Every operation is unique and different, but there are some ideas and practices that can be universally beneficial. One of those areas we have found on our dairy that plays a significant role in our success is a special needs pen.
Appropriately named special needs, this bedded pack pen houses our fresh cows, lame animals, and any other cow that is in need of a little special care. This pen allows us to sort a struggling cow from the milking herd as it exits the parlor. A sawdust bedded pack, large waterer, and separate feed space means this pen is completely partitioned from the rest of the herd to provide everything this group requires.
The divided space allows for fresh cows to get off to a great start. Calving can be stressful, and by giving these cows a relaxing space away from the rest of the herd to recover, they make the transition more easily. It also allows us to keep a closer eye on those cows that are most at risk. Once they are ready, they rejoin the milking herd.
The special care pen is also a valuable tool for rehabilitating lame cows. Providing a pack to lay on keeps lameness issues from affecting how they lay and rise from freestalls. It also provides a space to treat and trim foot issues. Closer access to feed helps to avoid long treks to the feedbunk that lame cows are less likely to make. Having closer access means the cows spend more time feeding, and we see a smaller impact on production.
Utilizing this pen as a management tool was an important piece of the design process for our new robotic barn. The special needs pen will be placed behind one robot to allow fresh cows easy access to the robot for milking. Lame cows will also enjoy shorter travel distance to the robot, keeping milking voluntary.
Also a major point of improvement to our current design is creating a separate catch pen for our cows to breed. Removing this breeding group to their own pen will ensure that a cow in heat never interacts with this at-risk group. Our strategy is to create the most relaxing environment possible for those animals that need it most.
No matter your setup, I encourage you to look at how you can make the space for a special needs pen. Use it as a management tool to gain success for those within your herd that need the most special care.
The author is a third-generation dairy farmer from Oregon where she farms in partnership with her husband and parents. As a mother of two young boys who round out the family run operation as micro managers, Darleen blogs about the three generations of her family working together at Guernsey Dairy Mama. Abiqua Acres Mann's Guernsey Dairy is currently home to 90 registered Guernseys and is in the process of transitioning to a robotic milking system.