by Tamara Scully
The Dairy Cattle Welfare Council recently hosted veterinarian Dr. Conrad Spangler of Riverview LLP, whose dairy farms are located across several states. Spangler discussed the significance of high-performing down cow care teams.
“I really think that there’s three main points that we’ve covered,” Spangler said of Riverview’s efforts to enhance down cow care. “It’s a constant work in progress. We’re just trying to learn.”
Those three primary needs that have helped to create quality care are selecting the right people, giving them the right training and measuring the right things.
Designating employees to respond when there is an animal care situation or down cow is necessary. These employees need to be trusted, understand the culture and value of the dairy farm and be eager to fulfill the role. At Riverview LLP, experienced employees who have been employed for a minimum of 90 days are eligible for a role on the down cow care team.
Training everyone to work with down cow care hasn’t worked at Riverview LLP. Really wanting to work on the care teams and willingness to question the status quo are two important characteristics for people to have. People also need to have a strong animal welfare orientation. Team members must be mentally resilient in order to make emotional decisions about ending the life of a cow. Knowing when a cow needs to be sacrificed is an important part of the down cow care team’s responsibility.
“You want people who have that ability to speak up, and be candid and honest with you so you can continually improve your down cow care,” he said. “Let’s put the right people in the right spot.”
Along with the responsibility of caring for down and compromised cows comes the need for protocols on handling the variety of animal welfare situations encountered on the dairy. Handling non-ambulatory cows, the use of hip lift and halter usage, a procedure for using hot shot prods, captive bolt use for euthanasia and a thorough understanding of the dairy’s euthanasia protocol are all covered in initial training and reviewed every six months.
“You need to give animal welfare a priority,” Spangler said of down cow team members.
In order to identify members of the down cow care team, decals are used on their safety vests so all employees realize these employees are in charge in a down cow situation. Because some of their dairies have 24-hour coverage, a team is available on each shift.
“Make sure it’s really clear that they have the authority to make whatever decision is necessary,” Spangler said of care team members.
The down cow care team members have other jobs on the farm, but when an animal emergency happens, they are the first responders, and that is their priority. Down cow care team members aren’t paid extra for being on the team per se, but as they tend to be longtime employees and lead members in their areas of the dairy, down cow care team members are typically higher-paid employees, valued for their experience.
All employees need to know the circumstances that require them to call the down cow care team. Ongoing training of the care team response, including review of any incidents and follow up to review protocols, is an important and necessary tool.
Measuring morbidity and mortality rates are the primary indicators of dairy animal welfare. Lameness, hock scores and body condition scores are other useful metrics to measure, Spangler said.
Auditing animal welfare outcomes over time is important in order to track improvement. Measuring sacrificed cows and natural deaths can provide insight into whether the down cow care team is making appropriate decisions or whether euthanasia is underutilized and animals are suffering needlessly.
Every down cow call should be documented, including where the cow went down and why, as well as the outcome. As you track the data, sharing them with the team as well as with other employees, is critical. Analyzing these can show trends in when, where and why the cows are most frequently going down so that preventative changes can be implemented. Riverview LLP uses a variety of technology-based training tools to measure the down cow care team’s training, response and outcomes.
“The first step…is that you just have to start measuring something,” Spangler said. “Otherwise we’re completely just flying in the dark.”
Guiding the team
The decision to try to rehabilitate a cow, rather than sacrifice her, is made by the on-site down cow care team staff. As one of the large dairy’s veterinarians, Spangler walks the critical care pens and discusses each cow’s prognosis with employees when he is on-site, constantly striving to improve decisions on cow welfare and continually train employees.
The down care area is a straw-bedded back with its own feed and water source. It’s large enough for machinery to access to move animals. Merck’s dairy cow care training manual is used to guide how to move a down cow.
“As an industry, we don’t have a visually appealing solution” for moving a down cow, Spangler said. “We do it with the most care that we can, and with safety in mind, but it’s not easy to do and it doesn’t look pretty.”
Deciding on euthanasia is the most difficult and controversial part of the down cow care team. In some instances, such as a broken leg, euthanasia should be immediate. If the cow is lame, is it more circumstantial and subjective depending on her progress and likely outcome.
When euthanasia is necessary, the captive bolt is used. They do not use guns, “largely due to safety concerns of having a firearm on a dairy,” Spangler said. “We did have one of our employees accidently shoot himself through the wrist with the captive bolt.” They also do not do the injectable method of euthanasia, due to concerns about getting the injection into a vein.
“The larger the dairy that we have, the smaller we make that critical care pen,” Spangler said. “The problem is that if you create a very big space… you don’t have to make a decision” regarding euthanasia more quickly. “I think that it is better for the welfare of the cows. In general, as an industry, we wait too long to make that decision, instead of making it too soon.”
The next step at Riverview LLP is to designate a full-time person dedicated to animal welfare improvement. With that step, they expect to improve upon the animal welfare progress they’ve made by designating and training employees to serve on the down cow care teams and tracking their data.