Calving season is quickly approaching, and may have already started at your operation. Each cattle operation is unique, and the layout of the operation matches the individual needs. However, there are a few items that remain constant for your calving pen no matter what type of operation you have, or where you are located geographically. We’re going to focus on the top eight things to look for in your calving pen to assure a smooth and stress-free calving season.

  1. Access. You need to be able to access the cow and calf safely, and administer any medical or other attention. Access looks different depending on whether your calving pen is inside or outside. In either location, include a head gate or other restraint for the animal. For operations that calve outside, keep the calving pen in close proximity to a barn or outdoor chute area. You can also consider adding a portable chute system. Alleys for moving cattle and for handlers to move among calving pens should also be included in indoor calving spaces. If the calving pen is inside, you’ll also want to be able to access it with a skid steer for ease of cleaning.
  2. Water. How far away is the nearest source of water to your calving pen? Not only will the cow require more drinking water while calving, you may also require hot and cold running water to assist in delivery or in calf care immediately following parturition.
  3. Privacy. Cattle prefer to be alone when calving, and having the area set up to allow her a sense of privacy, while giving you access to the cow and calf (with enough lighting to see them if it’s an indoor calving pen, or she’s calving outdoors at night) is imperative. If you are building individual calving pens indoors, the minimum size should be 12 feet by 12 feet. If your calving pen is outside, the cows may also use the windbreaks in your field or pasture as privacy areas.
  4. Biosecurity. Calves are susceptible to many bacteria and diseases because they have not established their immune system yet. The pen should be disinfected after each use, have plenty of fresh, clean bedding (that’s also changed after each use, or regularly in outdoor pens), and be well ventilated. Clay, sand, and concrete are all popular choices for the base of a calving pen, although concrete can be slippery and hard for cows to gain traction on. It’s still popular (and a good biosecurity practice) to have animals calve outside, but the pen still requires bedding, especially during wet and muddy times of the year. Flexibility will be important if you choose this option.
  5. Flexibility. Here’s the thing, whether you have a calving pen, or choose a small field close to the heart of your operation for calving, each situation can be different and require you to adapt to care for the cows. Having a flexible calving pen is a key component to success. This may mean a portable chute and head gate system that can easily be moved to where the cow is located. If the hospital area is separate, you’ll want to be able to move a cow and calf to this area easily, if needed.
  6. Calving Supplies. Check your livestock first aid kit and calving supplies (halters, OB gloves, OB chains, calf puller). Make sure that you have enough of everything on hand, and everyone who is working in the calving pen knows where supplies are stored, and how to properly use them. Many operations also keep a calf sled for pulling a new calf behind a quad, and having the cow follow them to a new location.
  7. Acclimate. We’ve discussed acclimating cattle in the past, and the maternity pen is one more area that cattle should be acclimated to. Where do your cattle go after calving? Are the cows and calves moved to another small pen nearby? They should also be acclimatized to this area. It’s also an ideal time to acclimate your cattle to having handlers moving around and working with them.
  8. Calf Rearing Space. What happens on your operation if a cow doesn’t take care of her calf? Or you lose a cow and need to take care of a calf? These are both worst-case scenarios, but it’s always important that your calving area has an space for orphans, and you have supplies on hand, including a bottle and powdered colostrum, for the calf. If you’re able to milk one of your cows with extra milk, or who’s lost a calf, while she’s restrained in your head gate, you can freeze your own colostrum to have on hand for future calves.

The Cooperative Extension System in your area, or their resources available online, can be used as a resource when designing your calving pen. It’s also a good idea to ask your veterinarian for his or her opinion, as they may end up working in the calving area with you. Preparation ahead of time can prepare you for any situation in the calving pen, while still meeting the individual needs of your operation.

References:
A Calving Checklist
Beef Cattle Behavior and Handling
Tips for designing your maternity pen around cow behavior
Dream Calving Barns
Calving Pen Alternatives
Selecting and Managing Your Calving Pen System
Calf Housing and Environment Series
The Wisconsin Ideal Calving Pen