Down cows should be a priority no matter what else is happening on-farm. Cows that are down may be sore, uncomfortable, and stressed. It’s our responsibility to make quick decisions to ensure they receive the correct care and are as comfortable as possible.
By correctly diagnosing, quickly treating, and nursing down cows at a high standard, you can maximise their chance of recovery and reduce stress for everyone during a busy calving season.
Preventing down cows
Many of the factors that cause cows to go down are preventable. Minimise your chance of down cows by using appropriate bull selection, careful mineral supplementation, good springer management, and accurate body condition scoring to ensure cows are not too fat or too thin at calving.
Managing down cows
There are three key steps to ensure better outcomes for you and your down cows:
1. Diagnose the cause
There are many causes of down cows, including:
- calving paralysis
- metabolic disease - milk fever, low potassium, fatty liver disease, ketosis, low phosphorus and grass staggers
- infection- toxic mastitis, acute metritis, acute gut infection
- gut disease- rumen acidosis, bloat, twisted gut
- injury- dislocations, breaks, muscle or tendon ruptures
- previous illness - facial eczema
2. Decide on treatment
Early diagnosis and treatment 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.
The best place for a down cow is under a roof or well sheltered area. But if you can’t provide a dedicated down cow area, some easy ways to care for cows in the paddock include using cow covers or putting out a few hay bales to provide shelter from the weather.
If a down cow is non-responsive or very ill, a quick decision should be made on whether treatment is viable.
3. Follow treatment management plan
Research shows high-quality care significantly increases a down cow’s chances of recovery from their initial cause of going down, and prevents further complications. However, research also shows that down cow care has little benefit unless we implement ALL the factors below. So, there’s no point taking shortcuts.
Think about what you want when you’re sick - somewhere comfortable to lie that’s dry and warm, some palatable food, and lots of fresh water. For cows, it’s pretty much the same.
The requirements of nursing a down cow include:
- providing a dedicated area with shelter and barriers
- providing clean, dry and soft bedding that will offer a non-slip surface when the cow tries to stand
- providing a continuous supply of clean water and good feed
- administering anti-inflammatories
- rolling the cow from side to side every three hours and flexing and extending the hind limbs each time the cow is rolled
- regularly hand stripping milk from the udder
- using lifting devices to get her to her feet only - never leave cows hanging in lifting devices.
If the cow is still down after 24 hours, a re-assessment should be made of whether it is worth continuing treatment. However, some cows, with careful care, can take a week or longer to recover.
Cows should never be left in pain or distress. And if a down cow can’t be nursed at a high standard of care, it is better to humanely euthanise her as her chances of recovery will be low. For more information on humane slaughter, click here.
When to roll, when to lift
A cow should only be lifted if it is highly likely she will be able to bear her own weight. Lifting cows before they’re ready to stand can do more harm than good.
The wings of the pelvis, where hip lifters are attached, are not designed to bear the cow’s weight. Cows that can’t hold their own weight are at risk of skin, muscle, and bone damage during lifting.
Assist the cow to stand if she:
- Is bright and alert
- Isn’t trembling or twitching
- Doesn’t appear severely weak or diseased
- Appears to have normal, functioning limbs
If in doubt, roll her instead of lifting- it takes less time and is less risky to the cow.
Rolling a down cow
It is important to note which leg the cow is sitting on each time you check her. Sitting on the same side all day means one back leg will take all the pressure from her body weight, leading to nerve and muscle damage.
If she can’t swap sides by herself, she needs to be regularly rolled onto her other side.
To roll a cow:
Using hip lifters
Be sure to thoroughly check the cow for dislocations or broken bones before using hip lifters. They should only be used to assist a cow into a standing position, not to suspend a cow that is unable to stand. All four limbs should stay in contact with the ground during lifting.
A breast strap under the brisket in conjunction with hip clamps is good practice as it helps the cow up onto her front legs as her 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.
Watch the animation below on correct use of hip lifters.
Follow this process to ensure you’re doing everything possible to minimise pain and discomfort for the cow and make lifting safe and stress-free for you:
- Ensure the cow has grip under her feet. Add straw, hay, or baleage for added grip.
- Apply padded hip clamps securely to her hip bones.
- Adjust the clamps to ensure a firm fit but do not overtighten the clamps.
- Add a breast strap behind her front legs.
- Raise the cow slowly using a frontend loader or hoist.
- Slacken off the chain and strapping once you see the cow taking weight on all four feet.
Do not leave the cow unattended without removing the strap and clamp. If the cow cannot stand on her own, return her to the ground slowly and try again later. If she still cannot stand on her own 24 hours after going down, seek veterinary advice.
Watch the video below to see how to correctly use hip clamps to lift a down cow.
Transporting/moving down cows
Hip clamps should not be used to move cows. If you need to move a cow, use a transport tray, tandem trailer or front-end loader bucket. Regardless of the method of transport, be sure to restrain the cow to prevent any additional harm, pain or distress.