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Transition cow housing


Source: The Dairyland Initiative, School of Veterinary Medicine

Successful housing and management of the cow during the period from 21 days before to 21 days after calving is critical to the overall success of the dairy herd. The transition cow facility impacts the lactations of all of the cows in the herd, thus its design and layout warrants particular emphasis in overall facility planning.

Based on the research of our group and that of others, we have created a blueprint for transition success based on five design principles:

1. 30 inches (76 cm) of bunk space 21 days before and after calving to ensure that all cows can eat at the same time

2. Deep loose bedded freestalls sized to accommodate the size of the cows using them or a comfortable, dry bedded pack to ensure that non-lame and lame cows have a comfortable place to rest and rise without hindrance

3. At least one stall per cow (or at least 100 square feet (10 sq m) of bedded pack per cow) to ensure that transition cows do not have to compete for a place to rest

4. Minimize regrouping stress within the critical period 2 to 7 days before calving to avoid any risk for a precipitous drop in dry matter intake (DMI) during the crucial stage of gestation

5. A quiet place to calve, with limited disturbance from humans and other cows, to ensure as natural a birth as possible with a lowered risk for dystocia and stillbirth

These design principles, when coupled with excellent sick cow surveillance by attentive caregivers, and excellent feeds and feeding, have been shown to deliver optimal early lactation health and performance. They also provide producers flexibility and the opportunity to optimize the facility for their management needs.

Transition Cow Barn Planning Check List

  • 30 inches (76 cm) of bunk space 21 days before and after calving
  • Deep loose bedded freestalls sized to accommodate the size of the cows using them or a comfortable, dry bedded pack
  • At least one stall per cow (or at least 100 square feet (10 sq m) of bedded pack per cow)
  • Minimize regrouping stress within the critical period 2 to 7 days before calving
  • A quiet place to calve with limited disturbance from humans and other cows

The design process for a transition cow facility follows the series of questions below:

1. How should I manage my cows at the point of calving?

2. How do I correctly size the prefresh and postfresh pens?

3. What approach and layout should I use for designing the prefresh area?

4. What layout should I use for the fresh pen?

5. Where should I house sick cows?

How should I manage my cows at the point of calving?

From the Wisconsin Blueprint, the critical elements that apply to this decision are minimizing regrouping stress within 2 to 7 days before calving, and providing a quiet place to calve with limited disturbance.

In order to achieve these two goals, there are three choices:

1. Just-in-time calving – Cows are moved to the maternity pen (the pen in which the cow calves) within hours of birth

2. Short-stay maternity pen – Cows are moved to the maternity pen less than 2 days before they calve

3. Long-stay maternity pen – Cows are moved into the maternity pen more than 7 days before they calve

Surveys of the Wisconsin dairy industry suggest that 55% of dairy herds >200 cows in size adopt just-in-time calving, while 32% of herds have long-stay maternity pens. 15% of herds appear to adopt a high risk strategy, moving cows to a maternity pen within 2-6 days of calving, which has an overall negative impact on early lactation performance.

Just-in-time Calving

The elements critical to the success of just-in-time calving are:

1. Close proximity of the maternity pen to the prefresh area

Cows are moved in stage II of labor. The move must be low stress, and short and easy for the maternity pen workers. The maternity area must be in close proximity to the prefresh pen with well designed gates that can be operated by a single worker.

2. Individual maternity pens

This system works best when individual maternity pens are provided for each cow so that individuals are not disturbed by the entry and exit of other cows from the pen during labor.

3. 24/7 prefresh surveillance

Risk for stillbirth and prolongation of stage I labor is increased when cows are moved to the pen too early in late stage I when only mucus is showing at the vulva, rather than the water bag or

the calf’s feet. The calf must be locked in the cow’s pelvis before the cow is moved if birth is not to be delayed.

This means that the prefresh area must be surveyed once every hour of every day – precluding just-in-time calving as an approach for smaller herds without sufficient staffing.

4. Design the prefresh area so that cows that are in labor can be observed from OUTSIDE of the pen

Because the prefresh pen must be checked every hour of every day, it must be designed so that workers do not have to enter the pen to observe cows in labor in order to avoid repeated disturbance of other cows.

Prefresh pens should have a drovers lane running around the back of the pen so that workers can walk completely around the perimeter of the pen, or have a head-to-tail stall design where the rear of all cows face the feed alley when they are lying in the freestalls to avoid entering the pen.

5. Deep loose bedded prefresh freestalls

If freestalls are used to house the prefresh cows, deep loose bedding is required to facilitate easy rising and lying movements. We know lame cows in particular become very restless close to calving and must rise and lie down frequently. This is very challenging on a mat or mattress surface during normal times, but is extremely challenging for lame cows at the point of calving.

6. Adequate training and monitoring

Maternity pen workers will always tend to move cows from prefresh freestalls earlier than ideal in order to avoid a cow calving in the freestall pen. This tendency will increase the risk for dystocia.

Workers must receive training on the stages of labor. A recording system should record the time of entry into the maternity pen and the time of birth, along with a calving difficulty assessment. A simple wipe board reviewed each day works well.

Wipe Boards for Recording Duration of Stay in the Maternity Pen and Other Management Tasks



7. Weekly pen moves from far dry to prefresh

Since there is about a 14-day variation in due date, we need to reduce the risk of regrouping stress in the prefresh pen prior to the move into maternity. This can be facilitated by moving cows once a week between the far dry and prefresh pens rather than multiple times per week.

Short-Stay Maternity Pen

Cows within 2 days of calving avoid social contact and do not appear to be as affected by regrouping stress as cows 2 to 7 days before calving. Therefore, one solution is to operate a maternity pen where cows spend up to 2 days prior to calving.

The success of this approach depends on the ability of workers to predict calving 2 days prior to the event, which requires excellent stockmanship and an intimate awareness of individual cows within the herd.

This approach is therefore more applicable to smaller herds, typically less than ~250 cows, where dry cow groups are small and social stress is less than in larger herds.

The elements critical to the success of short-stay maternity pens are:

1. Excellent stockmanship and estimation of the timing of calving

2. A group maternity pen in order to avoid prolonged isolation of individual cows

3. Usually coupled with a one group dry period approach

Short-Stay Maternity Pen Check List

  • Excellent stockmanship identifying cows within 2 days of calving
  • Usually smaller herds with a one group dry period program
  • Prefer group maternity pens with an isolation area

Long-Stay Maternity Pen

With this strategy, we try to move cows into the maternity pen more than 7 days before calving.

It is virtually impossible to predict that a cow will calve in 7 days so this is not a strategy to be used on individual cows in small herds, but rather a group approach that can be adopted in herds more than ~350 cows as an alternative to just-in-time calving.

The concept is to move a cohort group of cows from the dry cow group to the maternity pen each week with a group pen of sufficient capacity to accommodate a week of calving cows, and sufficient separate maternity pens to accommodate each group until they all calve, with minimum regrouping.

Typically, 85 to 95% of cows calve over a 14-day period around 280 days carried calf (DCC). This spread should be examined in the individual herd and the appropriate DCC selected to optimize the 14-day period chosen to accommodate the majority of the cows while ensuring that most cows spend more than 7 days in the maternity pen.


In this 2,000-cow dairy herd, 94% of cows calve within a 14-day period starting at ~280 days carried calf (DCC) so the maternity pen move would start at 273 DCC.

As an example, for a herd with a total of 500 lactating and dry cows:

1. Calculate the average # of calvings per week

With a 500-cow dairy, # calvings per year would be approximately 10% more than the total herd size:

1.1*500=550 calvings per year or 550/365 = 1.5 calvings per day

On average, the herd will move 1.5*7 days = 10 cows per week into the maternity pen.

2. Calculate the required capacity for the maternity area if 85 to 95% of cows calve over a 14-day period

The capacity for the maternity area would need to be increased by 150% to accommodate calving due date variation.

For 500 cows averaging 1.5 calvings per day, we would need capacity for 1.5*150% = 2.25 calvings per day or 2.25*14 days = 31 calvings

We would therefore require 31/10 = ~3 maternity pens of 10 cows each

This would ensure that one week’s worth of calving cows would enter a maternity pen at least 7 days before due date and have about 14 days to calve before the pen is required for the fourth week of cows. The second and third weeks’ worth of cows would occupy the second and third pens for a similar period of time as shown in the figure below:


A diagram of how the long-stay maternity pen concept works for a 500 cow dairy over a 4-week period with three, 10-cow group maternity pens

The elements critical to the success of long-stay maternity pens are:

1. Sufficient number of group maternity pens to receive each week’s worth of cows from the dry cow group

2. Group maternity pens need to be sized to provide 120 to 150 sq ft (11.2 to 14 sq m) of bedded area per cow based on the average number of cows calving per week for the herd

3. Adjust the duration of stay in prefresh or far dry to allow for the longer stay in maternity.

Long Stay Maternity Pen Check List

  • Aim to avoid regrouping within 7 days of calving for the majority of cows
  • Each week move a group of cows that are >7 days from due date into a group maternity pen
  • Size each group maternity pen to provide space for the number of cows that calve in a week at ~150 sq ft (14 sq m) per cow
  • For a 500-cow herd, build 3 maternity pens so that cows may calve in the same cohort over a 14-day period by providing capacity for 150% of the average rate of calving

Maternity Pen Design

Maternity pens may be designed for individual cows or groups of cows. In the Wisconsin dairy industry, herds over 200 cows tend to prefer group pens, but as described above, calving strategy should determine the type of pen.

a. Individual Maternity Pens

Individual pens should have a bedded area of at least 12 feet by 12 feet (3.7 m by 3.7 m) with a headlock in one corner and a gate to facilitate single-handed capture. This area allows plenty of room for the herdsman to operate behind the cow and use a calving aid.

The flooring surface represents a compromise between providing a deep comfortable bed for the cow to lie upon with good traction to minimize the risk of slipping if the cow is weakened, and an area which is easy to clean and re-bed. Concrete delivers the latter, but fails on the former. Rubber mattress surfaces are easy to clean, but may be slippery and too firm.

A layer of sand over concrete with fresh straw on top provides for comfort and traction. The straw must be removed and fresh straw added for each cow entering the pen, and the sand must be removed and replenished at regular intervals (typically weekly) to avoid contamination problems.

Locate the waterer so that it is at the opposite end of the pen, away from the bedded area.

For just-in-time calving herds, the feed area may be optional as cows spend only a few hours in the pen. Water access, however, is essential.

An individual cow maternity pen layout with a concrete apron against the feed bunk in the foreground, a bedded area with sand and straw on top in the rear half of the pen, and a head gate in the far corner. The waterer is located in the near right corner, away from the bedded area.



If individual calving pens must be located in a high-traffic area, consider the use of a screen to give the calving cow or heifer a quieter and less distracting environment. The photograph below illustrates one example of a calving pen screen. Unfortunately, screens positioned in this way will impede natural ventilation.



A quiet place to calve may also be facilitated by the use of solid plastic sides to the maternity pen bedded area.

b. Group Maternity Pens

Group pens should be designed according to the general principles for bedded packs, providing 120 to 150 square feet (11.2 to 14 sq m) of bedded area per cow, and a bed depth no deeper than 35 feet (10.7 m). Waterers should only be accessed from a concrete feed alley and not from the bedded area.

In a group pen, a quiet individual place to calve may be created along the feed alley side of the pack or the rear of the pack with a set of collapsible gates that can be moved for cleaning.

Design for a long stay maternity pen concept for a 380-cow dairy


How do I correctly size the prefresh pens?

Correct sizing of these critical pens requires an understanding of target duration of stay in each pen, and calving rate and cow flow.

Duration of Stay

Similar to the maternity pen, the prefresh pen is a pen that the cow gets to decide when she leaves for she alone determines the time of calving. When a calving surge occurs in the herd, cows enter the prefresh pen and must stay until they deliver, creating a bottleneck for cow flow. Typical pen stay durations aim to accommodate a 14-day variation in due date in the herd and ensure that cows are transitioned to the ration for at least 10 to 14 days. We would recommend entry into the prefresh pen 21 to 30 days before due date.

Calving Rate

If we are to deliver on the critical elements of the Wisconsin Blueprint for transition, we must size the transition pen to accommodate calving surges to maintain 30 inches (76 cm) of bunk space and at least one stall per cow (or at least 100 square feet (9.3 sq m) of bedded pack per cow) to ensure that transition cows do not have to compete for a place to rest.

To provide sufficient space, we size the prefresh pen to accommodate 130 to 140% of the average weekly calving rate. The 130 to 140% appears the best predictor of the 90th percentile of the calving rate – the cut-point above which only 10% of the weeks exceed the threshold. In general, the longer the duration of stay, the lower the multiplier since there will be some averaging of cow flow from week to week as they enter the pen.

For example, for the herd in the graph below, the average weekly calving rate was 50 cows and heifers per week over a 2-year period. However, you can also see two large calving surges over that same period. If we build to average flow, we will be heavily overstocked at these critical times and fail to provide sufficient bunk and resting space. The 90th percentile was 61 and 130% of the weekly average rate was 65, therefore providing greater capacity to accommodate the calving surges.

Weekly calving rate for a dairy over a 2-year period with 2 distinct calving surges


How to Calculate the Prefresh Cow Pen

For a herd with 7 cows and heifers calving per day on average, a 21-day prefresh stay would require accommodation for:

7 cows and heifers per day x 1.3 x 21 = 195 total cows and heifers

(In general, use 1.3 (130% of the average weekly calving rate) for pen stays of 3 weeks or more, or 1.4 (140% of the average weekly calving rate) for pen stays less than 3 weeks)

To help calculate the prefresh pen size, we have a free app on the iTunes App Store – the Prefresh Cow Pen Size Calculator.


Sizing the Prefesh Pen Checklist

  • To accommodate calving surges, we must over build the prefresh area by 130 to 140%
  • Calculate the average number of cows and heifers calving per day
  • Multiply the daily average by 1.3 (pen stays > 3 weeks) or 1.4 (pen stays < 3 weeks)
  • Multiply by the target duration of stay in days to give the required capacity

What approach and layout should I use for designing the prefresh area?

Three main approaches to prefresh pen management have emerged from the Wisconsin Blueprint to minimize regrouping 2 to 7 days before calving, and to facilitate the management of the cow at calving time. They are:

1. Traditional Prefresh

2. Sequential Fill Prefresh

3. All-in, All-out Prefresh/Maternity

Traditional Prefresh

This is the most common approach taken with a single pen built to accommodate a 21-day pen stay for cows and heifers, typically paired with just-in-time calving with individual calving pens. It may also be used in association with a short- or long-stay maternity pen arrangement with the duration of stay adjusted accordingly.

The freestall pen is 2-row with crossovers every 12 to 15 stalls to ensure sufficient bunk space. Without a drovers lane, a head-to-tail layout is preferred so that each recumbent cow can be seen from the feed alley for signs of labor. Alternatively, with a drovers lane, a head-to-head or tail-to-tail layout may be used.

Heifers and mature cows may be grouped separately from each other in dedicated prefresh pens. This approach carries the advantage that stalls can be sized more closely to the size of the animal using them, and separate rations may be fed.

Typical layout for a traditional prefresh approach with a prefresh pen adjacent to the maternity pen area consisting of 3 individual calving pens


Sequential Fill Prefresh

This approach is becoming more common in larger herds with more than 1000 cows, and is also paired with just-in-time calving, although it can be adapted for other maternity pen strategies. It has the singular advantage that it focuses the attention of workers on a smaller group of cows immediately adjacent to the maternity area.

The prefresh area is sized for a 21-day pen stay and rather than being operated as one single pen for the entire stay, it is divided into three weekly pens. Separate lines of pens may be provided to split heifers and mature cows.

The pen furthest from the maternity area is filled with a group of cows starting 21 days before due date. This group displaces the group that was in this pen to the adjacent pen, who will now be 14 days before due date, and they in turn displace the resident group in the next pen adjacent to the maternity area. These cows will be within 7 days of due date and will receive most of the attention from the maternity pen workers as they will be the actively calving group. The last pen will of course not be empty when the next group wishes to enter, and it should be oversized by 10 to 15% to accommodate the cows who have not yet calved and must join the incoming group. This system creates the risk of regrouping within 7 days of calving in a small percentage of the cows. However, we do know that the negative impacts of regrouping are less on the resident cows compared to the cows being moved into the pen, and are further lessened by the provision of adequate space.

Freestall pen design for this management style is the same as the traditional prefresh pen as described above. Exits to the drovers lane between pens are important to facilitate cow flow.

Layout for a 2500-cow dairy with separate prefresh lines for heifers and mature cows, each divided into 3 sequential fill pens

All-in, All-out Prefresh/Maternity

This is the least common approach to transition cow management, but it is ideal for those preferring the use of bedded packs rather than freestalls.

Prefresh pen sizing is calculated as previously discussed and this concept creates separate pens, sized to match the weekly average calving rate in which cows remain in socially stable groups for the entire prefresh period.

The figure below shows a facility designed for a 550-cow dairy herd with five pens of 10- to 12- cow pens, where each group of prefresh cows spends 21 days, calving in the pen with the same group of cows that they have spent the entire period with, creating a true all-in, all-out system of management. Two additional calving pens are available for special needs cows, and there is an adjacent office and handling area.

All-in, All-out facility for a 550 cow dairy with a 30-day prefresh stay


Prefresh/Dry Period Check List

  • Traditional approach combines a weekly fill dry or prefresh pen with a maternity area
  • Sequential fill divides the prefresh area into 3 pens which are filled in series each week, with the incoming group displacing the resident group into the adjacent pen. The third pen should be overbuilt by 10 to 15% to accommodate cows that have not yet calved
  • All in, all out prefresh/maternity creates socially stable groups of dry cows, which transition and calve together

What layout should I use for the fresh pen?

Postfresh or fresh pens receive cows leaving the maternity area or from a separate colostrum area where their milk has been segregated for a few days after calving. The idea is to put the cows at high risk of periparturient disease in one place on the farm, so that they may be monitored closely and perhaps fed a separate ration from the lactating cows.

We know that the median days in milk for the onset of a displaced abomasum is about 12 days after calving, so we do not recommend an average fresh pen stay of less than 14 days, and prefer a stay of 21 to 30 days. Fit cows that are milking well may be moved out earlier while cows off to a slow start may remain in the pen longer.

To meet the critical elements of the Wisconsin Blueprint for transition cow facility planning in the fresh pen, we need to ensure 30 inches (76 cm) of bunk space per cow, a comfortable soft bedded surface to rest upon, and sufficient space for all of the cows. This is particularly important since regrouping will be occurring on a daily basis in the fresh pen as cows leave the maternity pen.

We size the fresh pen to accommodate 1.3 times (130%) the weekly average calving rate in the herd.

The fresh pen should be preferably sized for a pen stay of 21 or more days and have a two-row layout. Since this is a pen where cows are examined, the feed bunk should be fitted with 30-inch (76 cm) wide headlocks to facilitate movement between cows. Since total lock up time should not exceed 90 minutes per day, the headlocks should be grouped into small clusters (max 10 to 15 cows) that can be locked and unlocked separately, so that cows that have been screened and treated can be let go as soon as possible rather than having them wait for the whole group to be examined.

E.g. For a 500-cow dairy with a fresh pen stay duration of 30 days, we would need accommodation for:

550 calvings per 365 days/365 = 1.5 calvings per day * 1.3 = 2.0 calvings per day * 30 days = 60 cows

There are two main types of fresh cows that need accommodation – those with milk residue risk and those without. Residue risk cows should not be penned in a hospital pen with other sick cows. Preferably, they should occupy a separate pen or a separated area of the fresh pen.

Appropriately sized, deep loose bedded stall surfaces are of particular importance for the fresh cows recovering from calving.

Some herds have created a separate high risk group of fresh cows. This high risk group of mature cows consists of the following individuals:

  • Parity 3 and greater
  • Lame (walking with a noticeable limp)
  • Cows dealing with a calving problem (twin, stillbirth or dystocia)

It may be preferable to house this subset of fresh cows on a bedded pack and adopt management strategies to facilitate recovery, such as a reduced milking frequency (maximum of two times per day), and the routine dosing of oral calcium and glucose precursors.

Fresh Pen Check List

  • Sized to 1.3 times the average weekly calving rate
  • 21-day minimum duration of stay
  • Provide one lying space per cow with deep loose bedding and 30 inches (76 cm) of bunk space per cow
  • Fresh cows with residues are a sub-population of fresh cows; they should not be housed in the sick pen
  • High risk fresh cows (L3+, lame, calving problems) may prefer a separate bedded pack area