Whether you are building a new transition barn or simply looking for ways to improve your current maternity area, a better understanding of cow behavior can help.

Proudfoot katy
Assistant Professor — Department of Veterinary Preventative Medicine / The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine

Recent research has discovered that a cow changes her behavior dramatically at calving, regardless of whether she is housed indoors or outdoors. Reducing stress and creating a comfortable area for the cow to deliver her calf is critical for creating a successful transition cow program.

1. Give cows the option for privacy

As herd animals, cows are social and do not often leave the protection of their group. One of the few times cows distance themselves from others is when they are preparing to give birth.

The first evidence for this came in the 1990s when a group of Swedish scientists monitored the behavior of beef and dairy cows kept on pasture and range, and recorded what features the animals used to find their ideal calving site.

On the day before calving, many cows left the herd and sought a secluded area with tall grass or tree cover as well as a soft and dry surface (e.g., covered with dead leaves) to calve.


To determine if modern, indoor-housed Holstein cows retain the instinct to seek privacy at calving, researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program created two unique maternity pens.

The first pen, constructed at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre, included two calving areas to choose from: a large “open” sawdust-bedded pack (8 x 24 feet) with no barriers and a large “enclosed” sawdust-bedded pack (8 x 20 feet) with an 8-foot-tall plywood barrier constructed around three sides and a fourth side with an 8-foot-wide opening for cows to enter and exit freely.

Cows were added to the pen approximately three days before they were due to calve to acclimate to both areas. Researchers found that a majority (61 percent) of cows calved in the enclosed pen, but this decision was dependent on whether the cow calved in the daytime or nighttime. Most (81 percent) of the cows that calved during the daytime used the enclosure, whereas there was no preference at night.

The preference to calve in the enclosure was reversed when two cows were added to the pen instead of one. Cows avoided the enclosure to calve but were also found to gradually avoid being near their partner.

Cows were also sometimes seen competing for the enclosure by physically preventing the other from entering, further complicating a cow’s decision to hide at calving.

The construction of a large wooden enclosure is impractical on a commercial dairy farm, so the second pen design asked the same question in a simpler way. This pen was constructed in collaboration with scientists at the University of Aarhus, Denmark at their Research Centre Foulum.

Individual maternity pens (10 x 15 feet) were built directly adjacent to a large close-up group pen. Individual pens were separated from the group pens with metal gates that allowed cows from the individual pens to have head-to-head contact with cows in the group pen.

To create an area for privacy, 6-foot-tall plywood was attached to the sides of the pen and to half of the front “face” of the pen that connected it to the group pen. This created a “covered” corner, where cows could seclude from the group pen, and an “open” side, where cows could interact with group mates.

Researchers discovered that 79 percent of the cows were on the secluded side of the pen, confirming the finding that many indoor-housed dairy cows retain the instinct to seclude themselves at calving.

2. Location matters

A common location for calving pens is near the office or parlor, where there is a lot of foot traffic. This location allows producers to keep close watch on cows during labor in case intervention is needed, and it creates a short walk for the cow to the parlor when she is ready to be milked.

The main downside to this placement is the amount of noise and activity that occurs while the cow is in labor, at a time when she is clearly motivated to be in a quiet space.

Producers with individual calving pens can help reduce noise and activity by creating a “private” area for cows to use during labor. Stacking straw bales or hanging moveable, heavy-duty curtains around part of the pen can be used as a barrier to noise and activity.

Although the ideal dimensions for a barrier have not yet been determined, the barrier should not cover the entire pen (as this may be stressful for the cow) and can likely be at a height low enough for the producer to still see into the pen.

More technology-savvy producers may also find that video cameras can help them keep watch on their cows with less distraction from onlookers.

For producers with group calving pens, providing seclusion for individual cows may be more difficult. When one enclosure was provided to two cows, it became clear that cows competed for access to the private space.

More research is needed to determine practical ways for incorporating an area for privacy within a group pen. The pen, as a whole, should also ideally be in a quiet area of the barn, with easy access to the parlor or fresh pen.

3. Space and comfort should be a priority

Very little research has been done to determine the optimal size of an individual or group calving pen. Thus, when choosing the dimensions of their individual or group maternity pens, producers must make this decision based on knowledge of animal behavior and recommendations from people with extensive experience in the field.

Research from the University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program discovered that cows dramatically increase their activity as calving approaches.

They recorded a twofold increase in the number of times that cows switched positions from standing to lying on the day before calving compared to previous days. This increase in activity is likely driven by discomfort caused by contractions and the movement of the calf as well as the desire to seek out a suitable calving location.

To accommodate for these posture changes, most recommend that lying space be significantly larger for cows undergoing labor compared to lactating cows.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recommend that individual pens be at least 12 x 12 feet (144 square feet per cow) and provide clean, soft bedding (e.g., a concrete, clay or sand-covered base with a thick layer of straw or sawdust that is cleaned out after each calving).

Recommendations for sizing group pens are variable but are still higher than other stages of lactation. Some recommend 100 square feet of lying (not feeding) space per cow, but more recent recommendations have been closer to 175 to 200 square feet per cow to accommodate for dramatic changes in activity.

Producers also need to consider their rate of calving (number of cows calving per week) for building an optimal group calving pen.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recommend building your pen to accommodate at least 140 percent of the average calving rate to avoid overstocking (e.g., if you expect 30 cows to calve per week, build a pen for 42 cows).

Although more research is still needed, it is clear that the more space is available to cows at calving, the more likely it is for her to find a clean, dry, comfortable and private area to give birth.  PD

Katy L. Proudfoot
  • Katy L. Proudfoot

  • Animal Welfare Specialist
  • College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Ohio State University
  • Email Katy L. Proudfoot

PHOTO: Staff photo.