Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Design facilities to handle down cows

Michael Costin Published on 11 June 2014

cows in a parlor

Earlier this year, the dairy industry of Wisconsin witnessed the release of a video by an animal rights organization that was taken on a farm in Wisconsin. As a result of that video, the producer portrayed was dropped by the processor.



The ramifications of this decision reverberated throughout the dairy industry. Many of our clients asked what they could do to prevent a similar event from affecting them.

Our veterinary staff’s answer was to help clients develop farm-specific down cow standard operating procedures (SOPs). After an extensive review of existing literature and guidelines, we found that the following applied to handling down cattle:

  • Disabled cattle should be provided food, water, shelter and veterinary assistance. (Animal Care Act, AVMA)
  • Electric stimulation may be used judiciously but never applied to the face, genitalia or mucous membranes. (AVMA)
  • Hip hoists may be used to help a recumbent cow stand but never used to move a cow or suspend a cow off the ground.
  • Disabled cattle can be moved on a sled or an appropriately sized bucket of a skid loader (minimum 6 feet wide.) (WVMA, FARM, DAQCA)
  • In some extreme circumstances, a down cow can be moved short distances by pulling on the legs, but only to a point where they can be transferred to a sled or bucket. (FARM, DAQCA)

Using these guidelines, with the assistance of animal welfare experts, we developed a down cow SOP template. This template was taken to individual farms, and with the cooperation of the producer, employees and other veterinarians employed by the farm, it was tailored to meet the specific requirements of that facility.

BEYOND PRINT: See an example of a down cow SOP . (PDF, 496KB)

Many producers have asked, “Why it is important to have SOPs?” An SOP is defined as an established, detailed procedure to be followed in carrying out a given operation or in a given situation.


Developing a written SOP on how to handle down cows in certain situations and training employees to follow those SOPs accomplishes three things:

  • Provides for the best interest of the cow – Having employees trained to follow specific SOPs will decrease the amount of time required to move the down cow and decrease the probability of further injury.
  • Decreases potential financial liabilities of the producer – It shows commitment to the health and safety of their animals and establishes written instructions for their employees on how animals are to be treated. The development of written SOPs with continuous training also helps with compliance and decreases the likelihood of protocol drift.
  • Protects the employees working with the down cows – They now have written instructions specifically by their employer accompanied by training detailing how they are to take care of down cows. The development of down cow SOPs also benefits those owners who, because of the size of their dairy, do the majority of the on-farm work. By thinking through and planning for different scenarios, the working owner will be better prepared for a down cow event, thus allowing the down cow to receive care more promptly and letting the producer return to routine tasks more quickly.

Areas where it is important to have a plan in place in the event of a down cow include stalls, return alleys, parlors, palpation rails, foot baths, loading lanes and sort gates. While developing and implementing farm-specific SOPs, occasions will arise that require recommendations to change parts of the facility.

Usually, this requires the producer to add additional gates or cut out pipes. These changes are relatively minor and not expensive. However, there have been occasions where we had to make recommendations that had a significant financial impact on the farm.

For example, our company worked with a dairy that milks 1,000 cows in a double-24 parlor, with cows weighing on average 1,800 pounds. The parlor has indexing gates mounted on posts between each milking stall.

As the cows enter the parlor and make the turn into their milking stall, occasionally one may slip and fall. Due to her size, it is difficult to manually maneuver the cow through the indexing gate posts onto the deck because she may get hip-locked.

Normally, this farm utilized other means to remove the cow from the parlor that did not meet established guidelines for handling down cows. We investigated several ways of assisting down cows in this type of parlor. We looked into making every other indexing gate post removable – but retracted after speaking with farms that had attempted this solution with no success.


We also explored using a sling attached to a boom on a skid loader to lift the cow and maneuver her through the indexing gates. This was also not successful, as our test runs utilizing a 2,000-pound concrete block threatened to tip the skid loader.

In the end, the producer decided to retrofit the parlor with lift gates at a significant cost. The cost to do this was $2,000 a stall. With 48 stalls, total cost was $96,000. The producer did the math and came to the conclusion that this would only be 5.5 days of revenue.

Milking 1,000 cows with an average daily production of 90 pounds would produce 900 hundredweights of milk per day. At an average price of $20 per hundredweight, the farm was generating $18,000 a day in revenue.

The producer justified this expense two ways:

1. It was in the best interest of his cattle. The new lift gates allowed more room for his cows in the parlor, which would cause fewer cows to go down.

2. By retrofitting his parlor, he significantly reduced the liability and risk of his dairy being subject to negative publicity from an animal rights organization producing a video of removing cows from his parlor. By removing the risk, the farmer also reduces his chance that his processor could stop buying his milk, the financial ramifications of which could be much more expensive than the cost of retrofitting the parlor.

If a producer is planning on remodeling an existing facility or building a new one, be sure to address down cow handling issues. For instance, if you are looking at putting in a new parlor, discuss down cows with the implement dealer as well as the facility designer and builder.

If possible, allow a skid loader access to anywhere a cow can access. If this is not possible, utilize gates rather than solid fencing or walls. This allows easier access to down cows.

The development of farm- specific down cow SOPs and the consideration of changes to potentially dangerous areas on the dairy could incur some costs. However, this expense should be considered as an investment towards savings on labor, returning more down cows to production, decreasing liability, and most importantly, improving animal well-being. PD

Michael Costin has a DVM from Kansas State University and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin. He is employed by ANIMART, Inc. as a professional services veterinarian and is based in Wisconsin.

Areas where it is important to have a plan in place in the event of a down cow include stalls, return alleys, parlors, palpation rails, foot baths, loading lanes and sort gates. Photo by PD staff.

michael costin

Michael Costin
Professional Services Veterinarian
Animart Inc.