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
It is possible to avoid most down cows with some prevention. This includes 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. Find out more about body condition scoring.
Managing down cows
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, fatty liver disease, ketosis, low phosphorus and grass staggers)
- 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
Prompt diagnosis and 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 a down cow is non-responsive or very ill, a quick decision should be made on whether treatment is viable.
Treatment management plan – nursing down cows
Down cows should be a priority no matter what else is happening on-farm. An early response will ensure a better outcome.
The requirements of nursing a down cow include:
- 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 after thoroughly checking the cow for dislocations or broken bones. 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.
Padded hip clamps are to be applied firmly then raised slowly using a frontend loader or hoist to assist the cow to stand. A breast strap under the brisket in conjunction with hip clamps is good practice as it helps the cow up onto its front legs. The additional support also minimises discomfort for the cow and provides some additional restraint, making the process safer for you and the cow.
Correct placement of hip lifters and brisket strap
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, the cow must be adequately restrained to prevent any additional harm, pain or distress.