By nature, cows are herd animals. This is true even of cows near lactation, but many cows on pasture will seek out solitude for the act of calving. That has led several researchers to study behavioral trends of calving cows to understand why this occurs and what the best calving environment is for these bovines.
Ohio State researcher Kate Creutzinger explained at the recent TriState Dairy Nutrition Conference that two theories exist on why cows naturally seek out seclusion when calving. The first is for protection from predators, and the second is to foster the mother-calf bond at birth.
“If we’re thinking about cows in the wild, the calf’s survival depends on how strong the bond with the cow is because they rely on the cow for protection as well as nutrition,” Creutzinger explained.
A study done by the University of Tennessee provided group-housed maternity cows access to a barn and small pasture to evaluate where cows prefer to calve. Across the board, cows either preferred to calve in the barn, which was near feed and water, or on the far end of the pasture away from the barn where there was tall grass.
Not all ages the same
Interestingly, mature cows substantially preferred the barn setting for calving while first-calf heifers had the opposite natural instinct, seeking out the isolated corner of the pasture with tall grass.
While researchers are still seeking to understand many of these behaviors, Creutzinger shared that there are things we can do in group maternity pens that can serve both of these preferences.
First and foremost, plenty of space must be available for each cow. Research has also indicated that providing some type of barrier in the calving pen is beneficial for those animals that would like to separate themselves. The caveat to the barrier or isolation pen is that cows will not use the isolation areas if they have to compete for them.
During her presentation, Creutzinger presented research that was done in partnership between The Ohio State University and Miner Institute. It compared the use of a barrier in high stocking density and low stocking density situations. Cows more consistently sought out calving near the barrier in the low stocking density pens. In high stocking density pens, cows did not more often calve near the barrier than they did in any other location in the pen.
“The reason for this isn’t necessarily that they preferred it less, but there were fewer areas for them to choose so high stocking density potentially takes away the choice and reduced their opportunity to find what was a desirable calving site,” Creutzinger concluded.
Areas of solitude can be an excellent addition to maternity pens, but if stocking density isn’t managed, cows will likely not reap the benefits.