Previous research in beef and dairy cattle has shown that cows’ natural maternal behaviors are to separate from the herd and seek a secluded spot to give birth. However, in the U.S. about 64% of births on dairy farms occur in group maternity pens. That begs the question, do group maternity pens impede cows’ ability to express their natural maternal behaviors at calving, and does that impact calving success?
With those questions in mind, we conducted a study to evaluate the impact of stocking density and the addition of a physical blind for shelter on maternity cows group housed on a bedded pack. Four treatments were compared: high and low stocking density without a blind and high and low stocking density with a blind on a bedded pack providing an average of 125 sq. ft/cow and 244 sq. ft/cow, respectively. The cows’ selection of calving location, labor length, separation behavior, locomotor behavior/activity and lying and social behaviors were all tracked by video cameras. Both primiparous and multiparous cows were included in the study. A total of 204 cows with unassisted births that were not interrupted by human activities within 1 hour of birth were included in the final analysis.
Results showed that all cows, regardless of stocking density, increased their locomotor behavior or activity up to 24 hours before calving. At about 2 hours before calving locomotor behavior declined. Cows in the high stocking density pen without access to a blind had the greatest increase in locomotor behavior before calving.
Starting 3 to 4 hours before calving, cows increased their distance from other cows. Cows in low density pens calved with a greater distance between them and other cows in the group indicating that cows may prefer to distance themselves further from other cows than allowed in high stocking density maternity pens. Compared to multiparous cows, first-calf heifers had a greater amount of locomotor behavior and calved at a further distance from other cows regardless of stocking density, providing evidence that cows calving for the first time may require additional space.
Stage II Labor and Calving Site Selection
We also tracked the length of stage II labor in all cows. Stage II labor ranged from 20 to 233 minutes, with a median time of 79 minutes. Length of stage II labor was shortest for cows in low stocking density pens that contained a blind compared to the three other treatments.
A total of 32% of cows in high stocking density pens chose to calve near the shelter of the blind. In comparison, 37% of cows in low stocking density pens chose to calve near the shelter of the blind. While a third of all cows chose to calve near the blind, it is important to note that blinds should not be used as an alternative to providing maternity cows more space.
In addition, the video recordings allowed us to count position changes for cows during stage II labor and during the 4 hours before calving. Cows about to give birth tended to change positions fewer times during labor when a blind was provided. And the cows that calved near the blind also received fewer interactions or disturbances from other cows during labor.
While more work is needed on the topic, the addition of a blind and allocating more space per cow in group maternity pens may improve the calving environment and calving outcomes.