Nursing Downer Cows

Nursing of Down cows 

Spring has arrived, and for many that means the calves are hitting the ground and our cows are making that tricky transition to lactation. It is a critical time for animal health with a complex series of metabolic changes tipping some cows over the edge. One of the greatest challenges at this busy time is treating and managing cows that go down. Whilst many respond quickly to a bag of 4-in-1, it is likely you will have the odd challenging case that requires more attention – and it might not simply be because she is sulking!

 The most important factors in managing down cows are:

  1. Making an accurate diagnosis of why the cow is struggling to rise,
  2. Developing a targeted treatment plan and
  3. Providing appropriate nursing care.

 Make a diagnosis:

Cows sit down for many reasons. Some have metabolic imbalances such as milk fever or grass tetany; others have severe infections such as mastitis, metritis or peritonitis and many have physical injuries to muscles, bones and nerves. Identifying the primary cause of recumbency will result in the appropriate treatment and give us an accurate idea of the prognosis – in some cases the prognosis is so poor they should be euthanized immediately, whilst others are worth persisting with.

 Nursing Care:

Regardless of the inciting cause, cows that are down invariably suffer secondary damage to their muscles and nerves. The weight of the cow’s body places a large amount of pressure on some muscles and nerves, which causes bleeding and swelling around and within these structures. This only increases the pressure on these tissues and so results in a vicious cycle of tissue injury that ultimately leads to an animal that is simply unable to stand, even if the primary cause of going down is corrected.

 So why should you even try? Recent research by Dr. Phil Poulton out of Gippsland has shown that you can significantly decrease the risk of secondary injury and thus improve a cow’s chances of recovery if you provide appropriate nursing care. In contrast, even with an accurate diagnosis and the best treatment, without adequate nursing the chances of recovery are significantly reduced. 

The only way to effectively nurse down cows is to have a dedicated nursing pen. The requirements for good nursing pens are:

  •  Bedding

 Down cows + hard surfaces = A DISATER! Bedding should be clean, dry, soft and, most importantly, deep. Straw, hay, loose rice hulls and uncompacted sawdust are good but they need to be 300-400mm deep.

  •  Shelter

 We all know how nasty the weather can be in our area. Providing shelter from the cold not only makes the cow more comfortable but results in better blood flow to the limbs and reduces their energy requirements, leaving more energy available for standing up!

  •  Rolling and Lifting

 Many down cows spend more time lying on their worst affected leg as they are unable to roll themselves over. In these cases, cows should be rolled frequently (7-8 times daily). This reduces the pressure on those muscles and nerves and improves blood flow to these tissues.

 Lifting, whilst a very useful tool, must be done with great care. Cows should always be supervised during lifts and should not be left to hang by the hips. Using a belly band under the chest will help to distribute weight and improves cow comfort. However, if a cow is not supporting any of her own weight, or stops supporting any of her own weight, put her down! You will only be making matters worse. We have hip lifters available if you don’t have your own.

  •  Confinement

 How often do you see a down cow drag herself around a paddock struggling to get up? Whilst it is great she is putting in the effort, this struggling often contributes to secondary nerve damage by stretching the nerves of the back legs. It can also result in dislocation of the hip. By restricting cows in small pens we can reduce the risk of secondary injury as well as ensuring they remain on their deep bedding. Barriers can be made of temporary fences or hay bales.

  •  Food and water

 Down cows should always be provided clean, dry, high quality hay and water within reach – trying to get up can be hungry and thirsty work!

  •  Milking

 Down cows should be milked twice daily to reduce the risk of mastitis, not forgetting to use good teat disinfection practices!

 “That all sounds great”, we hear you say. “But how am I supposed to move 600kg of cow from the paddock to the pen?” Easy! Just tie the head back to a back leg using a halter, then roll her into the front loader (and drive with care!).

 The use of anti-inflammatories will aid in reducing the swelling in affected limbs, and should be an important part of the management of any down cow. However, they are not a magic bullet and should always be used in conjunction with excellent nursing care.

 So next time you are struggling with a down cow, don’t just reach for the calcium and the Key. If you put the effort in to nursing these girls well, you might just be surprised at the results. Please don’t hesitate to ring us for advice.