Ensuring cow health and well-being is an important management factor for dairy producers. There are several causes for a non-ambulatory or “down” cow including accidents, metabolic or infectious disease, and calving. Down cow management is critical in dairy farms.
A down cow is an animal that is unable to stand or walk unassisted. Direct down cow costs include:
reduced (re)productive performance,
increased culling rate,
increased production costs.
To prevent ﬁnancial losses and welfare problems down cow management is critical in dairy farms. In addition, a well-being plan including how to care for non-ambulatory animals and how to respond appropriately considering the animal’s best interest in mind needs to be developed.
The first step is to assess a compromised cow prior to assisting her to stand. It is important to evaluate if there are obvious injuries or illnesses preventing cow from standing. The slippery or wet floor needs to be fixed by spreading sand, lime, or bedding to provide traction. The cow needs to be haltered and then using a rope or set of hobbles, one back leg should be tucked under her body while rolling her onto the same side as the tucked leg. A cow lying in a flat position will often thrash and beat her head on the ground/floor and will bloat when left in this position for an extended time. Therefore, to prevent cow from lying in a flat position, a bale or prop should be placed against the shoulder and then the animal head should be turned in the opposite direction.
There are a few methods to encourage a down cow to stand including speaking to her, approaching at an angle from her rear toward her shoulder, yelling and clapping hands, and shaking a cow paddle or noisemaker. It is recommended to leave the halter on with the rope loose, so you can turn her head, guiding her speed and direction. If the cow stands and there are no shaking or wobbling, she can be moved slowly and carefully to a dedicated recovery area. If the cow is not strong enough and is standing on only 3 legs, it is recommended to create a temporary well-bedded pen around her.
If the cow is unable to stand or she is not in a safe place to stand, then move her to a more secure location. Never drag the cow across the floor using the head, tail, or limbs as handles. Use straps or wide ropes in vertical, forward, rear, or side to assists to maneuver down cows onto mats, rescue glides, stone boats, gates, tarps, or other suitable surfaces. Be deliberate in the preparation process and when the cow is secured, move her quickly and smoothly.
Dairy farm protocols and plans regarding down cow care should be developed, and all the needed equipment must be well-maintained. Down cow care team need to be trained on how to use all equipment before and in between situations. Watching training videos, attending educational seminars, re-evaluating previous situations, and practicing on fresh deadstock, while maintaining respect for these fatalities are useful methods for on-farm training.
The purpose of down cow care includes preventing further injuries, maximising recovery chance, ensuring welfare, and keeping both the cow and human caretakers safe. Down cows must be turned from side to side every 4 to 6 hours to restore normal blood flow in the muscles and to avoid muscle damage. If the cow is not standing in 12 hours after being moved to a suitable surface, the veterinarian must be consulted to determine any underlying conditions, prognosis, and treatment plans. If the cow is unable to stand within the first 24 hours, her chances of ever standing again are low. Euthanasia is recommended when the cow becomes depressed, quits eating and/or starts to lose body condition, and develops skin ulcers or erosions.
In conclusion, down cows require immediate attention with assistance from a trained rescue team. Down cows need a safe area in a pen or paddock where they have a comfortable resting surface, shade, and protection from the elements and predators with fresh water, feed, and hay available at all times. Safe moving methods should always be used, down cows need to be checked frequently, and their condition, treatments applied, and movement records need to be documented.