Calving in and of itself can be the most stressful event in any bovine’s life. But throw in nosy neighbors or a racing skid steer, and privacy goes out the window. Such is the life of an animal calving in today’s large-scale, modern maternity barn. Research at the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests cows and first-calf heifers prefer a secluded spot to have their calves—especially during daylight hours.
That should come as no surprise, says Katy Proudfoot, now an assistant professor with Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. (Proudfoot conducted much of the calving research while studying at UBC.)
Cattle, being prey animals, naturally seek secluded areas away from predators during times of stress. Heifers might be even more likely to seek seclusion, since they haven’t experienced calving and rely on instinct during times of stress, Proudfoot says. The UBC researchers provided large, plywood calving areas in maternity pens that allowed animals to separate themselves from others in the close-up pen. Particularly during daylight hours, animals showed nearly a two-to-one preference for calving in seclusion.
While Proudfoot doesn’t have the research (yet) to prove it, she predicts a calm, quiet calving environment should lead to more natural births, less stress and dystocia and fewer post-calving problems.
While the UBC researchers erected fairly elaborate plywood walls to provide birthing suites, farms might be able to provide secluded spaces with straw bales or tarps. The key is to provide a sight and sound barrier that provides a quiet, nesting space away from high-activity areas, Proudfoot says.
When to move cattle into the secluded space is also key, she says. You don’t want to move close-up animals too early because separation from herdmates also creates stress. Ideally, cows should be moved at the very beginning of calving. This takes a critical, vigilant eye. When in early labor, animals stop eating, are restless and often raise their tails.
Moving animals once they are in active labor (when contractions are clear and mucus is present) is not recommended, since that can lead to longer periods of labor. That, in turn, causes more stress and possible trauma in both the cow and the calf.