If a cow goes down, it should be dealt with immediately. The longer a cow is down, the more risk there is to its health and the less likely the cow will fully recover.

A ‘down cow’ is a common issue farmers have with their cows who are unable to stand without help. This term includes being able to walk once she has been helped to her feet. Cows may be down due to either primary or secondary reasons.

It’s never nice for farmers to see their cows hurt or in pain and it can be very distressing for everyone involved, particularly on a productive farm as it means putting other daily tasks aside to help and recuperate the down cow.

Why Do Cows Go Down?

If your cow goes down for a primary reason, it may have a metabolic disease such as milk fever, ketosis, or grass tetany. Likewise, it could have a severe infection such as mastitis or an injury such as calving paralysis, a dislocated hip, or a broken leg. Once a cow is down, they are very susceptible to secondary pressure damage, especially to the nerves and muscles of the legs. If they are on a hard surface like concrete or they are a large-framed, heavy cow, this damage can occur within a few hours, so time is of the essence in preventing any further injury.

Secondary damage can often be more important in a cow’s chance of recovery than the primary cause of her going down. Many down cows have a combination of both primary and secondary conditions and are more prone to developing secondary issues the longer they are down.

“Downer cows” are cows that are bright and well in and of themselves, indicating that they may have recovered from the primary cause, but they are still unable to stand unassisted, likely due to a secondary issue.

Preventing Down Cows

A lot of the reasons that a cow goes down can be prevented. Minimise your chance of down cows by ensuring your cattle have sufficient nutrient supplements. Appropriate mineral provision for cows is crucial to the prevention of down cows. Other prevention methods include using appropriate bull selection and accurate body condition scoring (BCS) to ensure cows are a healthy size at calving.

A SmartShelters client was experiencing a serious issue with lameness in their cattle and reduced their milking to once a day to minimise walking for the cows. The farm lost $100k production per season by transitioning to this method and was spending $60k a season on lame cow culls, treatment and vets bills.

He invested in a SmartShelters composting barn for $350k and is already seeing great results. He aims to get to 600kg per cow in the first season and then maintain this level of production. He is already eradicating the issue of lameness and stressed that he hadn’t even anticipated other advantages that come with the barn, Such as safer calving, heat stress relief and future compliance that he is already reaping the benefits from.

Another good preventative method is investing in good springer management. A cow’s transition period is one of the most important periods of a dairy cow’s life. During this transition period, a cow moves from late pregnancy into lactation, generally three weeks pre-calving until three weeks post-calving. Dairy cows face many physiological challenges during this time and appropriate management is vital to ensure a successful transition. This includes assessing at-risk cows and providing the right supplementation and feed levels according to their BCS. All of this will help prevent your cows developing issues which can cause them to fall down.

Why is My Cow Down?

Assessment of the down cow should cover a few key areas: milk fever symptoms, attitude/appetite, signs of infection, and leg function. Cows with milk fever will have symptoms like bloating, a cold dry nose, muscle weakness (check if she has an ‘S’ shaped bend in the neck while unable to stand), and dry faeces. Down cows that are alert and keen to eat generally have a better outlook, while depression and lack of interest in food indicates a severe underlying problem. Severe infections will affect alertness and appetite, but will also cause other signs like dehydration (look for sunken eyes or a dry nose), fever, malodorous discharges, or a swollen, hard, discoloured quarter.

Rolling your down cow is an important aspect of getting her back up to standing. Note which leg she is sitting on. If she is unable to swap her weight to the other leg, she may cause more damage to muscle and tissue in her legs and struggle further to get onto her feet. Roll her regularly onto her other side to balance out the weight. A down cow should be rolled two to four times a day, so designating a team member to take on the responsibility of your down cow might be optimal.

Managing Down Cows

As important as it is to get your cows up as quickly as possible to prevent further damage, it’s also important to not lift your down cow before she is ready. Your cow’s pelvis is not meant to bear her full weight, so making her stand without the right support and preparation may cause more harm than good and could potentially cause more damage than what you started with.

Do an assessment of your down cow, investigate what might have caused her to go down, and try to identify the best course of action to get her back on her hooves. Eliminate any sources of risk in getting her up. If a primary cause for her being down cannot be found, seek veterinary assistance immediately.

Only lift your down cow to stand if she is bright and alert, isn’t trembling or twitching, doesn’t appear weak or diseased, and appears to have normal, functioning limbs. If none of this is clear, it’s less risky to roll her.

Providing a cover or a shelter for your down cow, making it easy for her to eat and reach food and water, and providing pain relief are all part of a high standard of care for down cows.

For more information about managing down cows and how to lift a down cow check out DairyNZ’s step by step guide.