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Animal well-being specialist outlines protocols for dealing with down cows

Jan. 27, 2014 | 0 comments


The difficulty of moving down cows can easily nurture a temptation to take shortcuts that not only compromise the safety of the animal but also possibly that of humans too.

From the perspective of having to deal with down cows, it would be nice if cattle had hooks on their back or if udders were located somewhere else but that is obviously not the case, University of Wisconsin-Madison animal well-being specialist Amy Stanton quipped to the 35 attendees at the Extension Service's first in a series of "Dealing with Compromised Cattle" information meetings.

That challenge, which sometimes includes calves that are suffering from diarrhea, brings a risk of improper or questionable handling of animals if it is done by persons who are not properly trained for carrying out such a task or who have a language barrier that inhibits communication, Stanton indicated. The tendency of people to "find easier ways" can also lead to dragging, shoving, or lifting that is not safe for the animal, she pointed out.

Role of protocol

For that reason, farm owners and managers need to establish and communicate protocols that assign senior and junior levels of responsibility in those situations, Stanton stated. The senior level responsibility includes decision-making on treatment and euthanasia, she said.

Contact information for the senior level person(s) must be readily available to all employees, Stanton continued. "If you're here now, do you have a protocol on what to do if something were to happen right now?" she asked the dairy farmers in the crowd here.

At the junior level, no one should be expected to make major decisions or to perform any physical tasks involving a down animal, Stantion advised. Their responsibility should be to recognize rather than ignore the situation and to report it promptly to the person(s) designated to make a decision and take action, she remarked.

Cattle handling

The junior level employees should be trained to do their assigned jobs safely and correctly and to know when to call for help instead of rushing to do something, Stanton added. She said this includes handling cows humanely, knowing how to move cattle, and being aware of the natural flight zones of cattle.

Because a claim of having experience is no guarantee of knowing how to handle cattle properly, make it a priority to train any new employee on those skills during the first week of employment, Stanton emphasized. Competency must also be shown before the person is allowed to work with cattle while not being supervised, she remarked.

Calmness — not yelling, sticks, prods (reserved for senior level use), or other objects — is the key for handling cows in a milk parlor and elsewhere, Stanton stressed. A complicating factor is that "people don't like to report on one another," she observed.

Cattle movements

Stanton outlined the unusual vision patterns of cattle that underpin their flight zones for protecting "personal space." Poor depth perception is one natural trait that affects the willingness of cattle to move, she pointed out.

Such conditions as a change in flooring (visual or depth), objects that cast shadows or stick out, and going from light to dark are likely to stop cattle from moving, Stanton noted. This can easily frustrate handlers and lead to actions that cause slips and falls, she said.

When a cow puts her nose down while she is expected to walk, this reveals that she has some concern about the surface of where she is supposed to go, Stanton pointed out. If she turns her head to look for what's in her blind spot, this means the person(s) trying to move her are where they shouldn't be, she added.

Walls, gates, locks, and other facility conditions could also affect cattle movement, Stanton observed. Slippery spots such as ice patches need to be identified and corrected with a sand, lime, or other grit material covering, she added.

Cows should never be chased and they should be expected to walk at a pace that is slightly slower than the natural walking speed for humans, Stanton indicated. If a cow begins to run, a rule that Stanton has is that the person handling her must stop moving immediately and wait until the cow returns to a normal walking pace.

Dealing with problems

Cows don't or can't get up because they are hurt or sick, not because they are being stubborn, Stanton emphasized. And those who are moving slowly are lame, not lazy, she added.

Stanton believes that using positive language and showing patience around cattle can be beneficial, especially in terms of creating a "culture of care." Vulnerable animals are most often those that have calved recently, are lame, old, or have illness(es), she noted.

The visual signs of being unstable, shaking, wobbling, or slow moving are linked to increased risk of falls, Stanton pointed out. Those cows should be moved to a setting such as a bedded pack or pasture where they do not have to walk far and they should not be expected to move through sorting gates, return alleys, or free-stalls in which they could easily be trapped and from which they would have to be moved, she stressed.

Handling down cows

When faced with the task of handling a down cow, items to consider are the safety of the cow and handlers, the prevention of further injuries, the chance of recovery, allowing recovery in a safe place, and ensuring overall welfare, Stanton remarked.

Since a junior level person is likely to be the first observer of a down cow, the best scenario is that the person has been properly trained on what to do, Stanton stated. This could be any action for which the person is trained but most importantly to report the situation promptly to the responsible person, she said.

The initial action could include fixing a wet or slippery floor, protecting the down cow from other cattle, safely releasing a trapped limb, providing lunge room, encouraging a cow to stand with the use of certain acceptable actions or small objects (prods are reserved to senior level use), Stanton indicated. What's not acceptable is hitting with any object, the use of sharp objects, striking the cow around the face or head, punching, kicking, or jumping on cows, she said.

Outcome scenarios

Should the cow stand as a result of acceptable types of prompting, evaluate her stability, encourage movement to a safe recovery area, and avoid any location that could create an entrapment risk, Stanton advised. If the cow does not get up, report all of the details to the responsible senior level person (owner or middle level manager in some cases), she added.

The task of the senior level person is to reassess the cow and order euthanasia immediately if the cow is suffering and there is no chance of recovery, Stanton indicated. Carrying out the euthanasia, designed to be quick and painless, is the duty of a veterinarian or a properly trained person, she noted.

If euthanasia is determined not to be necessary or appropriate, the senior manager needs to start protocol-driven treatments and a veterinarian should be contacted within 12 hours, Stanton advised. Every such incident should be accompanied with a determination if facility repairs are needed, employees need retraining on moving cows, or protocols need to be re-evaluated.

Appropriate conduct

The responsible senior level person should welcome being informed of the situation rather than becoming impatient, yelling about it, or "shooting the messenger," Stanton remarked. Other responses should be making sure a down cow being given a chance to recover, has access to feed and water several times a day and is protected from direct sun or wind that would create additional stress.

Those points are addressed in Wisconsin's statute 951, which states that down cows must not be left outside without appropriate care (feed, water, and shelter). Stanton noted that a first offense could result in a $500 fine and repeat violations could bring a fine of up to $10,000 or a jail sentence.

If sending a previously down cow to slaughter is a possibility, a basic requirement is that she be able to walk onto a trailer or into a truck along with a good chance of walking off it at the meat plant, Stanton indicated. If the odds are against that, "would you want the cow traced back to you?," she asked.

Looked at from another perspective, deal with a down cow with the same considerations as one would with a mother, Stanton concluded.

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