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Veterinarian strives to change traditions to promote the safe movement of down cows

Jan. 27, 2014 | 0 comments


Is it acceptable to move a down cow in skidsteer or tractor loader bucket? Is it acceptable to pull a down cow directly on the neck or legs?

The answers to those questions are "yes" and "no" respectively, according to veterinarian Bob Leder, who is with United Veterinary Service (offices at Bear Creek and Clintonville) and has been the chair of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association's large animal well-being committee for most of the past decade.

Leder was one of four speakers at the first of a series of "Dealing With Compromised Cattle" conferences sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service with financial support from Zoetis Inc. He said coping with "legacy and tradition" continues to be a challenge in assuring that down cows are moved properly to a safe place where they might be able to recover.

Being prepared

Being prepared both mentally and logistically is an excellent starting point for dealing with a down cow, which is "a reality for dairy production," Leder stated. Because those situations never seem to happen at an ideal time, it's even more important to have a plan on what to do and who is going to do it, he observed.

Veterinarians can play a valuable role in coping with down cow incidents, Leder remarked. This can be accomplished most easily if the dairy farm has a valid client-patient relationship with a veterinarian or a clinic, he pointed out.

If that is in place, the veterinarian(s) will be familiar with the farm's animals, the facility and layout, and equipment and tools available for handling a down cow, Leder explained. Being prepared will also accommodate a prompt diagnosis and treatment if warranted and go a long way toward virtually assuring humane handling in all situations, he indicated.

Attitudinal approach

In the realm of attitude, the essentials are to remain positive, keep a control on negative emotions, avoid the blame game, and deal with the problem at hand, Leder stressed. Realize that cows respond to stimuli and will try to flee from danger, he pointed out. Complaining about "that stupid cow" is not helpful, he added.

What's needed is an ethos that trickles down from the owner in terms of attitude, expectations, and priorities, Leder advised. He finds that among dairy farmers there are other interests — primarily in cropping, equipment, or facilities — that take away from necessary attention to animals and people. He said that having high milk production in a dairy herd is no guarantee of acceptable animal care and welfare.

Whatever the case on those points, there needs to be a person whose main interest is animals who is designated as being responsible for decisions regarding down cows, Leder indicated.

He also suggested that having more women directly involved in the management of mature dairy cows might well reduce the number of livestock handling and treatment situations that become matters of public, media, and legal concern.

Attention timetable

Beyond having a chain of command and designation of responsibility, realize that a down cow needs urgent attention, Leder stated. He cited research by University of Minnesota veterinarian Vic Cox, which showed that lying on concrete for six or more hours results in pressure damage to the hind leg.

Doing something to help the down cow should not be delayed until after other chores are done, Leder advised. What should be done depends on where the cow is down, her health history, and what (if known) caused her to go down, he said.

In some cases, often associated with milk fever, the cow is in what Leder described as a "cast" position or condition — lying with her shoulder higher than the spine and thereby being unable to right herself. The condition can often be alleviated by tucking the down rear leg forward and rolling the cow onto her sternum, he explained.

If the diagnosis is milk fever or some other treatable ailment, follow the farm protocol for providing treatment, possibly including a medication for pain, position the cow to be able to get up on her own, and give the cow time to rest, build strength, and gain confidence about standing, Leder indicated.

On the move

Often all a down cow needs is one or both of the two F's that Leder subscribes to — the freedom to move forward or to have good footing. Providing that freedom requires removing or getting the cow away from any obstructions such as wall or pipes along with taking a halter off, he pointed out.

What's essential with footing is to have a surface that allows the cow to dig her rear legs in, Leder stated. This can be accomplished by moving the cow to a ground or sod surface, adding lime or sand to a concrete surface, or putting a snow fence under the cow to provide footing, he said.

How a down cow is moved from an obstruction or to a surface on which it is safe for her to try to stand can easily result in more injury or damage, Leder warned. To prevent injury to the skin, which is the cow's largest organ providing immunity against pathogens, the cow needs to be placed on a suitable surface before being moved, he noted.

Safe moving practices

This rules out pulling a down cow directly by the neck or legs, Leder stated. The chain, belt, or other item used to conduct such movements, which he believes have been too common a practice, is very likely to inflict more damage to the skin and internal tissues, he indicated.

When a down cow needs to be moved, Leder advocates rolling her onto a suitable surface such as a rubber mat, wide belting, plywood, or a stone boat — all of which would have the physical stamina for dragging well over 1,000 pounds. To accomplish that, the cow needs to be bundled with a rope and rolled by hand onto the surface material — a task that is eased by having a full tail, he remarked.

An alternative is to put the cow into a skidsteer or tractor loader bucket, Leder indicated. This also means rolling her into the unit, not scooping her up, and then placing her on a clean bedded pack, sand, or dry earth, he explained.

One practice that Leder wishes would disappear on dairy farms is the use of hip lifters to get cows up. He finds that the hip claws usually do more harm than good. An attendee at the meeting here suggested that the University of Wisconsin Extension Service should create a video demonstrating the successful movement of down cattle.

Gold standard

Getting a down cow into the warm water of a floating tank for 12 or more hours is "the gold standard" for treatment if such a service is available, Leder declared. Noting a couple of cases in which cows with a broken leg were put into a floating tank, he emphasized that a diagnosis must first be made on whether the cow is likely to benefit from the treatment.

What is not acceptable is to allow a down cow to suffer if she cannot get up, Leder stated. Euthanasia is appropriate in those cases, he said.

Leder also advises dairy farmers to keep a log of all down cow incidents including such details as the cause, the location, the time of day, and who or what employee shift was working at the time — the latter possibly being a clue or an indication of a need for additional training or employee discipline.

WVMA concerns

On behalf of the WVMA, Leder shared several additional concerns and points of advice. They are to sell lame cows for slaughter before they become down cows, avoid on-farm surgery by non-licensed persons (an unlawful practice being carried out on some large dairy farms), and reduce the pain to calves by blocking the horns rather than dehorning as such, he stated.

In 2010, the WVMA adopted a stance against tail-docking, a practice that scientific evidence does not back or show to be beneficial to cows, Leder remarked. He hopes that, unlike in California and a few other states, voluntary decisions rather than laws would govern certain practices with livestock.

Even further on the horizon, Leder sees the possibility that processors will increasingly insist on certain livestock production, management, and handling practices and prohibitions, thereby taking the matter out of the hand of government regulation.

When asked for his observations on the Mercy for Animals video, which in large part prompted the meeting here, Leder declined to reply, noting that what is purported to have happened at the Wiese Brothers dairy near Greenleaf in Brown County is under investigation by the county sheriff's department.

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