by Sally Colby
It can happen at any time. A cow slips as she leaves the parlor, or perhaps she’s weak after calving or has milk fever. She’s down, and the goal is to get her on her feet as quickly and safely as possible.
A down cow is an emergency, and a potential safety hazard for the cow and those working with her. Everyone on the farm should know their role in handling a down cow. Some employees will be responsible for immediately notifying the appropriate people to handle the situation, while others will play an active part in getting the cow back on her feet.
Ag educator Amber O’Brien, University of Wisconsin, said the main goal in managing a down cow is to prevent further injury and maximize the chance of the cow’s recovery, ensuring her welfare and keeping both the cow and humans safe.
Whoever discovers the down cow should act immediately, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that person will be one to help her. “No one should perform any actions or decisions above their training,” said O’Brien. “Immediate action could mean calling the herd manager and keeping other cows away from the down cow until trained personnel arrive on the scene.”
Discovering a down cow is not the time to prepare a plan for managing the situation. “Each farm should have a standard operating procedure [SOP] on how to manage a down cow,” said O’Brien. “Everyone who is expected to help in a down cow situation should have access to SOPs and continuous refresher training on proper animal handling and management of down cows. It’s important that everyone helping knows the complete plan to get the cow up.”
Select employees to deal with down cows based on their “cow sense,” their ability to think quickly and act safely and work with a team. Develop down cow protocols and training with the herd veterinarian.
Create a contact list (herdsman, vet, key personnel), outline how to assess a down cow and list steps to be taken. Those qualified to head the team must be able to arrive at the farm on short notice, and the rest of the team should be willing to respond quickly. Although the farm will have a general plan for dealing with a down cow, each incident is different and will require a brief meeting of all personnel involved to ensure the best plan is created.
The equipment needed should be easy to access, including a halter, hobbles, boards and a skid loader. Protocols should include when and how equipment should be used. Determine the working zone: only experienced handlers should be in front of the cow, and all handlers should keep away from the cow’s legs. Whenever possible, slowly approach the cow from the rear and move toward her shoulder. Speak quietly and make eye contact so she knows you’re there.
When assessing the situation, make sure the cow is in a safe area – cow traffic may need to be temporarily redirected to ensure the down cow and workers are safe. Turn off automatic scrapers until the cow has been moved. Examine the cow for injury or illness. If a cow is down due to milk fever, treat her immediately according to herd health protocol. Check the cow’s history – how many days fresh, is she pregnant, has she been lame or down in the past?
If the team attempts to get the cow up where she went down, be sure there’s ample friction for good footing. Allow at least four feet of lunge space in front of the cow to help her rise safely, and make sure no people are in front of the cow. If the cow’s hind legs are split, make sure workers take appropriate safety precautions during the attempt to get her legs back together. Cows experiencing pain or fear can become aggressive, so be prepared for a quick change in her temperament.
A down cow might be flat out or cast, or caught in something such as a gate, feeder or stall divider. If the cow is thrashing, stay away and allow her some time to calm down. Be aware that even if she seems calm, she could kick out or whip her head at any time. Everyone on the team should have a predetermined exit path if the cow gets up on her own.
When attempting to get a cow on her feet, everyone involved must work patiently. In most situations, if the cow is ready to rise, the halter should be removed prior to encouraging her to stand so she can lunge freely. Remember, the cow may attempt to run once she stands, or could fall, so the team should plan their own movements based on these possibilities. In some cases, the halter may be left on if the lead is long enough and can be used to guide her movement as she stands.
If the cow will be moved to a bedded pack hospital area, the team should determine the best means and route to get her there safely. A down cow that can’t rise with assistance can be “bundled” by trained personnel to prevent her from flailing as she’s being moved. Bundling involves a rope halter on her head with the excess rope looped around the exposed hind leg. Be sure to pad the area where the rope touches her skin. The rope can then be used to roll the cow backwards onto a surface such as a rubber mat or plywood. Never attach straps to a down cow and drag her without first placing her on a moveable surface. Dragging can cause severe skin damage and leave her vulnerable to infection.
In some cases, moving a down cow will involve a skid steer with a bucket large enough to transport a cow without her legs hanging down. Bundling prior to placing her in the bucket helps keep both the cow and workers safer. Place the bucket on the ground and move it slowly toward the cow, then roll the cow carefully into the bucket, watching for potential pinch points on both the cow and workers.
A cow that has been down should be bedded with deep straw, ideally by herself. If the cow will be down for a period of time, be prepared to roll her to prevent wounds or permanent damage to limbs. The herd vet can advise the team on the proper procedure for rolling a cow.
“Always choose the lowest risk, least technical means of movement,” said O’Brien. “Don’t complicate things. Work smoothly and be dedicated to the plan to help her up. Once you have the movements planned, don’t hesitate – that may give the cow or an employee an opportunity to overthink the situation, so have a set plan of action and follow through.”