The One-cow Revolution

a grass-fed homestead

down cow

Wednesday, March 27:

Last week introduced another chapter in the saga of Isabel.  Chalk up one more in the Experience column.

Isabel, who in any real dairy herd would have been “shipped” seven years ago, “shipped” being a euphemism for ‘sent to the livestock auction/meat locker’, has demonstrated once again just how big a pain in the trouser seat a chancy animal can be.  Queen of the herd and veteran of more than three “down cow” episodes, she cost us somewhere near two hundred bucks this week in vet bills and mineral supplements, and we don’t have a sense even yet whether all our pains will suffice to help her through the last of the winter and into July, when she is due to calve, after which she is likely to become the main dish in a community barbeque.

We used to go into a panic when Isabel went down.  (Parenthetically:  what are we doing continuing to keep a cow with such inconvenient habits?).  Several things made these episodes scary for us.  One, of course, is simply that it was a new and unknown situation.  While we had been grazing and milking Isabel for a number of years, and had both grown up around beef cattle, dairy health and nutrition was something we were learning slowly from books and from listening to other farmers.  We knew there could be mineral deficiencies and illnesses which might suddenly jump out from under a rock and kill our good cow.  We were developing a lifestyle on the farm, and the most rigorous, demanding, and therefore rewarding part of it centered around the twice-daily milking and the gallons of high-quality fat and protein it yielded.  Our calves are bucket-fed a gallon of skim milk per day.  Our pig feed bill was kept down when we could feed buttermilk and whey for their protein needs.  The chickens got skim milk and clabber on their barley mash.  Without milk our whole operation became much more expensive.

And once a cow is lying on her belly it is virtually impossible to milk her, so she is very much at risk from mastitis.  Regular milking is necessary not only to ensure the highest milk production, but for the cow’s health.  What were we going to do if she got sick and died?

So, Saturday morning only two cows came up to be milked.  Crossing the dark barnyard in search of the third,  Shawn stumbled over Isabel laid out on her side, legs uphill, and starting to inflate like a balloon; maybe she had been knocked over by Sugar, who has been rambunctious the last few days and likes to push the other cows.  Maybe she just lay down and couldn’t get up.  Even the smallest slope may be enough, once a cow is on her side, to keep her from getting up again.  At first Shawn thought she was dead – a cow on its side soon will be – but her eye was rolling up at him and her breathing was deep and regular, not the strained breathing of a cow whose internal pressure would soon cause vital organs to shut down, as they do in a badly bloated cow.  Shawn tried rolling her onto her stomach even though he knew from experience that she would be too heavy for him to move alone; then he came up to the house.

Everyone snaps awake when a cow is down.  Feet hit the floor and in only a couple of minutes most of us had on jeans and muck boots and were headed out into the snow-blanketed barnyard.

It took three of us, boots scrabbling for purchase in the half-frozen mud, heaving and grunting, to get her pushed up onto her chest.  Immediately things looked better.  She was alert, her ears were up, and her gas began to move.  No longer did we feel we had a moribund animal on our hands; but she couldn’t rise.  With encouragement in the form of a little yelling and popping on the backside with a lead rope, she made several attempts to rise; it was clear there was no injury to legs or feet.  There was no discernible problem.

However,  she has a mild case of mastitis, probably the result of a change in feed and the low condition natural to any animal after a winter without fresh grass.  It had only been a few flakes in her milk for several days; aside from feeding that milk to the calves we had done nothing beyond assiduously stripping her out when she was milked.  In our experience, such a low-grade mastitis clears up quickly on its own.  But she had refused her grain the night before; she is a very large cow; she has (our vet thinks, so we do too) a back problem that causes her considerable pain in the hips.  She is twenty-nine months into this lactation; she is seven months pregnant; she is ten years old.

There might be a number of issues each taking its little toll on her, but the upshot was that she could not get up.

Just now she was cold from her night on the muddy ground.  Her temperature was just under one hundred degrees; normal for a cow is one-oh-one to one-oh-three.   The morning was frosty and the sun was not yet up so we piled hay on her and covered her with blankets.  The while waiting to see if she was going to get up on her own, we got a needle in her jugular and dripped five hundred mils of calcium gluconate into her.  This is actually the treatment for milk fever or calcium deficiency, which we weren’t sure was the problem, but we knew it wouldn’t do any harm, whatever she was suffering from, and it is our standard protocol.

Giving intravenous medications to a cow is not difficult, but takes a little nerve the first few times you do it.  You have to jab a big needle into the cow’s jugular vein, and you haven’t done it right until you get a little fountain of blood spouting from the back of the needle.  There are written descriptions and video demonstrations of this process which are very helpful.  Calcium comes in several forms, which you can find at the feed store or farm supply store:  calcium gluconate is IV calcium in a glucose base; CMPK has magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium as well, but a lower concentration of calcium.  Both come in injectable form and it that’s what you want you want to make sure that’s what you’re getting because you don’t want to make a mistake and drip them with oral calcium!  I almost did it once.  There are other oral forms – paste that comes in a tube like builders’ spackle, or big pills (boluses) — but these are mostly for prophylactic use.  Once a cow is down you want to use intravenous calcium, as it is taken up much more quickly.

Our protocol for a down cow is pretty standard.  Once the animal is on her chest and has been given calcium, we bring a heavy tarp– it has to be a very heavy tarp – and lay it out flat next to her on the side where her legs are, squeezing it under her feet and as close under her belly as possible.  Then one person keeps her feet cramped up against her so she can’t brace her legs, while two or three people roll her over onto her other side, and, consequently, onto the tarp.  Now we are set to haul her somewhere more convenient than the absolutely horrible place she will almost certainly have chosen to go down in.

First one must find something to haul her with — truck, tractor, skid steer — anything strong enough to haul a thousand-pound cow would do, but Isabel only goes down in places we can’t get the truck or tractor to.  If she is so considerate as to go down in the barnyard we can use a winch or a couple of winches and a length of chain to inch her into the barn, where she has a nice deep bed of straw and where there is a convenient beam from which we can sling her up if we have to use a hip lift.  The barn was built with this in mind, and the timbers are heavy enough to lift a semi, let alone a little ol’ cow.

On this morning we rigged the come-alongs and pulled her as far as the barn door when she got up on her own.  Much jubilation, some mild profanation.  We brought her in the loose box and offered her water, grain, hay — she wasn’t hungry.

This would look like a case of calcium deficiency in a cow which had just calved, but Isabel won’t drop her calf until July, and this is March.  Still, older Jerseys are more than usually susceptible to calcium deficiency.  A call to our vet confirms our decision to continue to treat this episode as milk fever, so we confined her to the barn, gave her a little grain and all the hay and clean water she could need, and left her to think about it.

Next morning she was down again.

Another bottle of IV calcium.  A vet visit, with much useful information and advice, and the concomitant bill.  Reassured that we wouldn’t kill her with more calcium, we gave her yet a third bottle of IV calcium and one of oral CMPK, which contains less calcium but also has magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.  Also a good dose of blackstrap molasses and a little Epsom salts mixed up in warm water, poured down her protesting throat from a wine bottle, for additional magnesium.  In a few hours she was back on her feet, but wobbly.  A week later she is still a little droopy but has been getting up all right, so we hope for the best.

We wonder if she is going to make it to July.

2 thoughts on “down cow

  1. Ever seen a weeping cow, not pink eye, no inflammation, no running or puss, nothing at all except when she blinks a tear runs down her cheek. Weird? Can’t find anything on that so allergies maybe? Any ideas or comments helpful.

    1. Our guess would be a foreign body, maybe a bit of chaff under her lid. Can you get someone to hold her head while you fold back the lid and take a look? If there is something stuck to the lower side of the lid you can get it off with a swab. Or you could get a bottle of eyewash from the drug store and shoot a bunch under the lid.
      Hope this helps!

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