The author is a partner and large animal veterinarian at Thumb Veterinary Services in Deckerville, Mich.

Mark Fox, D.V.M.
I still vividly remember my first farm call following vet school graduation many years ago! Lloyd had called the practice early on a sunny June morning. His message was one of distress.

“One of my best cows calved last night, now she’s down on the cement floor this morning,” Lloyd said in his message. “Get one of the vets out ASAP. I will be raking hay.”

My bosses looked over the day’s growing list and picked out several calls for me to “practice” on. I was eager, amped up, and ready to pilot the old 1979 hand-me-down Chevy pickup promptly to the farm.

Lloyd was doing fieldwork when I arrived, but a note on the bulk tank directed me to my patient. It appeared the cow had gone down on the outside cement lot coming up from the pasture for morning chores.

Following my physical exam, the cow was a typical milk fever case: 12 hours fresh, cold ears, dilated and nonresponsive pupils, and stiff manure. It was almost too easy for my first call, I thought. I warmed my 23% calcium solution, administered it slowly by IV to my sleepy patient, and watched as the cow’s biology was rekindled.

A couple of long belches relieved the cow’s bloated rumen, then the cow urinated and strained to make a big pile of manure. Confidently, I untied my halter and waited for the cow’s departure from the scene. I was taught never to prod a cow, so I gathered my pail and headed for my truck.

I glanced back only to see my “success” almost turn to failure as the cow scrambled on its belly, sawhorse style, on the slick concrete lot until it hit the dirt some 10 yards away. Fortunately, the cow still had four teats, no dislocations, and survived the ordeal!

Walk around the barn

Many of you, I am sure, can relate to my past experience, but perhaps the cow didn’t respond as well or injured itself. As I was taught years back, injury and trauma cases are still too common today. Recently, I have encouraged farms to record “broken” or “injured” cases and realize the high prevalence that is often seen, even in today’s modern dairies. This is a dairy welfare issue worthy of prevention and control measures like other common metabolic or infectious diseases with which we have achieved so much success.

What can we do to reduce injury on our farm?

1. Record and review.

As an industry, we have developed some great monitoring tools and metrics for addressing a host of dairy wellness and production parameters. Take time to tease out the details when recording injury cases.

Are healthy cows going down? Do fresh cows relapse with disease? Is lameness a problem? What is your hoof trimmer seeing? Are there soft tissue or hard tissue foot lesions? Often, your farm team will have great insight as to the cases of injury seen and when and where they occur. This is important!

2. Take a walk with your cows.

I enjoy walking facilities slowly, observing as much detail as possible. I take notes and ask questions. Many injuries commonly result from slippery travel lanes and flooring. Other trauma may happen due to sharp metal, faulty stall design, or nervous cattle.

Do you observe swollen hocks or areas of hair loss? Bruising or abscesses? More down cows during day or night? I enjoy having a partner or two from the farm with me while walking among the herd. Take good notes and pictures if possible! Spend time in the transition and calving facilities, around the sort gates, the self locks, the holding pens, and the crowd gates. Listen, watch, and record.

3. Establish a prevention plan.

Certainly, transition and calving facilities deserve investments to minimize trauma and injury around parturition. Along with good facilities, promote excellent management if calving assistance is needed. We must be careful to not become the cause of injury and poor prognosis. Work with your nutritionist to reduce clinical milk fever. Strive hard for minimal lameness in your herd, as lame cows are future injured or down cows if not rapidly detected and managed.

What are your protocols and practices following dystocia? Milk fever? Do you have an adequately sized, deep-bedded pen to enhance recovery? Are hobbles applied? Is there delivery of fresh feed and water?

Injury and trauma prevention plans in modern housing must focus heavily on walking surfaces and five-star beds. Is sand or salt applied as needed to prevent slippage when entering management areas or on sharp corners in travel lanes? In the Northern states, slippery walkways can spell trouble for both the cows and the people. Once the brakes lock up on a 1,600-pound cow, bad things happen!

Prevent the preventable

Do your homework. The University of Wisconsin’s Dairyland Initiative program is an excellent resource in providing details to enhance dairy well-being when designing barns for young stock and adult cattle.

Lastly, be cautious with stocking density in cattle of all ages, including transition calves. Excessive standing time has a cost, with injury and trauma only being one. Think of standing cows as “at risk” cows.

Mentor those involved with the day-to-day handling of your herd to be easy on the cows. What would the late W.D. Hoard say? “The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness,” is a timeless quote from this magazine’s founder.

We will never eliminate all injury or trauma cases on our farms, and down and injured cows are tough for all of us. Perhaps we can be proactive, though, to prevent the preventable.

Take care, my friends. Thank you for all that you do for your cattle and our consumers!