Recommendations for Special Needs Facilities

Mr. Gene McCluer, OSU Extension Educator, Hardin County (top of page)

As dairy producers plan to build new dairy facilities, a lot of time is spent on selecting and sizing the milking parlor and cow housing. A similar amount of time is well spent in designing special needs facilities.  Special needs cows are cows and heifers from 21 days prior to calving (close-up) to 16 days after calving (fresh cows).  This also includes high-risk lactating cows: those cows that produce milk which can be sold but need special attention, such as lame cows, older cows, slow milkers and cows that have just been released from the sick pen.  These facilities also can be used to isolate mastitic and sick cows which have been treated, and from which milk must be withheld. 

Special Facilities Needed for Special Animals           

The transition from pregnancy to lactation represents the period of greatest challenge to the health and productivity of the dairy cow. The majority of metabolic and infectious diseases the cow will experience will occur in the first weeks of lactation. The sudden onset of milk production outpaces the animal’s ability to increase intake of nutrients placing the animal in negative balance for vital nutrients such as energy, protein and calcium.  Cows failing this metabolic challenge can develop milk fever, ketosis and displaced abomasum. The hormonal changes associated with calving have a suppressive effect on the immune system of the animal, increasing its susceptibility to infectious diseases such as mastitis and Salmonellosis. To reduce disease and improve the productivity of the cow, we must design facilities and strategies to maximize feed intake and reduce “stress” on the transition cow.
Facilities for a number of activities will be needed in the special needs area.  Special needs facilities may utilize lockups, a chute, palpation rails, a shipping area, a milking parlor, and maternity housing.  The decision to use or not to use headlocks needs to be made early in the design process. If headlocks are installed along the feed barrier, many activities may be carried out in headlocks. The planning team must determine how all the activities are going to be performed by the management team. This facility must ensure the safety and well being of employees and minimize the stress on the dairy animals.
Grouping for Critical Nutritional Requirements

Close-up dry cows and springing heifers differ in nutritional requirements. Close-up cows have greater intakes and are more likely to develop milk fever than heifers.  Close-up cows should be moved into a close-up pen 21 days prior to calving. The diet in this pen typically has greater concentrations of protein and energy as compared to the far off dry cow diet. In addition, the diet should be low in calcium and potassium or contain anionic salts with appropriate amounts of calcium and potassium to prevent milk fever.

Springing heifers may also benefit from a longer transition period than is normally allowed for cows. Thus, heifers and dry cows should be separated if possible. Milk fever is generally not a problem with heifers, but heifers may benefit from receiving the typical transition diet for 5 weeks rather than 3 weeks if they won’t get too fat. Thus, feeding a diet with higher levels of protein and energy without anionic salts for 5 weeks prior to freshening would be beneficial for heifers. Allowance in the special needs facilities must be made during the initial planning process if heifers are to be housed 28 to 35 days prepartum rather than 21 days.

Immediately (24 to 48 hours) prior to calving, close-up cows and heifers should be moved into a maternity pen with a well bedded area. Following calving, cows and heifers may be co-mingled or kept separate until the milk can be sold. This is the only area in the special needs facility where cows and heifers may be housed together. If the facilities allow, keeping the cows and heifers separated during this period is recommended. Cows and heifers should be segregated when they move out of the fresh non-sellable pen into the fresh pens. Cows and heifers should be housed in fresh pens for 14 days where rectal temperatures, dry matter intakes and general appearance can be monitored on a daily basis.

Additional Grouping Needs

Other pens for mature cows and heifers in the special needs facility can be a sick pen used to house cows treated with antibiotics and a high risk pen for lame cows and slow milkers producing sellable milk. An additional pen can also be supplied as a holding area for cows to be culled, dried off, or moved to another group of cows. Generally, a dry lot pen should be conveniently located near the shipping area.  Space is needed near the maternity area to process and house calves after calving. Calf housing should be provided for the number of calves that will be born in a 24-hour period or sized according to the farm’s or calf grower’s pick-up arrangements.

With freestall housing, cows and heifers in the special needs facilities are housed in either free stalls or loose housing. There are advantages and disadvantages to the two different housing systems. Loose housing maximizes cow comfort but requires additional space, bedding material, and labor to maintain a sanitary environment. This is particularly true when organic bedding is used.  Freestalls reduce the labor cost of maintaining the resting area.

Siting Special Needs Facilities

One of the issues with special needs facilities is where they will be located within the dairy facility. They will either be located near the milking parlor or at the back of the dairy barn. Locating these facilities near the milking parlor reduces walking distance to and from the milking parlor. It also allows employees who work in close proximity to the Parlor, to observe close-up cows. The advantage of locating the facilities at the back of the dairy barn is that it allows for easy movement to and from the special needs facilities of far-off dry cows, cull cows, and cows that have been dried off.  Locating these facilities away from the main parlor may necessitate the need for a hospital milking parlor.

Handling Facilities for Special Needs Animals

Some guidelines have been established for handling facilities.  A palpation rail is used to position a group of cows for rectal examination or insemination.  The rails are 4 feet apart, with the neck rail about 32 inches high and an upper bar about 18 inches above it.  The rump rail should be about 40 inches high. There needs to be 2 feet of space for their heads in front of the forward rail, and about 4 feet of working space behind the cows.  Single lane chutes should be about 32 inches wide with walkways high enough on the sides so workers can reach over the fence, rather than through it.  Squeeze chutes should have at least 3 or 4 feet of space all around.  Space should be included for tools and medications used when handling cows.  A tilting hoof trimming table requires an area of about 12 x 12 feet of floor space for the table and work area.
A pen for a sick cow should be at least 12 x 12 square feet, with water and feed provided.  The pen should include a lockup and gate arrangement that allows one worker to catch the cow.  There should be special equipment for supporting and manipulating sick or downer cows, and access from outside for delivery or removal of non-mobile cows.

For close-up and maternity pens, a typical herd will need space for 5% of the mature cows at any one time.  To allow space for close-up heifers, increase this to about 7% of the herd size.  Even more space may be required for herd growth or for non-uniform calving intervals.

A bedded area can allow groups of 6-10 cows to stay through calving.  These pens should provide 150-200 square feet of well bedded area per cow.  This is in addition to any area that is scraped along the feed bunk.  A bedded area for 6-10 cows can have 100-150 sq. ft./animal if there is an adjoining 12’ x 12’ box stall for calving.  Freestall housing for pre-fresh cows can be used, with adjacent maternity pens where cows are moved for calving.  This method requires round the clock observation to prevent calving in free stalls.  Freestalls should be larger than standard sizes for lactating cows to allow for their larger, pre-fresh size. 

Post Fresh Housing

For post-fresh cows, during the two weeks following calving, providing a separate group and extra attention will typically result in improved performance throughout their lactation.  This could be 5 to 6% of the milking herd.  If using freestalls, provide extra large stalls with plenty of alley space for cow comfort. For cows unstable on their feet, a well bedded area with 75 to150 sq. ft. per cow is a good alternative.  Good bedding maintenance is important to keep the enlarged udders clean.  If headlocks are used, they should be 30 inches on center.  It is best to use hospital or low curb headlocks to prevent further injury for a downed cow.

The special needs area also provides an excellent opportunity to reduce the risk of antibiotic contamination of milk, as treated animals can be effectively isolated from the lactating herd.  This area can also be used to hold dry-off cows while they get a reduced ration for several days before milking is stopped, or if they are milked intermittently during the last week of lactation.  This area should hold 0.5 to 0.7% of the milking herd and should provide feed, water, resting, and access to a loading chute.
Biosecurity Considerations

The special needs area provides an opportunity to manage risk through disease control measures. Animals housed in these facilities are particularly vulnerable to contracting new infections. This is especially true for fresh cows, which have suppressed immunity around the time of calving. The newborn calf is at risk to contract Johne’s disease (Mycobacterium paratuberculosis). Cleanliness and daily maintenance of the calving area and the special needs facilities are critical.

The highest risk for introduction of new disease into the herd comes from bringing in new cattle. An effective program of prescreening and isolation of new arrivals is an key element of an effective biosecurity program. A location for accepting, processing and quarantining new arrivals should be located at least one-half mile from the closest animal facility.

An additional biosecurity risk exists with movement of animals within multiple site operations. Consideration should also be given to cattle movement, people movement, vehicles and equipment, feedstuffs, birds, rodents, wild ruminants, and water and manure management. An effective biosecurity program needs to be provided in a written form and be clearly communicated to employees, consultants and visitors. Dairy farms should have appropriate signage to alert and remind people of the dairy’s policies and a drawing depicting the traffic flow plan for all activities on the farm.

Access to the special needs facilities should be limited to only those personnel that are necessary to carry out the daily activities.  This minimizes the transfer in or out of organic material or contaminated equipment that could spread infectious diseases. Veterinarians, hoof trimmers, service persons, sales people and any other visitors to the dairy farm need to have easy access to defined areas where they are to perform their service.


Proceedings of the 5th Western Dairy Management Conference, 2001, J.F Smith, Kansas State University and others.
Dairy Practices Council, Guidelines for Facilities for Special Needs Animals, No. 88, 2007, Robert Engle, Westfalia-Surge Inc., and Robert E. Graves, Penn State University.