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Invited Review: Design and management of group maternity areas for dairy cows

  • Katherine C. Creutzinger
    Affiliations
    Veterinary Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, The Ohio State University, 1920 Coffey Road, Columbus 43210
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  • Author Footnotes
    † Current address: Department of Health Management, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PE, C1A 43P, Canada.
    Kathryn L. Proudfoot
    Footnotes
    † Current address: Department of Health Management, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PE, C1A 43P, Canada.
    Affiliations
    Veterinary Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, The Ohio State University, 1920 Coffey Road, Columbus 43210
    Search for articles by this author
  • Author Footnotes
    † Current address: Department of Health Management, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PE, C1A 43P, Canada.

      ABSTRACT

      Purpose

      The purpose of this review is to describe the research to date on the housing and management of dairy cows in group maternity areas.

      Sources

      We used a review of the peer-reviewed literature to identify articles that included an experimental study using dairy cows kept in groups at calving. Our review also includes studies from the broader literature using cows kept in individual maternity pens, dry cows, lactating cows, and beef cattle.

      Synthesis

      Housing cows in group maternity areas creates unique challenges compared with housing cows in individual pens. Advantages to calving in group pens include limited pen moves, reduced risk that cows calve in freestalls, and potentially improved labor efficiency. Disadvantages of group maternity areas include the limited ability of cows to express natural behaviors before calving such as seclusion from pen mates, the risk of the calf being nursed by the wrong dam, a lack of space for cows as they prepare to give birth, social instability caused by regrouping, and challenges with pen cleanliness.

      Conclusions and Applications

      Research to date has focused on creating opportunities for isolation-seeking behavior for dairy cows in group maternity areas. Cows in group pens are motivated to seek isolation at calving, but the ability to do so can be limited by competition. Research is still needed to determine potential negative effects of high stocking density and frequent regrouping in group maternity areas on cow behavior and health.

      Key words

      INTRODUCTION

      Designing a maternity area for dairy cattle requires knowledge of cows’ natural calving behaviors, as well as risk factors for poor health of cows and calves after parturition. For the purposes of this review, the “maternity pen” refers to any area where a cow gives birth to her calf. For farms that use a designated maternity area, there are 2 main types: individual and group maternity areas. Individual areas allow one cow giving birth in a separated area, and group areas allow for more than one cow to give birth. There are advantages and disadvantages of both maternity area types (previously reviewed by
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      Maternal behavior and design of the maternity pen..
      ); however, this review will focus on research to date on the housing and management of dairy cows in “group maternity areas,” defined for this purpose as any loose-housing area (e.g., bedded pack, dry lot, pasture, and so on) where multiple cows are housed together during labor.
      Maternity area design and management is highly variable throughout the world, and recommendations for maternity areas vary by country. For example, in Denmark it is required by law that cows be moved into individual maternity pens for calving (Denmark by Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, Law number. 520, Chapter 4, 26/05/2010). The Canadian Dairy Code of Practice recommends that cows be housed in individual or group maternity areas with “adequate space per cow,” although no definition for “adequate space” is provided (
      • NFACC (National Farm Animal Care Council)
      Code of practice for the care and handling of dairy cattle.
      ). Some research in the United States and Canada has gathered data on maternity area types; for example, only 50 to 70% of farms in the United States and Canada report using a dedicated maternity area for cows to give birth (Quebec:
      • Vasseur E.
      • Borderas F.
      • Cue R.I.
      • Lefebvre D.
      • Pellerin D.
      • Rushen J.
      • Wade K.M.
      • de Passillé A.M.
      A survey of dairy calf management practices in Canada that affect animal welfare..
      ;
      • USDA
      Dairy 2014, Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States, 2014.
      ). A survey in the United States (
      • USDA
      Dairy 2014, Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States, 2014.
      ) found that 58.7% of farms reported using group maternity areas, 48.6% used individual pens, and 22.7% of farms had a calving area listed as “other.” Survey data from Canada found that 25.4% of farms use tiestalls for calving, although the authors strongly discouraged this practice (
      • Villettaz Robichaud M.
      • de Passillé A.M.
      • Pearl D.L.
      • LeBlanc S.J.
      • Godden S.M.
      • Pellerin D.
      • Vasseur E.
      • Rushen J.
      • Haley D.B.
      Calving management practices on Canadian dairy farms: Prevalence of practices..
      ).
      We reviewed of the peer-reviewed literature using Google Scholar and the following search terms: “dairy cow,” “maternity,” “calving,” and “group.” From the search results, we narrowed the papers down to those published since 1980 and those that included an experimental study using cows kept in groups at calving in a loose-housing system. This search criteria resulted in 15 experimental papers:
      • Edwards S.A.
      The behavior of dairy cows and their newborn calves in individual or group housing..
      ;
      • Illmann G.
      • Špinka M.
      Maternal behavior of dairy heifers and sucking of their newborn calves in group housing..
      ;
      • Lidfors L.M.
      • Moran D.
      • Jung J.
      • Jensen P.
      • Castren H.
      Behaviour at calving and choice of calving place in cattle kept in different environments..
      ;
      • Pithua P.
      • Wells S.J.
      • Godden S.M.
      • Raizman E.A.
      Clinical trial on type of calving pen and the risk of disease in Holstein calves during the first 90 d of life..
      ;
      • Miedema H.M.
      • Cockram M.S.
      • Dwyer C.M.
      • Macrae A.I.
      Behavioural predictors of the start of normal and dystocic calving in dairy cows and heifers..
      ,b);
      • Pithua P.
      • Espejo L.A.
      • Godden S.M.
      • Wells S.J.
      Is an individual calving pen better than a group calving pen for preventing transmission of Mycobacterium avium subsp paratuberculosis in calves? Results from a field trial..
      ;
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Maternal isolation behavior of Holstein dairy cows kept indoors..
      ;
      • Black R.
      • Krawczel P.
      A case study of behaviour and performance of confined or pastured cows during the dry period..
      ;
      • Rice C.
      • Eberhart N.
      • Krawczel P.
      Prepartum lying behavior of Holstein dairy cows housed on pasture through parturition..
      ;
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Short communication: Calving site selection of multiparous, group-housed dairy cows is influenced by site of a previous calving..
      ;
      • Campler M.R.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Munksgaard L.
      The effect of deep straw versus cubicle housing on behaviour during the dry period in Holstein cows..
      ;
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      ;
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      ;
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      Secluded maternity areas for parturient dairy cows offer protection from herd members..
      . All the dairy animals in the reviewed papers were Holstein-Friesians except in the following: Simmental heifers (dual-purpose dairy and beef;
      • Illmann G.
      • Špinka M.
      Maternal behavior of dairy heifers and sucking of their newborn calves in group housing..
      ) and a combination of Swedish-Friesians and Swedish Red and White (
      • Lidfors L.M.
      • Moran D.
      • Jung J.
      • Jensen P.
      • Castren H.
      Behaviour at calving and choice of calving place in cattle kept in different environments..
      ). Our review includes these manuscripts as well as the broader literature including studies using beef cows, lactating cows, as well as those kept in freestalls during the precalving period, and those kept in individual maternity pens during labor.
      We argue that cows kept in group maternity areas face unique challenges that are different from those kept in individual pens during parturition. Advantages of keeping cows in group maternity areas include limited pen moves, reduced risk of calving in freestalls, and potentially improved labor efficiency (i.e., farm employees not having to physically move cows into individual pens). Disadvantages of group maternity areas include (1) a limited ability to express natural behaviors before calving such as seclusion from pen mates, (2) the risk of the calf being nursed by the wrong dam (mis-mothering), (3) high stocking density and a lack of space for cows as they prepare to give birth, (4) social instability caused by regrouping, and (5) ensuring pen cleanliness to prevent the risk of disease later in dams and their calves. The following sections will review these challenges and offer recommendations for how to manage and design group maternity areas to mitigate these challenges.

      DRY COW AND MATERNITY HOUSING AND MANAGEMENT

      During the dry period, cows are typically housed in bedded packs, dry lots, pasture, freestalls, or tiestalls (
      • USDA
      Dairy 2014, Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States, 2014.
      ). On some farms, cows are moved into a close-up area approximately 21 d before their expected calving date, whereas others keep cows in the same area for the entire dry period. This close-up or dry cow area may also serve as the group maternity area, as cows are kept in same area until they give birth. In other cases, cows are moved into a group maternity area closer to calving. The stocking densities of these close-up and maternity pens are likely variable; however, there is limited research on stocking densities of these pens.
      There are 2 main grouping strategies for group maternity areas: (1) an all-in-all-out approach, where a group of cows are moved into the pen at once and remain together until calving, and (2) a dynamic approach, where new cows enter the maternity area once or multiple times per week (
      • Cook N.B.
      Designing facilities for the adult dairy cow during the nonlactation and early lactation period..
      ). All-in-all-out pens may be used less commonly than dynamic pens due to space constraints but may provide some benefit to parturient cows because stable social groups are not disrupted from regrouping (
      • Lobeck-Luchterhand K.M.
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Chebel R.C.
      • Endres M.I.
      Effect of prepartum grouping strategy on displacements from the feed bunk and feeding behavior of dairy cows..
      ).
      A main advantage of group maternity areas is that cows remain in the pen to give birth and do not need to be moved into a separate, individual maternity area. Although individual maternity areas also have advantages, the cow must be moved from the group pen either before or during labor (just in time), which may interfere with the normal progression of labor (
      • Proudfoot K.
      • Jensen M.
      • Heegaard P.
      • von Keyserlingk M.
      Effect of moving dairy cows at different stages of labor on behavior during parturition..
      ). In addition to disrupting the normal progression of labor, it can be difficult to predict the onset of calving (
      • Lange K.
      • Fischer-Tenhagen C.
      • Heuwieser W.
      Predicting stage 2 of calving in Holstein Friesian heifers..
      ), as farm staff must keep close watch to identify physical and behavioral signs of birth (
      • Proudfoot K.
      • Jensen M.
      • Heegaard P.
      • von Keyserlingk M.
      Effect of moving dairy cows at different stages of labor on behavior during parturition..
      ). The timing of cow movement into the individual pen is an important consideration, as moving cows into individual maternity pens too early may cause unwanted health consequences (
      • Cook N.B.
      • Nordlund K.V.
      Behavioural needs of the transition cow and considerations for special needs facility design..
      ) but waiting to move cows too close to calving increases the risk that cows will give birth in unwanted areas such as the freestall.
      Location of the maternity area in the barn is also important. Regardless of housing type, maternity areas are sometimes located in high traffic areas to increase monitoring capabilities of cows during labor. Proper supervision of cows during parturition is important to ensure that cows with dystocia can be properly assisted; however, research with beef cattle suggests that excessive supervision can increase the risk of dystocia (
      • Dufty J.H.
      The influence of various degrees of confinement and supervision on the incidence of dystocia and stillbirths in Hereford heifers..
      ). Cows are motivated to avoid disturbances and perceived threats during labor (reviewed by
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Prepartum maternal behavior of domesticated cattle: A comparison with managed, feral, and wild ungulates..
      ), which can include human activity and noises associated with farm activity.

      COW BEHAVIOR BEFORE CALVING

      Understanding cows’ maternal behavior before calving in natural environments is important to help us better house and manage cows in group maternity areas. For wild ungulates, calf survival is dependent on the formation of the cow-calf bond because the calf is reliant on the cow for nutrition and protection from predators (
      • Leuthold W.
      African Ungulates.
      ). Dairy cows are typically separated from their calves soon after birth on commercial farms, although the justification for this early separation has recently been extensively reviewed and criticized (
      • Beaver A.
      • Meagher R.K.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Weary D.M.
      Invited review: A systematic review of the effects of early separation on dairy cow and calf health..
      ;
      • Meagher R.K.
      • Beaver A.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Invited review: A systematic review of the effects of prolonged cow-calf contact on behavior, welfare, and productivity..
      ). Despite spending little time with their calves after birth, it has been well documented that dairy cows perform a suite of calving behaviors as calving approaches (reviewed by
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Weary D.M.
      Maternal behavior in cattle..
      ;
      • Jensen M.B.
      Behaviour around the time of calving in dairy cows..
      ).

      Isolation-Seeking Before Calving

      Separation from conspecifics at parturition is commonly observed in wild ungulates, beef cattle, and dairy cows and is suggested to be driven by the motivation to hide their calf from predators and other cows (see review
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Prepartum maternal behavior of domesticated cattle: A comparison with managed, feral, and wild ungulates..
      ; Table 1). For example,
      • Lidfors L.M.
      • Moran D.
      • Jung J.
      • Jensen P.
      • Castren H.
      Behaviour at calving and choice of calving place in cattle kept in different environments..
      found that dairy cows increase their distance to herdmates as calving approaches and prefer a calving site that is dry with soft ground covering and natural overhead protection. Similarly,
      • Edwards S.A.
      The behavior of dairy cows and their newborn calves in individual or group housing..
      provided heifers and cows with a choice between calving indoors and in 1-ha paddock and found that most animals preferred to calve indoors (74 of 95). However, calving location preference varied with time of day; more cows calved in the paddock at nighttime (17 of 53) compare with daytime (4 of 42). Beef cows on range that lacked coverage from tall grasses and trees separated themselves from herdmates at a distance of 12 to 1,250 m at calving, much longer distances than they would normally separate when not giving birth, and moved further if they were disturbed by other cows during labor (
      • Flörcke C.
      • Grandin T.
      Separation behavior for parturition of Red Angus beef cows..
      ). Environmental conditions may play a role in birth site selection for cattle and other ungulates when calving outdoors (
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Prepartum maternal behavior of domesticated cattle: A comparison with managed, feral, and wild ungulates..
      ). For example, sika deer (
      • Fouda M.M.
      • Nicol C.J.
      • Webster A.J.F.
      • Metwally M.A.
      Maternal-infant relations in captive Sika deer (Cervus nippon)..
      ) and pasture-kept bison (
      • Lott D.F.
      • Galland J.C.
      Parturition in American bison: Precocity and systematic variation in cow isolation..
      ) give birth away from the herd when vegetative cover is available but give birth within the herd when there are no opportunities to visually isolate from herdmates. Results from these studies suggest that isolation seeking in wild ungulates is a plastic motivation driven by the environmental features.
      Table 1Description of preparturient isolation-seeking behavior in dairy cattle
      Maternity area typeDescription of maternity areaNumber of

      cows per hide
      Percentage of cows seeking isolation
      Indoor individualOpen area pen with bedded pack or shelter
      Proudfoot et al. (2014b).
      162% calved in the shelter. 81% calved during the daytime.
      Indoor individualPlywood partially covering the maternity pen
      Proudfoot et al. (2014a).
      179% calved in the partially covered area.
      Indoor individualPreference test using 3 levels of seclusion
      Rørvang et al. (2017a).
      1No preference for hide type; cows with prolonged labor sought the most seclusion.
      Indoor pairOpen area pen with bedded pack or shelter
      Proudfoot et al. (2014b).
      234% calved in the shelter.
      Indoor groupGated and ungated “L” shape hides bordering a group maternity area. Gated hides allowed one cow in a hide at a time.
      Rørvang et al. (2018a).
      152% calved in a hide, with a tendency for a preference for ungated hides.
      Indoor group“L” shape hides bordering a group maternity area with wide or narrow openings
      Jensen and Rørvang (2018).
      210% calved in a hide; no preference for opening width.
      Indoor/pasture groupAccess to a barn and 1-ha paddock
      Edwards (1983).
      NA
      NA = man-made hiding areas were not included as part of the experiment.
      22% calved outside the barn.
      Pasture group20 ha of forest area with dense vegetation and open areas
      Lidfors et al. (1994).
      NA64% separated from the herd; >30 m from nearest neighbor.
      1
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Maternal isolation behavior of Holstein dairy cows kept indoors..
      .
      2
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Dairy cows seek isolation at calving and when ill..
      .
      3
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Dairy cows with prolonged calving seek additional isolation..
      .
      4
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      .
      5
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      .
      6
      • Edwards S.A.
      The behavior of dairy cows and their newborn calves in individual or group housing..
      .
      7 NA = man-made hiding areas were not included as part of the experiment.
      8
      • Lidfors L.M.
      • Moran D.
      • Jung J.
      • Jensen P.
      • Castren H.
      Behaviour at calving and choice of calving place in cattle kept in different environments..
      .
      Cows also seek isolation when housed indoors (
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Dairy cows seek isolation at calving and when ill..
      ,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Maternal isolation behavior of Holstein dairy cows kept indoors..
      ). For example,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Dairy cows seek isolation at calving and when ill..
      housed cows in individual maternity pens (3 × 4.5 m) directly adjacent to a group pen with a plywood barrier covering half of the pen (illustrated in
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      Maternal behavior and design of the maternity pen..
      ). Most cows (79%) chose to calve behind the plywood barrier compared with the uncovered half of the pen. The design of the hiding space in individual maternity pens may matter, depending on pen type and the cow’s duration of labor (
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      ;
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Dairy cows with prolonged calving seek additional isolation..
      ).
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Dairy cows with prolonged calving seek additional isolation..
      found that cows with normal labor duration had no preference for barrier shape in individual maternity pens (tall and narrow, low and wide, and tall and wide). However, cows with a significantly longer than normal duration of labor chose to calve in the secluded areas with the highest amount of coverage. When separating, cows may be trying to avoid human activity and other disturbances that could be perceived as threats or disrupt the progression of labor (
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Prepartum maternal behavior of domesticated cattle: A comparison with managed, feral, and wild ungulates..
      ). However, these studies used cows kept alone in individual pens during labor; providing opportunities for cows to isolate in group maternity areas may be more challenging.
      Some research has attempted to create opportunities for cows to isolate from pen mates in group maternity areas (e.g.,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Maternal isolation behavior of Holstein dairy cows kept indoors..
      ;
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      ;
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      ). Hiding spaces created for cows in this group of studies have used similar “L” shaped cubicle hides (providing 3 fully covered walls and 1 partially covered wall that offers access to a group pen) with minor changes. For example,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Maternal isolation behavior of Holstein dairy cows kept indoors..
      found that when pairs of cows were housed in a maternity pen with a shelter, the first cow of the pair to calve avoided the shelter but also increased their distance from their partner as calving approached. In a study with multiple cows in the pen,
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      found that only 10% of cows calved in a hide secured to the outside wall of the group pen. Using a similar design,
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      found that approximately 50% of cows calved in a hide. Although the design of the hides were similar in both studies, the ratio of cow:hide was different;
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      used 2:1, whereas
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      used 1:1. Thus, competition over hides may affect a cow’s use of the space. To ensure cows are able isolate at calving if they are motivated to do so, an effort should be made to limit competition over resources by providing sufficient resources per cow.
      Ideally, parturient cows in a group maternity area could choose whether to isolate from pen mates at calving and should not experience disturbances by other cows if they choose to isolate.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      provided cows in a group maternity area with access to 2 types of “L” shaped cubicle hides secured to the outside wall of the group pen: a gated pen, where cows were trained to push through a gate to obtain access to the pen (the cow could also leave the pen, but once she entered the pen, the gate locked behind her so no other cows could join her), or an ungated individual pen, where the gates were left open at all times. Approximately half of the cows calved in the individual pens rather than the group area, but cows were more likely to use an individual pen to calve if it was ungated and if they were bold or dominant and were less likely to use an individual pen if there was an alien calf in the pen. These results suggest that some cows will self-isolate when giving birth, but they are less willing to navigate through an obstruction such as a gate. Maternity areas should be designed to accommodate these different preferences.
      In addition to seeking seclusion, cows’ calving site selection may be influenced by the presence of odors and pheromones of birth fluids from other cows. For example,
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Short communication: Calving site selection of multiparous, group-housed dairy cows is influenced by site of a previous calving..
      found that 90% of cows calved within one cow length (estimated 2.5 m) of where a previous calving occurred. A follow-up study found that 79% of cows that calved in a group maternity area calved within a 1.25-m radius of their own or an alien cow’s birth fluids (
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site..
      ). Results from these studies suggest cows are attracted to their own and alien birth fluids before calving, and olfactory cues may be important during calving site selection.

      Restlessness During Labor

      In addition to isolation seeking, there is ample evidence from cows kept indoors and outdoors that cows become more restless as labor approaches, characterized by more steps and higher transitions from standing to lying during the 24 h before calving compared with previous days (
      • Huzzey J.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Weary D.M.
      Changes in feeding, drinking, and standing behavior of dairy cows during the transition period..
      ;
      • Miedema H.M.
      • Cockram M.S.
      • Dwyer C.M.
      • Macrae A.I.
      Changes in the behaviour of dairy cows during the 24 h before normal calving compared with behaviour during late pregnancy..
      ;
      • Jensen M.B.
      Behaviour around the time of calving in dairy cows..
      ;
      • Black R.
      • Krawczel P.
      A case study of behaviour and performance of confined or pastured cows during the dry period..
      ). These transitions and steps may be driven by pain associated with labor, as cows likely experience pain associated with both uterine and abdominal contractions (
      • Mainau E.
      • Manteca X.
      Pain and discomfort caused by parturition in cows and sows..
      ) or may also be driven by the comfort and environment provided to them during labor.
      The lying surface may influence the cow’s expression of restlessness before calving. For example,
      • Campler M.R.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Munksgaard L.
      The effect of deep straw versus cubicle housing on behaviour during the dry period in Holstein cows..
      compared the behavior of cows kept in deep-bedded straw packs and those in freestalls during the 4 wk before calving and found that cows in packs had more lying bouts and faster transition times from lying to standing compared with those in freestalls. These authors and others suggest that straw bedding may provide better traction for cows to transition between lying and standing postures compared with harder surfaces (
      • Tucker C.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      • Fraser D.
      Effects of three types of free-stall surfaces on preferences and stall usage by dairy cows..
      ;
      • Calamari L.
      • Calegari F.
      • Stefanini L.
      Effect of different free stall surfaces on behavioural, productive and metabolic parameters in dairy cows..
      ). In a similar study,
      • Campler M.R.
      • Munksgaard L.
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Short communication: Flooring preferences of dairy cows at calving..
      found that animals provided access to deep-bedded straw packs had more lying bouts in the 24 h before calving and faster labors compared with those kept in freestalls, despite the fact that both groups were housed in similar individual maternity pens during labor. In agreement with these findings,
      • Black R.
      • Krawczel P.
      A case study of behaviour and performance of confined or pastured cows during the dry period..
      found that cows kept on pasture had more lying bouts compared with those kept in freestalls. These findings suggest that providing group-housed cows with pasture or deep-bedded packs before and during labor may improve comfort over more restrictive environments such as freestalls.

      SOCIAL INTERACTIONS WITH ALIEN COWS AND CALVES AT CALVING

      Isolation-seeking behavior in cows and other ungulates is thought to be partially driven by the cow separating from conspecifics to help facilitate the development of the bond with their calf (reviewed by
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Nielsen B.L.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      Prepartum maternal behavior of domesticated cattle: A comparison with managed, feral, and wild ungulates..
      ). Some research has explored social behaviors between cows during labor. For example, beef cattle with newborn calves have been found to distance themselves further from pregnant cows than cows that already have a calf, possibly attempting to reduce unwanted attention from these soon-to-be mothers (
      • Finger A.
      • Patison K.P.
      • Heath B.M.
      • Swain D.L.
      Changes in the group associations of free-ranging beef cows at calving..
      ).
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      Secluded maternity areas for parturient dairy cows offer protection from herd members..
      used the same gated and ungated hides as
      • Rørvang M.V.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Jensen M.B.
      The motivation-based calving facility: Social and cognitive factors influence isolation seeking behavior of Holstein dairy cows at calving..
      and found the cows that calved in the gated hides spent less time interacting with pen mates in the hour following calving (0.5 vs. 28 min/h) compared with those that calved in the group area. Authors concluded that this type of design may help cows avoid disturbance from pen mates during labor.
      Group maternity areas may also increase social interactions between cows and alien calves after birth. In a study of cows in a group maternity area, the majority of pregnant cows (14 of 16) spent time licking a newborn alien calf within the first 6 h of its birth (
      • Edwards S.A.
      The behavior of dairy cows and their newborn calves in individual or group housing..
      ). Furthermore, 25% (
      • Illmann G.
      • Špinka M.
      Maternal behavior of dairy heifers and sucking of their newborn calves in group housing..
      ) and 33% of calves (
      • Edwards S.A.
      The behavior of dairy cows and their newborn calves in individual or group housing..
      ) were observed suckling alien cows in group maternity areas. Creating a secluded area in the group pen may reduce interactions between cows and alien calves. For example, in the same study where
      • Jensen M.B.
      • Herskin M.S.
      • Rørvang M.V.
      Secluded maternity areas for parturient dairy cows offer protection from herd members..
      provided cows in group maternity areas with gated individual pens after calving, authors also found that calves born in the gated pens experienced less interaction from alien cows compared with those born in the ungated individual pens and the group pen area. Although there is limited research on the effect of the calving environment on cow-calf interactions, there is a growing interest in creating environments where dams can have some contact with their calves after calving (e.g.,
      • Johnsen J.
      • Zipp K.A.
      • Kälber T.
      • Passillé A.M.
      • Knierim U.
      • Barth K.
      • Mejdell C.M.
      Is rearing calves with the dam a feasible option for dairy farms?—Current and future research..
      ). Research is encouraged to evaluate the effects of secluded environments on both the cow and her calf after birth.

      STOCKING DENSITY

      To date, research on stocking density has focused primarily on lactating or dry cows kept in freestalls. For example, increased stocking density above 100% is associated with a higher risk of hock injuries and lameness (
      • Barrientos A.K.
      • Chapinal N.
      • Weary D.M.
      • Galo E.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Herd-level risk factors for hock injuries in freestall-housed dairy cows in the northeastern United States and California..
      ;
      • King M.T.M.
      • Pajor E.A.
      • LeBlanc S.L.
      • DeVries T.J.
      Associations of herd-level housing, management, and lameness prevalence with productivity and cow behavior in herds with automated milking systems..
      ) and reduced milk production (3 cows:1 feed bin vs. 3 cows:2 or 3 feed bins,
      • Crossley R.E.
      • Harlander-Matauschek A.
      • DeVries T.J.
      Variability in behavior and production among dairy cows fed under differing levels of competition..
      ) in lactating cows. Overstocking has also been shown to decrease lying time (<1 freestall per cow,
      • Fregonesi J.A.
      • Tucker C.B.
      • Weary D.M.
      Overstocking reduces lying time in dairy cows..
      ) and increase agonistic interactions between lactating cows (0.5 vs. 1.0 m of feeding space per cow,
      • DeVries T.J.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Weary D.M.
      Effect of feeding space on the inter-cow distance, aggression, and feeding behavior of free-stall housed lactating dairy cows..
      ; >1 cow per freestall and headlock,
      • Krawczel P.D.
      • Klaiber L.B.
      • Butzler R.E.
      • Klaiber L.M.
      • Dann H.M.
      • Mooney C.S.
      • Grant R.J.
      Short-term increases in stocking density affect the lying and social behavior, but not the productivity, of lactating Holstein dairy cows..
      ). In dry cows,
      • Huzzey J.M.
      • Nydam D.V.
      • Grant R.J.
      • Overton T.R.
      The effects of overstocking Holstein dairy cattle during the dry period on cortisol secretion and energy metabolism..
      reported that overstocking (200% stocking: 0.5 lying stalls per cow and 34.5 cm of linear feed bunk space per cow) increased levels of circulating nonesterified fatty acids compared with 100% stocking density (1 lying stall per cow and 68.5 cm of linear feed bunk space per cow). Elevated nonesterified fatty acid levels are an indicator of adipose mobilization and metabolic health, which has been linked to postpartum disease (
      • Ospina P.A.
      • Nydam D.V.
      • Stokol T.
      • Overton T.R.
      Evaluation of nonesterified fatty acids and β-hydroxybutyrate in transition dairy cattle in the northeastern United States: Critical thresholds for prediction of clinical diseases..
      ). In contrast, a study using close-up Jersey cows housed at 80 versus 100% stocking density did not find any physiological or health differences between treatments (
      • Silva P.R.
      • Dresch A.R.
      • Machado K.S.
      • Moraes J.G.
      • Lobeck-Luchterhand K.
      • Nishimura T.K.
      • Ferreira M.A.
      • Endres M.I.
      • Chebel R.C.
      Prepartum stocking density: Effects on metabolic, health, reproductive, and productive responses..
      ). The results of these studies may differ due to breed or the intensity of the overstocking; for example, cows may be better able to cope with lower stocking densities (e.g., 80–100%) compared with higher densities (e.g., 200%).
      Increasing stocking density before calving can also affect social behavior. For example,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Veira D.M.
      • Weary D.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Competition at the feed bunk changes the feeding, standing, and social behavior of transition dairy cows..
      found that cows kept in freestalls before calving that were overstocked at electronic feed bins (2:1 cow:feed bins) precalving had over twice as many physical displacements from the feed bins compared with those not overstocked (1:1 cow:feed bins). Similarly, cows housed at 80% stocking density (both lying and feed-bunk space) experienced fewer displacements from the feed bunk and spent more time lying down near parturition compared with those housed at 100% stocking density (
      • Lobeck-Luchterhand K.M.
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Chebel R.C.
      • Endres M.I.
      Effect of stocking density on social, feeding, and lying behavior of prepartum dairy animals..
      ).
      Stocking density of group maternity areas is highly variable, as it depends on the combination of space allowance, cow movement in and out of the pen, and calving rate (the number of cows calving per given time period). Stocking density should be calculated at both the feed bunk and the usable lying space. Space allowance for these areas is likely fixed on most herds due to space constraints, but calving rate can vary over time (see
      • Cook N.B.
      Designing facilities for the adult dairy cow during the nonlactation and early lactation period..
      , for a detailed review of sizing dry cow pens). Space allowance is likely easier to control in all-in-all-out pens because new cows are not added to the pen as they are in dynamic pens, but space in both pen types may be a challenge.
      Based on this research,
      • Cook N.B.
      Designing facilities for the adult dairy cow during the nonlactation and early lactation period..
      recommends building maternity areas to accommodate 120 to 150% of the average calving rate. Although constructing pens in this manner would lead them to be understocked at most times, this method would prevent overstocking of cows during periods of high calving rates. To our knowledge, no research has assessed the effect of high stocking density in group maternity areas. Despite this lack of research, we recommend at least 13 m2 of lying space per cow, although >16 m2 may better allow the cow to seek seclusion if needed (
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      Maternal behavior and design of the maternity pen..
      ; see Figure 1 for an example of different stocking densities used in group calving pens). Research is strongly encouraged to better understand the effects of reduced space allowance on cow and calf behavior and health after calving in group maternity areas.
      Figure 1
      Figure 1Cows in a group maternity area with 9.7 m2 per cow (A) and 19.3 m2 per cow (B).

      REGROUPING

      Moving cows between social groups (regrouping) is a common management practice in dairy production. Cows are moved between pens based on stage of lactation, dietary needs, and reproductive status. Due to these factors, the majority of pen moves occur during the period around calving, resulting in up to 5 pen moves in a period of under 5 wk (
      • Cook N.B.
      • Nordlund K.V.
      Behavioural needs of the transition cow and considerations for special needs facility design..
      ). Previous research has shown that agonistic interactions increase following regrouping (
      • Brakel W.J.
      • Leis R.A.
      Impact of social disorganization on behavior, milk yield, and body weight of dairy cows..
      ;
      • Kondo S.
      • Hurnik J.F.
      Stabilization of social hierarchy in dairy cows..
      ;
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Olenick D.
      • Weary D.M.
      Acute behavioral effects of regrouping dairy cows..
      ) as cows establish a new dominance hierarchy when newcomers are added (
      • Hasegawa N.
      • Nishiwaki A.
      • Sugawara K.
      • Ito I.
      The effects of social exchange between two groups of lactating primiparous heifers on milk production, dominance order, behavior and adrenocortical response..
      ). Agonistic interactions between lactating cows have been found to return to normal approximately 3 d following regrouping (
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Olenick D.
      • Weary D.M.
      Acute behavioral effects of regrouping dairy cows..
      ). However, depending on the frequency of regrouping in group maternity areas, cows may be constantly engaging in agnostic interactions with their pen mates.
      Research using cows kept in freestalls before calving has found some effects of regrouping on cow health and behavior. For example,
      • Schirmann K.
      • Chapinal N.
      • Weary D.M.
      • Heuwieser W.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Short-term effects of regrouping on behavior of prepartum dairy cows..
      found that cows moved into a new pen during the close-up period had 9% lower DMI and rumination time, as well as higher agonistic interactions, on the day of regrouping compared with previous days. A series of studies documented the effect of dynamic (moving cows into a close-up pen weekly) versus all-in-all-out housing for close-up Jersey cows (
      • Silva P.R.
      • Moraes J.G.
      • Mendonça L.G.
      • Scanavez A.A.
      • Nak-agawa G.
      • Ballou M.A.
      • Walcheck B.
      • Haines D.
      • Endres M.I.
      • Chebel R.C.
      Effects of weekly regrouping of prepartum dairy cows on innate immune response and antibody concentration..
      ,
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Moraes J.G.N.
      • Mendonça L.G.D.
      • Scanavez A.A.
      • Nakagawa G.
      • Fetrow J.
      • Endres M.I.
      • Chebel R.C.
      Effects of weekly regrouping of prepartum dairy cows on metabolic, health, reproductive, and productive parameters..
      ;
      • Lobeck-Luchterhand K.M.
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Chebel R.C.
      • Endres M.I.
      Effect of prepartum grouping strategy on displacements from the feed bunk and feeding behavior of dairy cows..
      ).
      • Lobeck-Luchterhand K.M.
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Chebel R.C.
      • Endres M.I.
      Effect of prepartum grouping strategy on displacements from the feed bunk and feeding behavior of dairy cows..
      found that agonistic behaviors were lower in all-in-all-out pens than in dynamic pens, but there were no differences in physiological or health outcomes between the treatments (
      • Silva P.R.
      • Moraes J.G.
      • Mendonça L.G.
      • Scanavez A.A.
      • Nak-agawa G.
      • Ballou M.A.
      • Walcheck B.
      • Haines D.
      • Endres M.I.
      • Chebel R.C.
      Effects of weekly regrouping of prepartum dairy cows on innate immune response and antibody concentration..
      ,
      • Silva P.R.B.
      • Moraes J.G.N.
      • Mendonça L.G.D.
      • Scanavez A.A.
      • Nakagawa G.
      • Fetrow J.
      • Endres M.I.
      • Chebel R.C.
      Effects of weekly regrouping of prepartum dairy cows on metabolic, health, reproductive, and productive parameters..
      ).
      • Cook N.B.
      Designing facilities for the adult dairy cow during the nonlactation and early lactation period..
      suggested that controlled studies on regrouping close-up cows may not be able to detect negative effects of regrouping when combined with other stressors such as overstocking. Indeed, in a study of mid-lactation cows in freestalls,
      • Talebi A.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Telezhenko E.
      • Weary D.M.
      Reduced stocking density mitigates the negative effects of regrouping in dairy cattle..
      found when stocking density was decreased at regrouping, the number of displacements at the feed bunk decreased and lying time increased. Also in support of this idea,
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • LeBlanc S.J.
      • Mamedova K.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Exposure to an unpredictable and competitive social environment affects behavior and health of transition dairy cows..
      found that close-up cows exposed to a combination of stressors (2:1 cow:feed bins as well as unpredictable social and feeding environments) had higher blood concentrations of nonesterified fatty acids and tumor necrosis factor-α and were more likely to be diagnosed with endometritis after calving compared with those in a more predictable environment (1:1 cow:bin without unpredictable social and feeding environments;
      • Proudfoot K.L.
      • Weary D.M.
      • LeBlanc S.J.
      • Mamedova K.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Exposure to an unpredictable and competitive social environment affects behavior and health of transition dairy cows..
      ).
      More research is needed to determine the effect of regrouping on the behavior of dairy cows kept in group maternity areas. However, based on research using freestall pens and recommendations by
      • Cook N.B.
      Designing facilities for the adult dairy cow during the nonlactation and early lactation period..
      , there may be benefits to reducing the frequency of regrouping events in group maternity areas to no more than once per week.

      HYGIENE OF THE GROUP MATERNITY AREA AND RISK OF DISEASE

      Immediately after birth is a high-risk period for cows and calves. An estimated 30 to 50% of cows experience metabolic (e.g., ketosis and hypocalcemia) or infectious disease (e.g., metritis and mastitis) after calving (see
      • LeBlanc S.
      Monitoring metabolic health of dairy cattle in the transition period..
      , for a review). Additionally, calf health is often compromised in the few days after birth; for example, in the United States, it has been reported that 5.6% of dairy heifer calves die within the first 48 h after birth (
      • USDA
      Dairy 2014, Dairy Cattle Management Practices in the United States, 2014.
      ). Ensuring the environment where the calf is born is clean is essential to limit the transmission of disease to both the dam and her calf.
      Wet and dirty substrate in maternity areas potentially increases disease risk for cows and calves after calving. Regular cleaning and disinfection of maternity areas can potentially reduce disease incidence for fresh cows and calves. For example, a survey study found farms with maternity areas that were not disinfected after each calving had higher rates of clinical mastitis than farms that sometimes or always cleaned their maternity areas between each calving (
      • Elbers A.R.W.
      • Miltenburg J.D.
      • De Lange D.
      • Crauwels A.P.P.
      • Barkema H.W.
      • Schukken Y.H.
      Risk factors for clinical mastitis in a random sample of dairy herds from the southern part of the Netherlands..
      ).
      • Donat K.
      • Schmidt M.
      • Kohler H.
      • Sauter-Louis C.
      Management of the calving pen is a crucial factor for paratuberculosis control in large dairy herds..
      found that Mycobacterium avium ssp. paratuberculosis–positive farms were able to effectively control paratuberculosis with maternity area disinfection. Some research has also found associations between maternity area type (group or individual) and disease incidence in calves (
      • Frank N.A.
      • Kaneene J.B.
      Management risk factors associated with calf diarrhea in Michigan dairy herds..
      ;
      • Svensson C.
      • Lundborg K.
      • Emanuelson U.
      • Olsson S.
      Morbidity in Swedish dairy calves from birth to 90 days of age and individual calf-level risk factors for infectious diseases..
      ;
      • Pithua P.
      • Wells S.J.
      • Godden S.M.
      • Raizman E.A.
      Clinical trial on type of calving pen and the risk of disease in Holstein calves during the first 90 d of life..
      ). Calves born in individual maternity areas in medium size herds (100–199 cows) had lower risk of diarrhea and calves born in individual maternity areas had lower risk for respiratory disease than calves born in group maternity areas (
      • Frank N.A.
      • Kaneene J.B.
      Management risk factors associated with calf diarrhea in Michigan dairy herds..
      ;
      • Svensson C.
      • Lundborg K.
      • Emanuelson U.
      • Olsson S.
      Morbidity in Swedish dairy calves from birth to 90 days of age and individual calf-level risk factors for infectious diseases..
      ). However, more recently, a clinical trial found that calves born in group maternity areas were not at higher risk of diarrhea, pneumonia, or morbidity as compared with calves born in individual calving pens (
      • Pithua P.
      • Wells S.J.
      • Godden S.M.
      • Raizman E.A.
      Clinical trial on type of calving pen and the risk of disease in Holstein calves during the first 90 d of life..
      ). The link between maternity area type and calf disease is unclear, but it may be related to frequency of pen cleaning and not maternity area type. Proper pen management may be more important to reducing infectious disease than maternity area type, with an emphasis on cleaning maternity areas regularly.
      The rate of cleaning maternity areas across dairy operations is highly variable. For example,
      • Caraviello D.Z.
      • Weigel K.A.
      • Fricke P.M.
      • Wiltbank M.C.
      • Florent M.J.
      • Cook N.B.
      • Nordlund K.V.
      • Zwald N.R.
      • Rawson C.L.
      Survey of management practices on reproductive performance of dairy cattle on large US commercial farms..
      found that less than half of herds that used individual maternity pens cleaned after every calving, with the majority of producers cleaning pens after 4 or more calvings. Group maternity areas may be more difficult to clean after each calving compared with individual pens because they are larger and hold multiple animals at once.
      Good maternity area cleanliness promotes cow comfort in addition to reducing disease risk. In mid-lactation, cows will avoid lying on wet substrate when possible and reduce their lying time up to 5 h per day when bedding is wet (
      • Fregonesi J.A.
      • Veira D.M.
      • Von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      Effects of bedding quality on lying behavior of dairy cows..
      ). In the few hours before giving birth, cows increase their lying time (
      • Huzzey J.M.
      • von Keyserlingk M.A.G.
      • Weary D.M.
      Changes in feeding, drinking, and standing behavior of dairy cows during the transition period..
      ) and commonly give birth in a fully recumbent position (
      • Schuenemann G.M.
      • Nieto I.
      • Bas S.
      • Galvāo K.N.
      • Workman J.
      Assessment of calving progress and reference times for obstetric intervention during dystocia in Holstein dairy cows..
      ); thus, it is very important to keep the maternity area dry to improve cow comfort. To keep the maternity area clean and dry, it is recommended that fresh bedding be added daily and the whole pen be cleaned completely every 3 to 4 wk (
      • Cook N.B.
      • Nordlund K.V.
      Behavioural needs of the transition cow and considerations for special needs facility design..
      ).

      APPLICATIONS

      The majority of research on group maternity areas has focused on creating opportunities for isolation-seeking behavior for dairy cows to facilitate the expression of natural calving behaviors. Some cows kept on pasture or indoors will seek seclusion from pen mates as calving approaches, but this behavior may be affected by availability of resources for cows to hide. More research is encouraged that provides cows with additional opportunities to seek isolation in group pens, such as fixtures in the pen that allow for more than one cow to hide at a time, creating hiding spaces that allow cows to walk a long distance to separate from pen mates as they would in a more natural setting (e.g.,
      • Flörcke C.
      • Grandin T.
      Separation behavior for parturition of Red Angus beef cows..
      ), or creating an area that facilitates prolonged contact between the dam and calf.
      Despite the emerging research focused on behavior in group maternity areas, there is a clear need for additional research to explore the effects of group maternity areas on the behavior and health of parturient cows and their calves. Research using cows kept in individual pens may be extrapolated to those in group settings; however, there are likely unique stressors that cows face as they undergo labor in a group that requires additional research. For example, effects of problems that may arise from limited space, high stocking densities, regrouping, and other social interactions on the success of a cow’s transition period are not well understood. We encourage more work aimed at developing group-housing systems that allow cows to express their natural behavior, while maintaining good hygiene and health for the dam and calf after calving.

      ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

      A USDA–National Institute of Food and Agriculture–Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Foundation grant (grant no. 2016-67015-24734) from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded K. Creutzinger’s graduate student stipend. We thank Peter Krawczel at University of Tennessee and Heather Dann at William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute for their contributions to the overall ideas presented in this review. The authors of this paper have no financial or personal relationships with other people or organizations that could inappropriately influence or bias the content of this paper.

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