There is no doubt in my mind maternity pens are a huge asset to farmers and veterinarians at calving time. Not only do they benefit the cow and calf and increase the safety for the farmer and veterinarian, but they can have many other uses as well. From a veterinarian’s viewpoint, any make of maternity pen is better than not having one at all. The reality of doing C-sections on cows haltered to a fence post is fortunately a thing of the past and veterinarians are grateful for that.
While maternity pens were first designed with the calving cow in mind or helping calves nurse, they are now used for a multitude of tasks. Many hobby farmers or producers with small herds often would be better to invest in a maternity pen rather than a squeeze chute, as even routine vaccinations and treatments can also be accomplished in them.
We often do routine procedures or treatments of animals in the pens depending on the type of restraint needed. The accessibility with maternity pens is easier, and often producers have them set up in their calving barns so they are out of the weather. The better ones have a head restraint as good as squeeze chutes. The accessibility to the feet and legs to perform lameness evaluations or trim feet is better than most chutes. With any procedure where cattle must be laid down with tranquilization, then maternity pens are a very desirable option as the sides can be released while still keeping the head restrained. Semen evaluations on yearling and quiet two-year-old bulls are also possible. I would not recommend attempting this on mature bulls, as the pens are a little too light for this procedure unless well anchored and the side swing gate is well secured.
Every other procedure from prolapses, to lancing abscesses, to removing cancer eyes and doing claw amputations are easily completed provided proper precautions are taken. Producers find, with the newer breakaway models, calves can be allowed to suckle easily or cows stripped out with little risk to the operator. I can honestly say maternity pens have saved countless cows’ lives when it comes to prolapsed uteri. Quite often, after a hard calving and the uterus prolapses, the cow is still in the confines of the maternity pen or is at least close by. Cattle fight the restraint very little and can be held for long periods until the veterinarian arrives. The cow has very little side-to-side movement, the prolapse can be reduced quickly. I cannot stress enough how these inventions have saved numerous cows lives in these instances. Veterinarians dread the thought of prolapsed cows bounding around a quarter section of land with the uterus slapping against their hocks.
There are four main makes we see in our area. The Morand Industries make is definitely the most secure as the panels are higher with more bars so cattle almost never attempt to jump out. While chains secure it, rather than a quick catch bar like some other makes, the chains are very secure and can be moved positionally to facilitate access to the back end of the cow. The Morand also has both side panels release and a hinge in the middle so the top or bottom of the animal can be accessed. When cows go down in labour, both sides can be released, allowing them to lie in a comfortable position. All the makes discussed here employ the exact same head-catch with corresponding squeeze chute, and the head adjustments are also exactly the same. Most times they are set for self-catch, so one person can operate them.
Hi-Qual was sold by UFA in Alberta until a couple of years ago. They have been around awhile and over the years numerous changes have been made. The most recent is a reversible back gate employing an ingenious hinge mechanism allowing cattle to be brought in one way and released another. In calving barns, with long alleys, this works great as cows can be caught coming from either direction.
If set up correctly, the head catch is opened and closed by swinging the side gate. This allows one person to bring in an animal and catch it. They have a quick catch ratchet bar at the top. This does pose a couple of safety issues. The bar is at shoulder height for most people so you must watch as it swings quickly when catching cattle and bystanders can be hit. The release mechanism simply involves twisting the ratchet sideways. This is handy when calving cows go down, but be extremely careful when they are released under pressure. The side panel must be held securely so no one is hit by the gate swinging wildly as the animal is released. The 2-W Livestock maternity pen also employs this quick catch bar and although, when working at the back end of a shorter animal, you must sometimes duck around these bars, they are still a positive attribute, as they securely hold the cattle.
The Hi-Hog maternity pen has the head gate mounted in the middle of one side. This gives good access to either side of the animal. If the cow squats, both sides can be released facilitating helping with calving. There are no posts to interfere with access from either side.
It is important when setting up maternity pens to keep the head gate from facing a wall. Position the head gate so cattle can look ahead, down an alley or out a door. This facilitates catching them. If the head gate is set up in a corner, it can be extremely difficult at times to get cattle to move forward. Use cow psychology to your advantage. Some producers place a small bucket of oats in front of the head catch to entice the quieter, stubborn critters in. I have even seen producers position head gates so cattle can be caught coming from either direction.
Maternity pens can be a very valuable, well-used piece of equipment on your farm and not just at calving season. Every farm should have at least one and you will find your quality of life (especially at calving season) improved. I always say for every time your veterinarian uses the maternity pen there are probably 30 to 40 times when producers can use them for other procedures. And, good used ones, bought at farm auction, can be a very worthwhile investment.
Roy Lewis is a practising large animal veterinarian at the Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, AB. His main interests are bovine reproduction and herd health.