure to the social turmoil that occur within a short stay-high throughput group, where animals are removed and new animals are added daily, may have a greater effect on primiparous cows. With longer duration stays, some individuals become elevated in rank, while those that only remain in the pen for a few days remain subordinate and perform poorly compared with higher rank primiparous and multiparous cows.

Effects of confinement

Normal stocking density

Confinement appears to increase levels of conflict, even in established groups of cows. Low-rank cows spent approximately 15% of their time in submissive or avoidance behavior in confinement, and their movements were frequently blocked by dominant cows in their paths (18). Three dairy herds where stocking density was one cow per stall were evaluated(19). Low-rank cows spent less time lying and more time standing still and standing half in the free stalls than middle-and high- rank cows. By 25 weeks into their lactations, more than 60% of the low-rank cows had become lame compared with 18% of the high-rank cows.

Overstocked conditions

When confinement barns are overstocked and the number of cows in the pen exceeds the number of free stalls, social tension increases. Primiparous cows spent more time walking and lying outside of free stalls and showed a greater cortisol response than multiparous cows in a mixed group stocked at 2 cows: 1 stall (20), indicating an elevated level of stress in these animals. Overstocking can also refer to situations where the number of cows exceeds the number of eating spaces. Cattle are allelomimetic which means they like to perform the same activity at the same time (18). Allelomimetic behavior occurs with resting, eating, drinking, and other activities. Overstocking, by definition, frustrates this behavior.

Most free-stall pens have either two or three rows of stalls. In a two-row configuration, there are two feeding spaces for every two stalls. In three row pens, feeding space per cow is reduced by one third. A study of high producing cows in three-row barns showed that periods when the feed-bunk was occupied to capacity were few and of short duration, suggesting ample time available for other cows to gain access to the feed (21). However, recent work has demonstrated changes in feeding behavior following fresh feed delivery in overstocked conditions (22, 23). In one study, when feed-bunk space per cow was reduced from 1.0 m to 0.5 m, space between cows decreased, there were increased aggressive interactions, and most importantly, subordinate cows reduced feeding activity within the 90-minute period after fresh feed delivery. In contrast, dominant cows showed no change in feeding activity with either spacing regimen (23).

Although dry cows generally have a low DMI compared with lactating cows, they may also reduce intake when allelomimetic behavior is frustrated. Dry cows significantly reduced group DMI when cow numbers exceeded 92% of headlocks. Maximal filling rate of the feed bunk is likely achieved at less than one cow per headlock, so overstocking effects may be evident at lower than expected pen populations. For mixed primi- and multiparous prefresh groups, stocking densities greater than 80% of stalls in a two-row pen adversely affected milk production of the primiparous cows through the first 83 days of the subsequent lactation (Gary Oetzel, personal communication, May 2004).

Interactions of rank and overstocking also influence stall access. A recent study showed stocking densities of between 125% and 133% did not affect stall access and resting time; mean resting time for the group was adversely effected at 155% (26). However, when rank was evaluated, there were changes in behavior of low rank cows even at 125% stocking rates. As stall access was reduced, low-rank cows shifted lying behavior from night time into early evening hours when competition for stalls was less. At 155% stocking rates, this compensatory mechanism was overwhelmed as stall access in the evening also became reduced and total daily lying time could not be maintained.

Management of transition cow pen moves and stocking density

For low rank individuals, especially primiparous cows, in mixed age groups, moves during the transition period could be of great significance. A pen move causes a social disruption lasting 2 to 3 days. Residency within a pen confers some elevation in rank of animals already in place. Small heifers will usually be subordinate to larger mature cows; however, cows losing weight, a common occurrence around calving time, may change rank. In any of the several pens that a cow visits during the transition process, agonistic interactions within a group will be amplified wherever overstocking occurs. The most important nutritional factor in determining metabolic disease in transition cows may be the change in DMI at the point of calving. The risk of reduced intake following pen moves, and competition in overstocked pens, may well be key determinants of transition cow success. Two critical control points for transition management are therefore; stocking density in prefresh, maternity and postfresh pens, and the number of pen moves around calving time.

Control of stocking density

Size of pens in a transition cow facility are usually based on some estimate of the proportion of the lactating herd that will be in a certain stage of the lactation cycle, depending on the target duration of stay in each group. Control of stocking density in this group is difficult despite adequate planning, and may relate to seasonal variations in fertility.

Sizing transition pens may be helped by reviewing historic calving pattern of the herd. Dual purpose pens, which may be used for a variety of transition groups, are useful. We recommend at least one stall per cow and, because of the increased girth of the pregnant cow, a minimum of 0.76 m (30”) of linear bunk space per cow.

Limiting the number of pen moves for transition cows

Moving cattle between groups is inevitable on modern dairy farms. However, the number of moves should limited as much as possible. Currently, most dairy advisors recommend a two-group dry period. Shortened dry periods that use a single ration for the entire time are growin g in popularity among progressive farmers (28, 29) and benefits from this strategy may also accrue a reduction in the number of group changes.

The suggested ideal time to move cows to the maternity pen is 24 hours before calving. Since calving time is difficult to predict, cows may remain in the maternity pen for a week or more rather than 1 to 2 days as expected.

Field investigation suggest that nonesterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentration is elevated in a greater proportion of cows that have spent 3 or more days in the maternity pen than in cows that stay in the pen fewer than 3 days. The same farm records show that there is more than a twofold greater risk for ketosis and displaced abomasums (DA) for cows that stay on the maternity pack for 3 or more days, compared with cows that calve within 2 days on the pack (Garrett R. Oetzel, Madison, WI, personal communication, May 2004).

A growing number of medium-to large size dairies are moving the cow to a calving pen when the calf’s feet begin to show.The result is a maternity pen stay measured in hours rather than days. There are some disadvantages to this procedure. The close up dry cow group must be monitored around the clock with approximately hourly checks. Also, moving at this time may interrupt the calving process, particularly in heifers. Another possible strategy is to maintain several large bedded packs, and practice an all-in, all-out, policy for the close-up cows. A group of cows expected to calve within a 2-to-3- week period would be moved into the prefresh pen, where they would remain until they calved. Subsequently, another group, representing the following 2 to 3 weeks of calving cows, would be moved to another similar pen, from which they too would calve maintains small stable groups throughout the dry period. The approach does not remove the need for regular checking of the pen for newborn calves. Cows could either freshen in the pen, or be moved to a calving pen. No new cows would be added until the pen is emptied, cleaned, and rebedded, completing the cycle. The strategy would almost completely remove the stresses of continually mixing cows.

In traditional grouping systems, a cow may be transferred from the calving pen to a nonsaleable milk pen for 2 to 4 days, or moved straight to a postfresh monitoring pen for 10 to 21 days. The latter strategy removes a pen move but doesn’t mean that the milk must be diverted from the bulk tank. Some cows that had milk fever or calving difficulties may benefit from a short period of time in a smaller group away from more aggressive cows. There are undoubted benefits to grouping primiparous cows separately from mutliparous cows after calving.

Alternative transition period strategies can reduce pen moves and rank changes. However, for these strategies to work, the facility must be well designed, and the management excellent. We recognize five critical control points for these strategies to succeed:

  1. Bedded pack management and hygiene must be excellent, necessitating the need for a plentiful supply of clean dry fresh bedding material on a well-designed, comfortable lying surface with excellent drainage.
  2. The close-up pen must be checked hourly by a well trained person, 24 hours a day.
  3. The close-up pen must be located immediately adjacent to the individual cow calving pens, so that any move at the time of delivery is easy and stress free.
  4. The calving pens must also be located in an area away from cow traffic.
  5. Cows, and in particular heifers, must be allowed to progress through the stages of labor, without repeated disturbance unless assistance is necessary.

If animals must be moved the length of the barn to the calving pen and are not given time to deliver undisturbed, especially heifers, increased rates of dystocia and fetal death may occur (30).

Specific design considerations for a special needs facility

Pen layout, design, and flooring

Lame cows that may struggle to get to the parlor and those that must be milked more than frequently than 3X should be located nearest the parlor. The barn design should have the flexibility to achieve the following after the cows calve:

  1. Pen multiparous cows under milk withdrawal separately for milking through the treatment parlor.
  2. Pen multiparous fresh cows separate from primiparous cows for increased milking frequency (4 to 6 times per day up to 21 days in milk) and for health monitoring. Fresh cows with antibiotic residue could be milked in the main parlor, but the milk would be diverted into a dump bucket. This group is deliberately located adjacent to the main parlor to reduce turn around time through the milking facility,
  3. Pen primiparous cows separately for a monitoring period after calving, before they are moved to a separate pen elsewhere on the unit.

An automated sort gate can be located in the return lane to the main barn, so that cattle can be diverted into a work area for vaccination, hoof trimming, or other management tasks.

There are three main option for stall layout within a pen, namely; three rows of stalls, or two rows of stalls head to head, or two rows of stalls tail to tail. We have already argued the case for access to feed earlier in the article; hence, we do not recommend three-row pens for transition cows.

The decision between which two-row layout to use is not clear. With head-to-head stalls, there will be a row of stalls with easy access from the feed-bunk alley for timid cows. The tail-to-tail design may be preferred where handling within the pen is important, as cows can be moved between the feed-bunk alley and the rear alley more conveniently. We therefore suggest using the tail-to-tail layout for the special needs barn, but recommend providing a crossover every 18.3 m (60’). For cows beyond the transition period, a head-to-head design can be tolerated, and probably carries some behavioral advantages with regard to stall access and lying times.

Flooring type is important, to prevent slippage and injury in animals that may be ataxic. If concrete is used, it must be grooved to reduce slipping. Grooving methods and patterns have been reviewed in depth by Gooch (32). Grooves running parallel to the long axis of the pen, 0.1 to 0.15 m (4-6”) apart does not appear to offer maximum slip resistance. Parallel grooves 1 to 1.3 cm (3/8”-2”) wide and deep, spaced 5.1 to 7.6 cm (2”-3”) on center, (33) appear to offer a reasonable compromise between a pattern that has optimal nonslip characteristics and one that is too difficult to cut into the concrete. This pattern increases the likelihood that the cow’s hoof will land on at least one groove as she walks, allowing manure trapped below the claw to be pushed along the grooves, facilitating contact between the concrete and the sole.

This pattern may not, however, be sufficient for crossovers and high traffic areas where cows must make sharp turns. Here, a diamond pattern is preferred. Whatever technique is used must result in: (1) a flat concrete surface between the grooves, rather than convex, and (2) smooth edges to the grooves, with little or no aggregate exposure. Once the floor has been grooved, it should be finished with a floor grinder to smooth the surface and remove sharp or broken edges that may damage the cow’s feet.

With long travel routes where hoof wear may be an issue, rubber flooring material is a logical choice over concrete. The final product must provide cushion, while being resilient and nonslip. The value of rubber surfaces in pen alleys is not clear. If stalls are poorly designed, the fitting of rubber may increase standing times in the alley, and may even lead to some cows lying in the alley. In order of importance, rubber flooring is most valuable in the sloped return alleys from the parlor, in the holding area for the parlor, along return alleys between the pens and the milking center, and finally along the feed alley in the pen, only if the free stalls are comfortable and well designed.

Current recommendations are for at least two water troughs for each group of cows and enough linear space for 15% to 20% of the group to drink at the same time (37). This would equate to 8.9 to 12.2 cm (3.5”-4.8”) of trough perimeter per cow.

Self-locking stanchions or “head locks” at the feed bunk are a useful way to manage and handle groups that require intensive monitoring. They are probably essential for the postfresh group.

For a first lactation heifer, a period of training is beneficial (38). An additional area in each pen where the feed-bunk has only a post and rail, allows the heifers to maintain DMI in a new situation.

Heat abatement

Cooling of transition cows in hot climates maintains cow health, calf birth weights, and milk production in early lactation. Two rows of fans are recommended —one over the feed bunk, and another over head-to-head stalls (1). The desired airflow is 800 to 1000 cfm per cow.

For additional cooling, low-pressure sprinklers (10-25 psi) may be used to provide 0.11L (0.03 gallons) of water per square 23.9C (70F-75F). The sprinkler should be set to cover the area 1.8 to 2.4 m (6’ 8’) behind the feed line and the water supply sized to supply the necessary flow rate of water. The feed should never be wetted. A standard cycle would be on for 3 minutes and off for 12 minutes. Soaking frequency may need to be increased to every 5 minutes during periods of severe heat stress. Sprinklers in the holding area or in the milking return lanes may be used to provide additional cooling.

Stall design and bedding management

Stall design has been reviewed and revised extensively over the last two years (40, 41). Stall design recommendations have changed dramatically an improved awareness of the needs for; surface cushion and traction, a defined surface area to lie upon, freedom of movement in lunge, and “bob” zones (the area between the stall surface and a height of 1.22 m (40”) at the most forward point of the lunge), and room below and behind the neck rail to rise without hindrance (40). Stall dimensions given here, and in detail in Table 2, will be based on a 636 kg (1400lb) first lactation (primiparous) heifer, a 727 kg (1600lb) mature (multiparous) cow and an 818kg (1800lb) mature (multiparous) prefresh cow within three weeks of calving. Dimensions should be adjusted for smaller animals.

Table 2

Recommended stall dimensions for the first lactation (primiparous) heifers, mature (multiparous) cows, and multiparous pre-fresh cows

Recommendations, meters (inches)

Stall dimension First lactation (636kg) Mature cow (727kg) Prefresh (818kg)
Total Stall length facing wall 2.74 (108) 3.05 (120) 3.05 (120)
Head-to-head platform 5.18 (204)
5.49 (216)
5.49 (216)
Stall length from rear curb
1.73-1.78 (68-70)
1.78-1.83 (70-72)
1.83 (72)
Stall divider placement on center (width)
1.22 (48)
1.27 (50)
1.37 (54)
Height of brisket board
0.10 (4)
0.10 (4)
0.10 (4)
Height of lower
divider rail (maximum)
0.30 (12)
0.30 (12)
0.30 (12)
Height below neck rail  1.22 (48)
1.27 (50)
1.27 (50)
Horizontal distance between rear curb and neck rail 1.73-1.78 (68-70)  (minus width of rear curb in sand stalls)
1.78-1.83 (70-72) (minus width of rear curb in sand stalls)
1.83 (72) (minus  width of rear curb in sand stalls)
Rear curb height
0.20 (8)
0.20 (8)
0.20 (8)

Stall surface

A loose bedding material supplying both cushion and traction has advantages over mats and mattresses with regard to use of stalls by lame cows and subsequent lameness prevalence (42, 43). Bedding retainers that would compromise cushion and trap contaminated sand in the bed should not be used. Regular turnover of sand is essential for low bacterial counts. Sand should be leveled each milking, redistributing from the sides of the stall into the center. It may be necessary to remove the compacted material from the rear of the stall several times per year to prevent buildup.

If sand cannot be used, a mattress stall surface is a secondary option. Cows appear to prefer the most cushioned mattresses (45). Cushioned mattresses will still require the addition of a plentiful amount of bedding material to limit hock abrasion and optimize lying times. For mastitis prevention, all of the organic bedding on a stall must be removed after 24 hours and fresh material applied daily.

A defined surface area

The resting area should be defined at the front of the stall by a brisket locator that is smooth, rounded, and no higher than 10 cm (4”) above the stall surface. The cow is unable to thrust her front leg forward during the rising movement with higher brisket locators, leading to aberrant standing behavior. The brisket locator should not be made of concrete, nor should the area behind the board be filled with concrete above the level of the stall surface. Filling this space prevents normal movement of the front leg during rising, and in certain situations may present a bob-zone obstruction. The rear edge of the brisket locator should be located 1.73 to 1.83 m (68” 72”) from the rear lip of the curb, depending on the size of the cow. In loose bedded stalls, bedding must be maintained within 4” of the top of the brisket locator. High brisket locators will force cows to lie diagonally across the stall. Width of the stall is measured on center between dividers. To allow for the increased girth of the heavily pregnant animals, widths of 1.22 m (48”) are recommended for first lactation heifers and 1.27 m (50”) for multiparous cows. Compromises may have to be made if age groups are mixed.

Room to lunge and bob

In a tail-to-tail pen design, stalls should be 3.05 m (10’) long to allow for lunging room for the largest cows in the herd. Where stalls are not located immediately against a side wall, stall length may be reduced to 2.74 m (9’). Stall dividers should not be mounted on horizontal mounting bars that invade the “bob-zone”. They should be attached to vertical wooden posts, or employ a mounting system that leaves the front of the stall open. Head-to-head stalls should be built on a 5.5 m (18’) platform, equivalent to two 2.74 m (9’) stalls facing each other (4). Shorter platforms will lead to more heat stress during the summer as the cow’s heads will be in close proximity. Social obstructions due to occupied stalls will inhibit lunging of opposite cows into the forward lunge space, increasing diagonal lying and side lunging. To stop passing through the front of stalls, a deterrent wire or a strap may be located 1.22 m (40-42”) above the stall surface.

The upper edge of the lower divider rail must be no more than 0.30 m (12”) above the stall surface at the level of the brisket locator, and the upper edge of the upper divider rail should be located 1.22 to 1.27 m (48”-50”) above the stall surface. An angled upper rail at the rear of the stall allows unobstructed head movement as the cow backs and swivels out of the stall. There should be no more than 0.23 m (9”) space between the end of the divider and the rear edge of the curb, to prevent cows walking along the rear of the beds.

Location of the upturn of the lower divider rail is also of importance (43). Bruising in the area of the last rib has been seen commonly. This problem will be minimized by locating the upturn around 0.30 m (12”) behind the brisket and no more. Enforcing a straight lying position is unnecessary in a well-designed stall that provides room for front lunging, and has a correctly designed brisket locator that allows for the forward stride of the front leg, as most cows will lie straight when given the behavioral freedom to do so.

Space below and behind the neck rail

Although the neck rail location does not appear to influence lying behavior, it does affect standing behavior (47). ;Correct location depends on the type of stall being used. In a loose-bedded sand stall, its height will vary depending on fill with a suggested range of 1.12 to 1.27 m (44”-50”). In mattress stalls, it is now being suggested that the rail be positioned to 1.22 to 1.27 m (48”-50”) above the stall surface. Horizontal location is also important, and as a rule of thumb, the rear edge of the neck rail should be positioned directly above the brisket locator, so that it also is 1.73 to 1.83 m (68”-72”) from the rear lip of the curb. Be prepared to make adjustments to its location, dependent on the size of the cows in the pen. The largest 25% of the cows should be able to stand squarely in the stall, with all four feet on the platform. In loose-bedded stalls with a raised curb, horizontal positioning is more complex. Cows will not stand with their rear feet on a sloped or rounded rear curb, and will stand on the diagonal ahead of the curb as stall length allows (Fig. 7). To prevent soiling of the stall surface in this type of stall, the neck rail may need to be located nearer the rear curb. It is unacceptable for animals to hit the neck rail when rising in the stall. One suggestion is to move the neck rail from directly above the brisket locator back the width of the rear curb in a sand stall with at least 44” below the neck rail, essentially forcing cows standing in the stall to perch. This can be tolerated in a loose bedded sand stall because lame cows do not spend prolonged times standing half in and half out of these stalls, compared with mattress stalls, and the degree of elevation of the front feet should is much less (43). The rear curb is an important part of the design of a loose-bedded stall. Our preference would be for the rear edge to be smooth and rounded off, and for the width to be as small as possible so as not to compromise the lying and standing area of the stall.

Suggested dimensions of sand bedded free-stalls using a wide-loop divider for first lactation (primiparous) cows, mature (multiparous) cows, and multiparous prefresh cows.

Cow Pen Description A B C
First Lactation Milking Pen
70 48 A-curb width
Mature Cow Milking Pen 72 50 A-curb width
Pre-Fresh Mature Cow Pen 72 54 A-curb width

A=Length from rear curb to brisket indicator
B=Divider mounting width, on center
C= Length from rear curb to neck rail

Maternity pens and calving pens

Reasons to avoid a short-stay maternity pen were covered earlier in the article. A bedded pack for the duration of the dry period and calving are difficult to manage; however, designs should be based on the following management principles.

The surface below the bedded pack area should drain well. Sand at least 30 to 46 cm (12”-18”) deep is one possibility, with deep-clean dry straw maintained above this.

The area should provide calving cows 11 m2 (120 square feet) lying area per cow, with a 3.67 m (12’) wide feed alley against the bunk.

The short side of the bed should be more than 9.1 m (30’). Long narrow beds should be avoided, as cows will tend to walk to the back of the bed and lie down close to a wall as they leave the feed area. short bed reduces the damage caused by this movement on and off the bedded area.

The bed should be demarcated from the concrete feed alley using a raised retainer made of concrete or wood.

Water access should never be from the bedded area. Water troughs may be cut into the bedded area, enclosed with a three sided wall, with access only from the feed alley side.

Clean dry fresh bedding, such as straw, must be added daily at a rate of approximately 11.4 kg (25lbs) per cow per day, and the whole bed removed every 3 to 4 weeks.

Calving pens, typically 3.65 m x 3.65 m (12’ by 12’), should provide ample room for the animal to lie down in lateral recumbancy and allow room for the use of a calving aid if assisted delivery is required. If organic bedding is to be used, the cow and calf must only come into contact with clean dry bedding. A concrete floor is a poor option, especially for compromised individuals weakened from a prolonged calving or hypocalcemia. Good traction is preferred—such as deep sand with clean dry fresh straw on top. Mattress surfaces with organic bedding material on top to provide cushion and traction may be easily cleaned between cows.


Improved building designs come from better understanding of the behavioral needs of the dairy cow. The costs to provide for these needs in the facility must be offset by improved milk production, health, and longevity. Research is still required to more fully understand the health implications of many building design considerations and their impact on disease. Perhaps the most important end result of an improved environment for the transition cow, however, is an improvement in animal well-being. Better buildings that accommodate the behavioral needs of cows present “win-win” situations where dairy cattle thrive and work is more enjoyable. This results in an improved image for the industry, greater consumer confidence in the quality and safety of the final food product, and a prosperous dairy industry.


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