We’ve all heard a story about an accident happening in the corner of a cattle pen. And although we know corners are dangerous for cattle operations, we still see them in many operations. From a construction standpoint, corners are easier to build. However, from a cattle and human safety standpoint, it’s important to keep your cows out of the corners.

Stressed out cattle prefer to hide in a corner, and this requires that handlers go into the corner to move the stock. In this situation, cattle become unpredictable, and it can be dangerous. Cows change their behavior at calving, in part because of the hormones and the maternal instinct. This magnifies the fight or flight response in cattle, creating high-stress situations.

Knowing this, it is vital to set up a calving pen that will reduce stress for her. In turn, this will also lead to a safer environment for veterinarians and cattle handlers. Gates and panels in the calving pen need to move quickly and quietly, again working with the natural instincts of the animals and not causing any unnecessary stress.

The role of a calving pen is to provide a safe, secure, and secluded area for a cow to calve unassisted. In order to do this, we need to incorporate our basic cattle handling principles and knowledge of animal behavior.

For a quick review on low-stress cattle handling, visit our articles on flight zones and handling tips. The cliff notes version is that when cattle go into a corner, in order to move them out of the corner, the handler must enter a flight zone and pressure the animal unnecessarily. Cattle prefer to move around the handler, however when they are in a corner, there are few options to do this safely.

Brown calf in field with cows behind

Handlers may also find themselves in the animal’s blind spot while trying to move them out of a corner, significantly increasing the risk of injury for handler and animal. Self defense for cattle includes fight, kicking, stomping, head butts, and squeezes. A handler that works between the wall and the animal is prone to all of these.

As prey animals, cattle will seek any alternative rather than being restrained. A properly designed chute system can lower stress through noise reduction, by working with animal behavior, and easing the cattle into the restraint or head gate, and quickly releasing them.

Cattle have excellent memories, and improper use of a chute system is the same as a wolf attack to cattle, causing PTSD. This can also happen in your calving pen. You can avoid this situation by putting as much care into your calving pen as you do the other livestock handling areas of your operation. One simple step to take is eliminating the corners in your calving pen.

Phil Durst, an Extension Dairy Educator from Michigan State University states that calving pens have four objectives. These include the calving pen is low stress, poses a low health risk, gives cows the opportunity for privacy, and is convenient for cattle handlers. Mortality rate is lower in calves born in a calving pen, as a clean pen with the right conditions helps promote optimal health.

In many cases, the maternity pen is also used as a hospital ward for sick animals. This is partly a space factor, but also because sick animals need to be handled for diagnosis or medication, and the maternity pen often has a head gate set up. If the maternity pen has multiple purposes, it’s imperative that it is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before the next calving. Ideally, it should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.

Cow nursing black calf

Bacteria and disease from sick animals (and even healthy cattle, including the previous cow that calved) can be transmitted by manure and cause illness in calves, or uterine infections in the cows. Disinfecting the area immediately after use will prevent as much bacteria and disease from growing as possible. If feasible in terms of space and finances, we recommend keeping your calving area and hospital area separate.

Cooperative Extension agents are an excellent resource for help designing your calving pen, or to answer questions on disinfecting the pen. Your veterinarian can also answer any questions you have, and help set up a biosecurity protocol for your operation.

If space and finances are a consideration, consider portable handling equipment, including a portable head gate. This can be easily moved from one field to another, as needed. The portability also allows it to be taken outside or to a wash rack area to be easily cleaned and disinfected.

From a design standpoint, it may take some time, effort, and financial investment to eliminate the corners from your calving pen. However, once your new system is in place, you will find the return on investment is quick when calculating reduced stress in cattle and safety of handlers.

References:
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