If those words don’t send a chill up your spine, it’s only because you have never experienced for yourself a cow down that won’t get up. It’s not something your imagination can adequately conjure up for you. A down cow is a calamity.
Cows do, of course, lie down. They may lie down for perfectly good reasons, known only to the cow. But a ‘down cow’ isn’t just any cow who chooses to lie down; she is an animal who, although in all detectable ways healthy and in good condition, simply won’t, or can’t, get up. She may not try, or she may try and not make it. Either way, you have from one thousand to fifteen hundred pounds of immovable bovine; and if something isn’t done reasonably quickly, you are going to have half to three quarters of a ton of sick or dying animal. Because God didn’t design cows to function for long in a supine position; they have to move in order to eat, drink, and even to perform the basic involuntary functions of life, like digesting their food. Leave a cow on the ground for long, and you have a cow with bloat; for much longer, and you have a dead cow.
So our feelings may be imagined when at six-twenty on Thursday morning, S-3 came in the front door in dirty boots (sure sign something is up) and informed the household that Isabel was down and wouldn’t get up for milking. Not quite panic, but a definite depression of spirits. Because she’s done this once before, and it was an experience we don’t like to remember.
That time four years ago, it was high summer, and the oldest son home at the time was thirteen. For three of the hottest days of the year, father, seven-months-pregnant mother, one thirteen year old, and one ten year old, lived at the bottom of the pasture, trying everything they could conceive to raise that cow back to her feet, while a (fortunately) very capable seven year old kept the girls happy up at the house, fed them PBJ’s, and made sure the water in the wading pool was never more than three inches deep. We hauled water, hay, and cut green fodder, sank posts on either side f her and rigged a primitive sling for hoiking her off the ground, constructed tents to protect her from the sun, all but held her hoof and begged her to get up, to no purpose.
And don’t think we didn’t call the vet in, too; we did, almost immediately. The first thing that seemed to strike the vet was our inconsiderateness at letting Isabel go down at the bottom of the field; our bad. Then she examined the animal. But the thing that makes a down cow a down cow is that there is nothing detectably wrong with her; she just doesn’t get up. So aside from doing the obvious things, like giving her calcium, just in case she had milk fever, and telling us that she was probably overfed, and therefore too fat to get up, or perhaps undernourished, and therefore too weak to get up, there was really nothing constructive for the vet to do. She left us with good wishes, but not much constructive input.
Hence the three days spent holding prayer meetings at the bottom of the field begging God and all his angels to raise this cow. Nothing we did was in the least effective; in the sling, she just hung like a sack of wet sand. We fanned her with folded newspapers, spritzed her ears, and stared hopelessly at one another, for three solid days. At the end of the third day, she got up. Just heaved her big old self off the ground, strolled up the hill, and started grazing. We followed her around for half an hour, soaking up the sight and sound of her as thought it were some beautiful symphony. And prayed, with all our heart and soul, that she’d never be a ‘down cow’ again.
And then comes S-3 in the front door on a March morning with the news that, despite our prayers, she had done it again. Argh, argh, and arghhhhh.
This time it was five days. We don’t know what was the cause. Again, we had the vet, and, again, she gave calcium just in case it was milk fever — only we’d already done that, with no visible effect — and expressed the same contradictory opinions about Isabel’s state of nourishment. She also offered us the use of her bovine hip lift, a simple device that clamps onto a cow’s hipbones and gives you something to attatch a winch to, to lift the cow. We rented scaffolding at our neighborhood contractor rental, borrowed the lift, and for three days cranked that cow up off the ground, got her feet set, and let her down. She stood, sometimes for seconds, sometimes as much as thirty minutes, but always, in the end, she went down again. And she was making no effort to get herself up.
This was no small blip in our farm schedule. Last week was spring break at the university where Shawn earns his weekly envelope, and at which two of the boys attend classes, and we had planned that the week off would be spent setting posts for the barn we will build this summer. Instead, most of our time was being spent playing physical therapist to a cow. And not only physical therapist, but caterer and chambermaid, and you can believe us, cleaning up after a cow that can’t move out of her own messes is no picnic.
But, in the end — that is to say, last night at eight thirty — SHE GOT UP! On her own — no hip lift, no winch. She got up and stayed up for an hour and a half. And this morning, she got up again, and let us milk her; and she kept getting herself up all day, while the guys finally got to set those posts, and at the same time monitored her progress.
Each of these experiences makes us a litte more real farmers.
For more information on how we deal with a “down cow”, see our dairy page.
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