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Calving Pens

23 August 2017

The majority of text books and advisory leaflets recommend using calving pens, particularly for dairy herds calving all year round.  However are they relevant to beef cows and the increasing number of seasonal calving dairy herds?

How Long Will A Cow Spend In A Calving Pen? 

There are several different ways in which calving pens can be used, giving widely different periods of occupation eg –

  • Cows can be put into the calving pen 2 – 3 days before they are expected to calve and kept in the pen for 2 – 3 days post calving to ensure the calf gets plenty of colostrum etc. (This would be the traditional management in dairy herds with the calf being moved into a calf house when it is 2 – 3 days old.)  This gives an average occupation of around 7 days per calving.
  • Cows are put into the calving pen as soon as they show signs of calving and moved out when the calf is 24 hours old. This gives an average occupation of around 2 days per calving.
  • Cows can be allowed to calve in the group pen and immediately moved into an individual pen so their calf can be helped to suckle if required, tagged, dehorned, castrated in safety, etc. Again this would give an occupation period of around 2 days.
  • Nursing cows and calves eg following a difficult calving, downer cows, twins, etc. This could potentially utilise the pen for several weeks.

The higher herd fertility, the greater the number of calves born per day during the first 3 weeks of calving and the greater number of calving pens required.  The number is further increased the longer they are routinely used for and the higher the proportion of cows and calves requiring longer term nursing.

Disinfecting Between Calvings

Mucking out calving pens, fully disinfecting them, leaving them time to dry out and then rebedding them will add another day before the pen can be reused.  The pressure this puts on the number of pens required is why in the majority of cases calving pens are not cleaned and disinfected but just given a quick covering of fresh straw before the next cow is put in.  This is why an investigation into the spread of Salmonella Dublin in dairy cows identified the calving pen as the biggest risk of spreading disease.


It would appear that calving pens cannot be justified in a well managed seasonal calving beef herd.  Allowing for a 24 hour disinfection period between cows means that a herd, calving 65% of cows in the first 3 weeks would require between 8 – 25 calving pens per 100 cows calving.  For a 400 cow herd this would required between 32 – 100 individual pens!

Basil Lowman,

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