Making the most of your buildings at calving

Tim Downes, alongside vet Nathan Loewenstein and dairy building expert Ian Ohnstad, explore how to make the most of your buildings at calving.

The Farm

As a spring block-calving herd, Tim can calve up to 180 cows in six weeks. This high throughput requires careful management of the calving shed to make sure the area is always clean, avoiding any potential issues such as mastitis or uterine infections.

The calf building is made up of two straw yards with a central passage that separates them.

  • Each side can accommodate 20 animals each
  • They have hard standing area and access to pasture
  • Cows are fed through a diagonal barrier
  • Heifers and cows are kept separate for Johne’s control
  • Animals move from dry cow accommodation in the last three weeks of pregnancy
  • Bedded every day

Tim insists that cows and calves stay together for the first 24 hours. After calving they are moved to individual ‘pamper pens’. These are monitored using a camera. Cows are immediately fed fresh silage and minerals and they are milked for colostrum. This is then fed back to calves using a feeder. Surplus is stored.

The calf’s navel is dipped as they go in to the pen and sex and date of birth is noted. Tim has seven pens which can be a challenge with a tight block where he might have 15 cows calving in one day so layout is flexible and he has extra fencing to make additional pens if needed.

Find out more about dairy calf management

Calving buildings

Calving accommodation need to be well managed, taking into account:

  • Stocking rates
  • Peak numbers (use pregnancy detection to forecast)
  • Feeding
  • Ventilation
  • Management
  • Hygiene


Stocking rates

Cow requirements are 1.25m2 per 1,000 litres. In Tim’s herd:

6,500l/cow average yield = 8.1m2 per cow

Loafing area = 3m2 per cow

This means Tim has a maximum capacity of 23 cows in each side of the straw yard.

This assumes that every area of bedding is the same and useable but the way yards are set up may mean this isn’t the case.

How to make the most of every metre2

Location of water trough

In a perfect world all water troughs would be on hardstanding rather than the straw yard. Tim has moved all but one trough to the feeding area which has helped a lot. He has one remaining on the straw yard and 4m2 is lost around this trough due to poaching.

Doorways onto bedded area

Space is lost by gateways as the movement of cows in and out means other cows won’t want to lie there. For Tim, the location of the doorway is key to how he runs the shed. Although the area is needed for scraping out, Tim could consider moving the access to pasture to the hardstanding, but some changes would be needed for this to work.

Seperation of bedded area and feed stance

Having seperation between areas limits the amount of wet material that can contaminate the bedding space making it unuseable. In Tim’s straw yard there is no seperation which means there is some encroachment of wet material onto the bedding area.

All this means in reality not all the bedding area is available for the animals. Tim never stocks more than 20 on each side which is a more realistic number for the available space.

Feed space

Maximising dry matter intake is crucial so that cows don’t go into negative energy balance. Presentation is key:

  • Accessibility – there should be a minimum of 0.75 metre per cow of barrier space
  • Feed should be fresh and frequent
  • Be sure to push up feed to the barrier so cows can reach and none is wasted


Ventilation in dairy housing is critical, especially in straw yards due to straw and dung breakdown creating heat.

Vast majority of buildings ventilate because of the stack effect. Heat rises and exits through the ridge. This changes pressure in the building which draws fresh air in through the inlet.

The ventilation outlet should be at least 0.5m2 per cow. Inlet must be twice the outlet area.

When looking at ventilation:

  • The ridge is critical for natural ventilation to work
  • Crown crank ridges don’t provide enough outlet surface area
  • Building size, shape and site can affect the shed’s ventilation
  • Stock size and number affect ventilation
  • Space boarding limits inlet ventilation
  • Inlet ventilation should be 50% of the surface area side of the building
  • Mechanical ventilation often covers and underlying problem

You can assess ventilation in cattle buildings by:

  • Using drain testers – produce smoke without heat and see how well it disappears
  • Cobwebs, dust on roof and condensation on roof indicate ventilation could be improved

The building Tim is using for calving is a general purpose building with a crank ridge outlet in the roof and space boarding on the side.

He has taken out every other board to provide extra airflow but it still doesn’t provide the surface area required. There are various options to improve the outlet area, the cheapest being inserting pieces of wood under the crank ridge to increase the gap. Tim will consider changes to the crank ridge as well as the sky light to improve ventilation in the building.

Find out more about dairy housing ventilation

Building management

The location of calving buildings should be carefully considered, including:

  • Location – somewhere close to house or with regular traffic to keep an eye on cows
  • Consider CCTV cameras
  • Calving system, whether:
    • Snatch
    • In main bedded area
    • In pens
  • Ease of handling animals
  • Safety if your or staff working alone


The location of Tim’s calving building is perfect, he uses cameras and lots of people walk past during the course of the day. Cameras are good for not disturbing cows while keeping a close eye and catching cases that need intervention.

When calving in main yard there is a risk of cross suckling. Hygiene is also critical and bedding must be cleaned out and disinfected at least twice during the calving period. Tim cleans out regularly, he does use a lot of straw but he says the benefits for cow comfort and low mastitis cases is worth the cost.

Johne’s disease

High risk cows should be segregated from the herd.

  • Separate at drying off
  • Separate reds and yellows from green
  • Take care with heifers as their status is unknown

On Tim’s farm there is less than 1% incidence of red cows. Cows are separated at drying off and housed separately until they re-enter the milking herd. Red cows aren’t served and yellow cows are served to beef and calve at the end of the block to reduce risk of contamination of replacement heifers.

Find out more about Johne's disease

Individual calving pens

Tim has a low incidence of mastitis in his herd. If cases are above target in your herd, you might consider using individual calving pens.

  • Short-term accommodation – cows transferred when feet out
  • Cleaned between calvings
  • Periodic disinfection
  • Deep rubber matting for grip and comfort as well as being easily disinfected

Given the tight block Tim has, if he moved to this system he would need a lot of short-term pens.

Critical periods are drying off and couple weeks pre calving and immediately after. Use our mastitis pattern tool to identify patterns within your herd.

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