down cow

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.


23 thoughts on “down cow

  1. What a family goes through to provide good wholesome milk! In the end the benefits far out-weigh the difficulties. Now, bring on the cheese, butter, ice-cream and milk!

  2. Thank you for this. We currently have a cow down. She was fine 2 days ago, laid down and now won’t get up. She tries but just can’t. She is a beef cow and hasn’t had a calf so we too are giving calcium, rotating her, giving her food, water, and hay. She seems fine except she can’t get up. This gives us hope she will though.

    1. sorry to hear about your down cow. we rented scaffolding from the local equipment rental place and built a tower over her, ran a strap under her chest, put the hip lift on her back end, and jacked her up with two come-alongs. then we set her on her feet and put her down; sometimes she stayed up for some time, sometimes she just dropped again. this did not immediately fix the problem, but allowed us to milk her, and, perhaps just as important, to massage her. I kid you not, we rubbed her down vigorously every time we got her on her feet, and I think that got her blood flowing after such a long period of being still. She was down for five days, but we didn’t think of the scaffolding until the third day (we don’t have a barn with beams heavy enough to hold up a cow — yet). if it happened again, we’d get the hip lift and scaffolding right away.
      the boys want me to take them to play hockey, so i must close, but i hope this helps!

  3. I pray that we are also blessed with our ladies simply getting up by themselves once whatever is troubling them is over. We are currently experiencing two down cows, who are otherwise in perfect health. Both recently fresh, both around five years or so, slightly assisted births, both treated in case for milk fever, both eat, drink, defecate and urinate correctly, no fever, chew their cud, very alert. No prior lameness problems, or falls that we know of. We assist daily with hip lifts and they stand for 30-minutes or so and then stay down, until we help again. They are both fatter cows probably condition score of 4 and are not dehydrated. I am hoping that my optimisim aand our care will persuade them to get up again. Personally I beleive that they simply are in pain from freshening and need some time to rest and heal before getting back to work in the milking world.

    1. We can picture your situation with gruesome clarity! I hope they will soon get up and repay your care and persistence; have you tried rubbing them down vigorously when you get them on their feet?

      1. Thankfully all but one are “back to work” milking after having taken a few more days off than usual. The one not back in the barn is still gimpy and we chose to let her raise some calves. She is resting and loving all her three babies. I believe that they were all too fat and all had problems pushing the calves out and they were just plain sore and exhausted. I can sympathize… Love your blog, by the way. Keep up the amazing job!

      2. That’s great.Our friend up the river who has 450 milking Jerseys was obviously surprised to learn that Isabel got up and kept lactatingafter down spell #2 — Ithink we small people have a totally different paradigm from the big guys. Small IS beautiful.Microecosystems can only be managed by people who are actually on the ground, dealing with them. I don’tthinkGod believes in enfranchisement.Isabel went up to six gallons a day once spring came; nowshe is dry prior to freshening at the end of June. She is doing very well, but we are still in the market for her replacement! Thanks for the encouragement — we are always gladto make contact with people who are really doing it. Beth Shawn and Beth Dougherty The Sow’s Ear

  4. We are having the same problem right now, our cow “Pumpkin” has been down since yesterday morning, she milked fine no problems the night before- they are in stanchions, she wouldnt get up yesterday morning. I called the vet- she’s four months away from calving so he checked and to ketosis or milk fever (obviously), calf’s okay inside her, she just laid down an won’t get up. He gave her an IV and painkillers yesterday, and the same this morning. She got up at some point and walked the length of the barn and went down again while we weren’t there last night, but would only get half up on the back end today after the second round of IV and painkillers… Very nervous if we might lose Pumpkin, we are trying to build a small herd and the little Jersey cross is a nice cow… any ideas? She’s eating and drinking and acting her normal…? We cant get to her with the skid steer to lift her and the vet and I lifted her with the lift that you attatch to a barn beam and she wouldnt go or even support herself- just wants to fight if she’s not the one doing it… Help please? Or prayers? I’vesaid a zillion already 😦

    1. Dear Jen — we are so sorry to hear about your trouble. We will keep your cow in our prayers. Your situation sounds very much like ours, both times it happened. Usually when a cow won’t get up it is associated with a recent calving; the most common cause would be milk fever, which is a calcium deficiency, and is treated with an IV of calcium gluconate. Both times Isabel went down she was nowhere near calving; nevertheless she received one thousand mils of calcium gluconate, which made no apparent difference. Since she was lactating when she went down, it was important to her recovery that we do our best to milk her, even in her supine state, because whatever was wrong with her was going to be worse if she got mastitis. So we lifted her with the hip lift to milk her twice a day. You can’t leave them in the lift for long, it’s not comfortable and I don’t think it would be good for them; we just jacked her up and got some milk out fast, then let her down again, but many times a day one of us would go down and just milk her on whatever side we could reach, just milk her into the straw; and we gave her regular rub downs to keep her circulation going. We cut way back on her grain, but made sure she had all the water and good hay she could want.
      All that said, it was three days before she got up the first time she went “down”, and the second time it was five days. Worth it, though — she’s ten years old now and been a great cow, all things considered.
      Hope any part of this may be encouraging or helpful.
      Good luck!
      the Doughertys

      1. Got a Jersey down, calf is 2 mo old. She slipped in a muddy ditch. and with some food, water, hay and blankets is trying to get up keeps falling over. No big equipment. Read your blog, should we give antibiotics?

      2. sure she’s not hurt? Is she sitting in water, or just in a low spot? Make sure she stays on her chest (not her side). Might be one for the vet. Have you tried calcium? 500 ml bottles for IV administration at the farm store, or you can get oral gel calcium. For a down cow calcium is our first move, since it can’t hurt and might be life-saving.
        The best of luck to you and her —
        Beth and Shawn

  5. We have 36 Angus cows and 9 Poled Hereford’s with two bulls running the pastures with all of them. We have never had any problems with cows going down on us in the past but this year….WOW.. We had one of our Herefords go down in one of our ponds due to deliver anytime. I was able to pull her out of the pond and feed her up real good and she got up on her own. That lasted for three days and she went down again. We kept her in fresh water and feed and she just kept going down hill. On the fifth day we went to take her water and feed in the late evening and found her on her side. Swollen from air in her belly, eyes rolling back and having very labored breathing. I tried for several hours to help sit her back up and again, no good. We had to call our vet out again and performed a C-section on her to try to at least save the calf. She didn’t make it despite all of our and our vets attempts. Calcium didn’t do a thing for her. The food and water at least helped keep her comfortable and kept the baby alive. She ended up leaving us but also left behind a very good looking and healthy bull named Norman. He’s doing great and is just weaning onto feed from the replacer. A happy ending in that aspect anyway. But yesterday we went out and found another one of our Herefords down in the pasture. Same signs as the other. Absolutely nothing is physically wrong with her either. I am very confused by this! She too is due to calve anytime. We tried to get her up by adding Magnesium Sulfate to her water thinking she was just Mag deficient but it didn’t work. She is 10 which isn’t a spring chicken but she isn’t over the hill by any stretch either. The last cow we lost was the same age and actually came from the same breeder as this one. They have calved multiple times without ANY problems and whatever it is hasn’t affected our Angus at all. I am just completely at a loss. If anyone has any suggestions for what we may try next PLEASE post a reply. We are desperately trying to avoid anymore loss to our small herd and simply have no idea of what direction to turn in now. Thanks in advance.

    1. Dear Joe —
      We also find it very distressing to have an animal in pain or compromised — always there is an element of mystery, sometimes it is all mystery. A down cow is a good example of the latter! Sounds like you are giving your cows lots of attention and care, which should be comforting when there is a problem.
      Isabel the Queen has been down (no exaggeration) more than four times, and every time she has received calcium in the form of a calcium gluconate IV. Our standard protocol now is to get a needle in her jugular as soon as we find her down and give her two 500 ml bottles of cal gluc (not too fast). We make her comfortable, give her food and water, and see what happens next. It has taken up to five days for her to get up again, with us playing nursemaid throughout. More recently we have added CMPK (oral, 500 ml, from the farm store) to that therapy, since, as you obviously know, magnesium deficiency can be part of the problem. Blackstrap molasses and Epsom salts are natural sources of magenesium and can be used in a drench as well.
      You probably already know that in cases of milk fever the first thing to do is give them calcium intravenously, and it seems that the default position when a cow goes down is to assume she has milk fever, especially if she is just prior or post-partum.
      We wish you all the best —

      the Doughertys of the Sow’s Ear

      1. Once again the Calcium and Mag did nothing. Not only that but she wouldn’t eat anything all day yesterday and only drank around 15 or 20 gallons of water all day. Not much at all really….I’m afraid I am calling my vet to look into taking the calf before she gets too far gone to save either of them. I have to figure this out! Actually I am leaning toward nerve damage. Both of the cows have went down close to the same gestational time frame. I am curious to know if these babies are just too large for them and they are pinching off a nerve. From what I have learned since this started it makes more sense than anything else and I have ruled out all the other typical causes for them to go down. The bull that they have in with them is a new to us Brahma and this is their first calf from him. Its all I have to go on but Norman was a good bit bigger than our typical Hereford calf. Time will tell I guess. Thanks so much for your input! I will let you know what we come up with. Joe

      2. Thanks! Another twist yesterday. One of the Angus cows went down. She had the exact same signs as the other two. Laid down and just couldn’t get het butt up off the ground. The vet came out and drew some blood and we should get the results today. While she was out she gave both of the pregnant cows a series of shots. An antibiotic, an anti inflammatory and a B vitamin complex of some sort. She also ran an IV to push Calcium , Dextrose , Phosphorus and Magnesium. She is suspecting a possible respiratory infection. I will let you know how it all comes out. From the patio here at the house it looks like my Hereford is on her side (always a bad sign) but the Angus is gone from where she went down. I will post again later and thanks for your advise and best wishes. Joe

      3. Hey guys, update…The vet said the blood work came back good. No infections were found. We lost the Angus that was down this morning. She had moved about twenty feet and died early this morning. I spoke with our county Ag agent and he thinks they have been eating some wild Iris’ that have come up around our lake. Come to find out these are extremely toxic to cattle. He is coming out to our farm tomorrow to walk our 146 acres of pasture to ensure there are no more toxic plants anywhere on the property. Who would have thought that flowers were killing our herd?? Well if there is anything else to report back to you on I will send you another post. If not, thank you guys again! It’s nice to be able to put your head together with other small farmers! God Bless you and yours and thank you! I gotta go kill some flowers now!

  6. Thank You for your response, our Jersey that fell had Ketosis, gave sugar water till we could get to the store. Then dextrose and a drench of CMPK, not enough calcium in that I don’t think. 10 grams? so mixed up calf formula ( heavy on the milk replacer). We’re on limited funds, and can’t afford a vet, it would be hundreds to get them out. The nearest is 30 minutes away but charges by the mile plus. 150$ just to get to the door. So what kind of dose of calcium other than IV would be good? And I am looking everywhere for an exact amount for oral and can’t find anything concrete. 10 grams, 50 or what? Don’t want to do IV, totally not experienced enough in that. Ketones now neg. we’re 80 yesterday. Eating and drinking yesterday, eating but not drinking today, But today looks tired, down since Tursday night and forced about 3/4 gallon of milk replacer down her tonight. Again what kind of oral calcium and how much? Freaked about the heart attack thing and want something exact please. Thanks for all help and suggestions!!!!! God Bless

    1. With milk fever (or even suspected milk fever) we would give two 500 ml bottles of calcium gluconate either in the jugular or subcutaneously. A jugular IV sounds scary but is easy to look up online and do without accidents, but if you’re not into seeing a little blood you can just run it under the skin, choosing a couple of different sites per bottle. I’d just look up the jugular one. Then if we don’t get a good response by the next day we’d give another 500 ml and an oral gel tube of calcium as well. I don’t know how you measured her ketones, sounds like you’re on the right track, but if she calved recently you can’t go wrong, we think, with giving her calcium. And since the Ca is in a glucose base, you’re addressing the ketosis as well.
      God bless you and your cow — let us know what happens —
      Shawn and Beth

  7. we have a cow down als she had the bloat and had the vet come its been a week now she wont get up at all unless we hoist her up and when we do that we still cant get her to stay up what else should we do please help

    1. Cindy — I’m sure your vet already considered milk fever — did she/he give the cow I.V. calcium? Even when it seemed unlikely that Isabel had milk fever (she hadn’t just calved, no other symptom, etc) our vet always gave her I.V. calcium. It’s easy to do yourself — you can get calcium gluconate at the farm store, and you can learn to give an I.V. on utube. Or one can take the easy way out and get some tubes of oral Cal/Mag/Co and put them in her. I’m not saying it solves the problem, but it does eliminate one of the possibilities, and in the end Isabel always got back on her feet. Happily, none of our cows since have gone down —
      Good luck!
      S and B

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