A down cow is one that is sitting or lying on the ground and unable to get up. Cows can become recumbent for many reasons, and at any stage of their lactation cycle, but it most commonly occurs around calving time. Rapid treatment for the correct diagnosis, followed by nursing at a high standard, maximises a down cow’s chance of recovery, and reduces stress for everyone during a busy calving season.
Preventing down cows
Taking steps to prevent cows from going down is worth focusing on. This includes careful mineral supplementation, good springer management, and accurate body condition scoring to ensure cows are not too fat or too thin. Find out more about body condition scoring.
There are three essential steps to managing down cows:
- a clear decision on whether to treat and nurse the cow or euthanase, and
- a treatment management plan.
There are many causes of down cows, including:
- calving paralysis
- metabolic disease – (milk fever, low potassium, fat cow syndrome, low phosphorus and grass staggers)
- other infections such as toxic mastitis, acute metritis, acute gut infection
- gut diseases such as rumen acidosis, bloat, twisted gut
- injury - dislocations, breaks, muscle or tendon ruptures
- previous illnesses such as facial eczema.
Decision on treatment
If a down cow is drowsy, depressed and non-responsive or very ill, an immediate diagnosis should be made to determine whether treatment is an option. If she is still alert (bright, aware of her surroundings and responsive), treatment should begin as quickly as possible.
Prompt treatment of the primary condition with the appropriate medications will maximise the cow’s chances of a quick recovery. In some cases, a cow may recover on the same day. If it’s looking like it will take longer, she should be moved to a suitable, dedicated nursing area.
If the cow cannot stand on her own within 48 hours of going down, you should seek veterinary advice.
Treatment management plan
Down cows should be a priority no matter what else is happening on-farm. An early response will ensure a better outcome.
Whatever the cause, the management of all down cows should include:
- checking the cow’s environment for risks such as powerlines, waterways or other animals
- moving her off hard surfaces and out of cold, hot or wet weather
- checking her posture – so if she is lying on her side, put her up onto her chest and support her
- getting her back on her feet quickly to avoid secondary damage
- considering euthanasia if treatment is not a viable option - this should be performed as soon as possible to minimise suffering.
Nursing down cows
The requirements of nursing a down cow includes:
- providing a dedicated area with barriers
- providing clean, dry and soft bedding that will provide a non-slip surface when the cow tries to stand
- providing a continuous supply of clean water and good feed
- moving the cow from side to side every three hours to ensure her weight is not always to one side if she is unable to swap sides by herself, and flex and extend the hind limbs each time the cow is moved
- regularly hand stripping milk from the udder
- regularly encouraging the cow to rise
- using lifting devices to get her to her feet only - never leave cows hanging in lifting devices.
- If the cow is still down after four days, a re-assessment should be made of whether it is worth continuing treatment. However, some cows, with careful care, can take a week to recover.
Use of hip lifters
Watch our animation below on correct use of hip lifters.
Hip lifters should only be used to assist a cow into a standing position, not to suspend a cow that is unable to stand without the additional support of a breast strap or sling.
Padded hip clamps should be applied firmly then raised slowly using a frontend loader or hoist to assist the cow to stand. Using a breast strap under the brisket in conjunction with hip clamps is recommended good practice as it helps the cow up onto its front legs as the hips are raised. The additional support also minimises discomfort for the cow and provides some additional restraint, making the process safer for you and the cow. Using a full sling to stand a cow up is not recommended as the pressure on the cow's abdomen causes the muscles in the hind leg to relax.
It is acceptable to move a cow a short distance using a sling or breast strap, with a correctly applied hip clamp, as long as it doesn’t cause the cow any undue discomfort or distress. If you need to move a cow longer distances, use a transport tray, tandem trailer or front end loader bucket. Regardless of the method of transport, the cow must be adequately restrained to prevent any additional harm, pain or undue distress.