Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.
Down Cows: Dealing with the Reality
Feb 21, 2014
Here’s a sneak peak at newly developed protocols for handling downed bovines.
Down cows happen. It doesn’t matter if you have 30 cows or 300 cows or 3,000 cows. Down cows happen.
The problem is that cows can go down anywhere. In tie stalls. In freestalls. In milking parlors. In exit lanes. In foot baths. In loading chutes. In nooks and crannies of facilities no one would ever think a 1,500 lb. bovine could get into. But they can, and they do.
At some point, you have to deal with this reality. The critical issue is how you deal with it. What is acceptable, humane handling and what is out of bounds?
Mike Costin, a professional services veterinarian with Animart, has done a fairly exhaustive review of existing veterinary literature on the handling of down cattle. He found little guidance outside of generalities.
So he, along with Kurt Vogel, a dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, has set about establishing specific protocols for dealing with down cows. (Vogel received his Ph.D. under Temple Grandin, the renowned animal welfare specialist.)
Costin and Vogel are still finalizing the protocols, but Costin gave farmers a sneak peek at the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association’s "2014 Access Symposium" in Green Bay, Wis., last week. First and foremost, these protocols will serve as templates. Farms will have to develop their own protocols specific to their dairies because no two facilities are alike, says Costin.
You’ll need to walk the facility with your veterinarian and identify problem areas, he says. Then you and your veterinarian will need to write specific protocols for each. It will take time to develop these, but they’ll be critical to removing a cow humanely and expeditiously.
That’s particularly true for cattle going down in choke points, such as in parlors or return alleys. You might even go so far as to consider retrofits or remodeling. At the very least, new and remodeled facilities should keep down cows in mind when building occurs.
First and foremost, every farm should identify a downer cow team. "It takes a team of individuals to move a 1,500 lb. cow," says Costin. So every farm should have a team of four individuals identified per shift who can be called upon on a few minutes’ notice to move the animal. "These should be long-term, trustworthy employees who have at least a year of employment at your farm," says Costin. The team should include a shift supervisor or manager who is calm and who has decision making authority.
"Moving a down cow is not a spectator sport. Only members of the down cow team need to be present," says Costin. Having others present adds to safety concerns for both the animal and employees, and increases the risk of having someone videotape the proceedings.
Team members should be trained in proper animal handling techniques. Hip hoists, for example, can be used to help an animal stand. But they should not be used to move animals. For that, use a sling that supports the animal both front and rear.
If a sling isn’t practical, animals should be rolled onto sleds and moved slowly to a recovery area. Rolling animals into front-loader buckets is acceptable, as long as the buckets are large enough to accommodate the animal. Some producers have dedicated buckets, equipped with rubber mats, which are used only for down cattle.
The last resort, if an animal can’t be humanely moved, is euthanasia. But protocols should clearly spell out who has the authority to make the euthanasia decision, who should do it and how it should be done. Even after euthanasia, animal should be treated with respect. "It does make a difference," says Costin.