The Calving Stall

Steve Boyles, OSU Beef Extension Specialist

Most modern cattlemen have some type of facility for holding or restraining cattle that need assistance at calving. This stall need not be elaborate or expensive, but it should be handy and useful. This article sets forth some of the things to consider before installing such a stall or for evaluating your present facility.

The objective of a calving stall is to provide an environment that is safe and useful to you and your veterinarian when assisting at calving. This stall will generally pay for itself in short order in calves saved and cows treated properly and promptly. Some of the tasks made easier with a calving stall include performing cesarean sections, cleaning a retained placenta, assisting calves presented for birth in the wrong position, milking out cows, fostering calves and medicating cows requiring follow-up treatments. It allows the producer to quickly estimate the situation and take appropriate action on their own or with professional help.

A good calving stall should meet the following criteria:

  • The whole facility should be Easy To Clean
  • Readily accessible to cow lots/pastures and vehicles
  • Preferably inside a barn
  • Easy to get cows into
  • Installed to take advantage of cows instincts to return to the herd
  • Can be operated by one person
  • Be durable to withstand stress
  • Be well lit from side to rear
  • Have gates on the side that swing out of the way
  • Have headgate
    • Avoid choking type head gates
    • Use parallel vertical pipes or planks
    • A quick release head gate

Generally calving assistance may not be ideal in a squeeze chute unless it meets the criteria above. If a cow does go down or a puller is needed, gates and pipes may hinder your getting the job done quickly and safely.

Some producers use only a rope and a quick release hondo. While this may be fine for the docile old girl who has been on the farm or ranch for 18 years, most cows who last that long calve easily by themselves. It’s the snakey ones that usually need help. Most cattle would be easier and safer to handle in a calving stall. With less stress on you and the cow, you may no longer need to holler for someone to “quick go call the Vet…”

Building/Construction:  Before any excavation begins, the farm owner or the contractor must contact the utility locator service in the area. This simple precaution can save lives, money, and helps to avoid legal and safety issues.

Restraint Systems: The best system for restraining a cow during calving is a headgate that has parallel sides and side gates that swing away. Cows may lie down while you are trying to pull the calf and could become stuck or injured in a squeeze chute or alley way. Avoid the use of V-shaped or scissor-style headgates for calving as they may choke the cow if she lies down.  Some of the newer headgates made for calving are wider at the bottom to accommodate a cow lying on its side. Having both side gates able to swing open allows plenty of room to work no matter which side the cow lays down on. Additionally, make sure that gates are long enough to allow you to keep the calf puller on the cow as she lies down and still manipulate the calf puller in the needed direction.

Multiple pens allow for separating cows close to calving.  Make sure pens can be easily cleaned of bedding material to control pathogens.  Following calving, move new pairs to a pen away from the pregnant cows, to allow for better attention to newborn calves and lessen the risk of calf stealing.

As stated previously, facilities need not be elaborate.  However, one can install cameras and be close by to a calving supply room and hospital areas.

Layout of the Calving Stall

Credit to Dr. Vern Anderson, NDSU for original version of this diagram

Pens:  Calves, are hardy and normally fare well in Midwestern winters if they are given protection from precipitation, wind, and mud. However, newborn calves that are still wet or are stressed in cold weather may need heat and draft protection for a short time to help them overcome hypothermia. This is seldom needed for healthy calves, even newborns, but may be needed for a short time, such as when there has been a difficult calving, when a cow does not claim her calf, or when calves are weak and don’t want to nurse.  If you have electricity a heat lap/calf warmer could be used.  Portable corral panels can be used to create low-cost calving pens inside of existing shelters. Calving pens should be at least 10 by 12 feet in size to allow the cow to move without stepping on the newborn calf. Pens should be bedded with straw and positioned in a draft-free area of the shelter. Large, round or square bales can be used to help protect the pens from drafts if needed. Following each calving cycle, pens should be cleaned and re-bedded with straw before the next cow is moved into the pen. Plastic or metal tubs from 55-gallon barrels cut in half or empty commercial supplement lick tubs make good temporary waterers.

Paving with Concrete: Concrete provides good footing and is easy to clean but is relatively expensive. It is sold by the cubic yard (27 cubic feet), and price is based on its compressive strength after hardening. Compressive strength ranges from 2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) to 4,000 psi.

Thickness Purpose
4 inches Minimal vehicle traffic such as traffic involved in the occasional removal of manure
5 inches Paved feedlot areas and driveways
6 inches Driveways that support heavy traffic such as large grain trucks and feed wagons

All sod and organic matter must be removed before concrete is placed. The subgrade must have uniform soil compaction and moisture content and must be well drained. The top 6 inches of the subgrade should be sand, gravel, or crushed stone to provide for drainage under the slab.

Minimizing Use of Calving Shed: It is important to regularly monitor the body condition score (BCS) of the cows in the herd as a barometer of nutritional adequacy and reproductive efficiency. Having a majority of cows with a body condition score (BCS) of 5 to 6 will decrease the chance of having calving difficulty, optimize colostrum quality, minimize post-calving complications, optimize reproduction, and set the stage for a successful calving season again the following year. When cows are too fleshy at calving, fat accumulates in and around the birth canal and increase the chances of calving difficulty (dystocia). However, when BCS is inadequate, cows may not have enough energy to sustain normal contractions in a prolonged or difficult delivery

Dealing with calving difficulty during daylight hours is always easier than pulling a calf late at night. A management technique discovered by a Canadian Hereford breeder, Gus Konefal, can shift the calving distribution toward daylight calving. The Konefal method involves adjusting the time of day when cows are fed during late gestation. Research at Iowa State University has verified that when cows were fed early in the day (before noon), only 49.8 percent of the cows calved during daylight hours, while 85 percent of cows fed late in the day (after 5 p.m.) calved during daylight hours.

For more regarding the creation of a calving stall or calving facility, see the video embedded below.