Dairy cows prefer privacy when calving, a recent study has found.
Given a choice, dairy animals will seek a more secluded location with firm footing before giving birth. The findings may be useful to dairy producers because meeting animal preferences could lower the number of stillbirths, birthing injuries or difficult births.
The published study was conducted by Marina von Keyserlingk and a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz.
“I think that one of the most valuable pieces of information is that despite generations of being housed in free stalls, dairy cattle still elect to remove themselves from the herd in the hours before calving,” said von Keyserlingk.
“This simple fact requires us to give some thought to how we manage cows during parturition and possibly question some of the routine practices that are in place today.”
Cows’ preference for seclusion at calving is well known in beef herds but less was known about cows housed in confined spaces.
von Keyserlingk and her team set up three experiments to let indoor Holstein dairy cows choose where to calve. The first test pen had an 18 sq. metre open area and a 15 sq. metre walled area with an entrance. Thirteen of 16 cows that gave birth during the day chose the enclosure. Those that calved at night showed no preference.
Von Keyserlingk said calving in groups is becoming more common on larger dairy farms. It’s possible that practice causes more distress for cows, increasing the risk of disease.
In a second experiment, 19 cows were placed in a pen next to other cows. The maternity pen had half its facing wall covered.
Of the 19, 15 cows calved in the covered side, indicating an instinct to hide. That experiment showed relatively simple barn adjustments could suit cows’ instincts.
“This is why we ran the second study, (to) show that cows that move to a maternity pen showed a strong preference to calving in a corner that prevented other cows from seeing them. In my opinion this is a very practical solution for many farmers (and) easy to implement, said von Keyserlingk.
In the third experiment, cows were given a choice of concrete, pebble-top rubber mats or 10 centimetres of sand. Each was covered with straw.
Of 17 cows in the study, 10 calved on sand, six on concrete and one on rubber mats. Cows avoided the rubber mats on the day before calving. Researchers noted urine and feces make the mats slippery and cows want a stable surface.
According to von Keyserlingk, cows and heifers stand and lie down about 20 times in the hours before calving so non-slip flooring is important.
Von Keyserlingk said no one has studied whether meeting cow preferences at calving reduces stillbirths or injuries but it would be a useful project.