Pre-Fresh, Maternity and Post-Fresh Space: Getting the Numbers Right

Dan McFarland Educator, Agricultural Engineering, Penn State Extension

Nutrition, health care, and environment provided during the transition period have a tremendous influence on cow health and performance well into the next lactation.

The importance of proper care and management of dairy cows during the final 60 to 45 days of their pregnancy cannot be overstated. The nutrition, health care, and environment provided during this period have a tremendous influence on their health and performance well into the next lactation.

 

To keep stress at a minimum the dairy shelter “basics” which include providing excellent ventilation, a dry comfortable resting area, good access to feed and water, and a confident footing are the same for all dairy animals. Some minor adjustments to the feeding space and resting area stall and/or pack space are necessary to accommodate the cow’s slightly larger size, reduce stress, and improve cleanliness – especially for those cows close-to, during, and after calving. Avoiding group overcrowding – especially in the close-up and maternity areas – is extremely important in keeping stress to a minimum.

 

Reproductive performance peaks and valleys caused by such factors as heat stress, environmental stress, and new animals entering the herd create fluctuations in dry cow population. These fluctuations present a design and management challenge trying to match the space available to the number cows occupying it.

Typical grouping for cows from dry-off to post-fresh include:

Far-off – from dry-off until ~3 weeks pre-freshening

  • Freestalls: 4 inches wider than those used for lactating cows (52 inches typical)
  • Bedded pack: 80 to 100 square feet of bedded area per cow
  • Provide 27 to 30 inches of feeding space per cow
  • Provide restraint facilities for vaccines & observation (headlocks or chute)

Close-up – cows ~3 weeks (heifers 4 weeks) pre-fresh to a few days (hours) pre-calving

  • Freestalls: 4 inches wider than those used for lactating cows (52 inches typical)
  • Bedded pack: 100 to 120 square feet of bedded area per cow
  • Provide 27 to 30 inches of feeding space per cow
  • Provide restraint facilities (headlocks or chute)

Maternity – a few days (or hours) before to a few hours after calving

  • Box stalls: 16 feet by 16 feet (12 feet x 12 feet minimum)
    Area for fresh feed & water if kept more than 1 to 2 hours
    Restraint facilities for calving assistance
  • Freshening pack: 150 to 200 square feet of bedded area per cow
    Provide 27 to 30 inches of feeding space per cow
    Restraint facilities for calving assistance

Post-Fresh – 1 to 3 days post-calving

  • Shelter recommendations similar to far-off group

Many designers assume ‘uniform’ calving year-round, with a 12-month calving interval, first calving at 24 months, and a 30% culling rate. In practice these guidelines fail almost immediately since ‘uniform calving’ is difficult to achieve – especially in expanding herds where large numbers of cows are purchased to fill the stalls available.

A study in 2000 of 160 New York dairy herds tracked the number of calvings over 365 days. Approximately 26% of the herds freshened at least 5% more than the total number of cows. The study also examined the monthly distribution of calving to see if herds exceeded the uniform calving rate by 25, 35, and 50%. Only 10% of the herds surveyed had no months when the pre-fresh and maternity areas were not overcrowded. Where pre-fresh and maternity areas were sized according to a uniform calving model, 65% of the herds were 25% overcrowded for at least 2 months of the year, while 40% were overcrowded by 35% for at least 2 months. For at least one month, over 40% were overcrowded by 50%. Therefore, it seems that facilities for pre-fresh and maternity cows should be sized perhaps 30% larger than the uniform model to reduce overcrowding of these areas. Table 1 illustrates the difference between the ‘uniform model’ and ‘real world’ study for a total herd size of 100 cows.

Table 1. Estimated group sizes for different calving scenarios (adapted from Stone, 2000)

Perfect Uniformity Reality
Total cows 100 100
Annual freshenings 105 105
Milking cows 87 82 to 90
Far-off dry cows 9 9 to 15
Close-up dry cows & heifers 7 6 to 12
Maternity 1 5
Post-fresh cows 3 3 to 8

Of course, increasing facility size increases initial investment as well. The exact cost of overcrowding pre-fresh and maternity areas is difficult to determine. Overcrowding can lead to increased stress that may increase the incidence of freshening health disorders such as retained placentas (RP) and left displaced abomasums (LDA). Some estimates indicate that each RP and LDA cost a dairy over $200 and $300, respectively. Relatively minimal decreases in each of these disorders can justify the additional costs to provide more space and reduce stress (Stone, 2000).

Keeping stress at a minimum throughout the dry and freshening cycle increases the chance of cows calving without health problems and entering the lactation cycle productive and in good condition. Meeting the environmental and space needs of these special cows is a key element in a successful overall pre-fresh, maternity, and post-fresh management program. Do the numbers add up for your pre-fresh, maternity, and post-fresh needs?

Reference:

Stone, B. 2000. Defining and managing special cows. Pages 333-339 in Dairy Housing and Equipment Systems (NRAES-129). Natural Resources, Agriculture and Engineering Service, Ithaca, NY.