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Transitioning cows in 2021 – Where do fresh cows go from here?

Nigel Cook for Progressive Dairy Published on 29 September 2021

Over the last two decades, initially through improvements in feeding and nutrition and subsequently through facility design changes and enhanced management, we have seen positive progress in early lactation milk performance and health improvements in those farms that have chosen to embrace these changes.

Much of the effort has been focused on the dry period – in particular, the pre-fresh or close-up period – and the maternity or calving area.



However, while the majority of freestall-housed dairy herds now manage a separate fresh-cow group (93% of herds in a recent Wisconsin herd survey), there are opportunities to refine our approach to housing and management of the cow after calving.

Current fresh-cow housing practices

Once cows calve, only 7% of Wisconsin herds move residue risk cows to a dedicated colostrum pen for a few days, where cows may be milked and their contaminated milk safely diverted from the bulk tank.

However, almost one-third of Wisconsin herds and over half of Californian herds move residue risk fresh cows to a sick cow pen and commingle them with other sick cows who may be suffering from mastitis or other infectious communicable disease. It is not surprising that this is where many of our mycoplasma and salmonella outbreaks occur. The practice of housing immune-compromised fresh cows with sick cows can never be recommended.

The remainder of herds move fresh cows directly into an early lactation fresh or post-fresh pen, which is where cows from the sick and colostrum pens move to eventually. Cows stay in this fresh pen for an average of three weeks, and in larger herds, primiparous cows may be housed in their own separate pen, away from multiparous cows. In stark contrast, in automated milking systems (AMS), fresh cows are rarely separated for more than five days after calving and most frequently are simply mixed with the main milking-cow group on the majority of farms.

Concerns regarding cow-calf separation

Currently, in the vast majority of North American farms, calves are removed from the dam almost immediately at birth, with the belief that this reduces stress by preventing the formation of the maternal bond and reducing disease risk in both the cow and calf. This belief is etched into current dogma, even though the dairy cow and her milk production have continued to evolve and increase since these practices were first recommended, and available published science does not support health benefits of this practice.


The dairy industry faces continued scrutiny over its adopted management practices, and cow-calf separation is a significant area for concern expressed by the general public – a concern that does not diminish when they hear the reasons behind the practice. Put simply, removing the calf from its mother at birth does not sit well with anyone who questions it, and milk markets will eventually demand that we try something different.

Some research has been done in Europe on restricted, prolonged contact between the dam and her calf, where the dam and calf are together for short periods around milking time and for half the day (for example, overnight). The results are surprisingly positive, for the most part.

Since we cannot argue that we have optimized our approach to fresh-cow management when one-third to one-half of our fresh cows are put into a sick-cow pen, we need to begin to embrace the possibility that there may be another way to manage fresh cows. That way is unlikely to be just prolonging contact in a group maternity pen bedded-pack area, which seems doomed to failure for a variety of reasons.

Whatever approach to fresh-cow management we take, we need to be mindful of three things when addressing cow-calf separation:

1. Cleanliness is essential. Much of the negative view of managing calves in an environment with adult cows focuses on exposure to manure, so whatever solution we create must be easily cleaned.

2. The impact of early lactation milk production must be minimized. This means the cow should still be milked in the parlour. Strong arguments can be made that milking fresh cows twice a day is quite sufficient for the majority of cows, leaving the possibility that the calf may suckle during the intervening time but also necessitating additional milk feeding for the calf to lessen the milk demand on the dam.


3. Commingling between the calf and the dam must be managed. Ideally, cows are housed in one area (typically a freestall), while calves are housed in another to receive supplementary feed. A separate area, likely a bedded pack, is used for the commingling period, and automated gates and finger gates may help facilitate this access.

Research needs to be done to investigate the pros and cons of prolonging contact between calves and dams in high-milk-producing herds so dairy producers can make informed decisions and start planning adaptations to their facilities to accommodate this approach, if it proves to be successful.

At this point, the addition of an adjacent bedded pack and calf-rearing area connected to existing fresh-cow pens is not beyond the realm of possibility, and we predict the practice will become more common in the near future. end mark

Nigel Cook is currently chair of the Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and manages the Dairyland Initiative.