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When the door is broken, don’t burn down the barn

Harley Wagenseller Published on 12 April 2010

Milk producers everywhere face the challenge of many different problems on their dairies. Today I am going to discuss three of those issues. They are: Downer cows, bovine pain control and animal rights versus animal welfare. Let’s consider each of these relevant topics.

Downer cows
The USDA has a ban on the sale of down cows for human consumption. There are almost 300 documented causes of “down cow syndrome.” There are four primary reasons for down cows. They are: calving paralysis, mastitis, metritis and accidents.

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Some of these occur around calving time. Some will say that this is 90 percent preventable. Your transition cow management and fresh cow management must be meticulous. When your cow goes down – timing is of the essence.

One of the worst things that can happen is when your milker or cow pusher informs you as the manager or the herdsman that “Cow 989” has been down for eight hours or so. There she is, lying in the corner of the holding pen on the cold, hard concrete. Your workers have to realize that they need to call someone immediately, as this situation needs correcting now. To get her standing as soon as possible is critical, because if she is laying on her bad leg for six hours, permanent nerve damage could result. Please treat any down cow as an emergency.

As soon as possible, move your down cow to a bedded pack or some nice dirt. Maybe sand or deeply bedded straw will make for better footing. You can use hip lifters, slings, loaders, flotation devices or manual manipulation.

Hip lifters can be used by one man; however they can cause damage to the muscles around the hook bones. Some people will not have a hip lifter on their dairy. They have either had a bad experience or their neighbors hate them and tell everyone they see. I have heard both of these statements.

I believe they can be properly used, just not the way some people misuse them. You don’t pick a cow up and then go have a sandwich. Wrong! Pick the cow up and then after she has straightened out her legs, slowly (30 to 40 seconds) put her weight down on the ground. That’s it! Don’t let them dangle at all! If you let them dangle five or 10 minutes, that’s where hip damage comes in.

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Slings are nice tools if you have three or four people available. Generally you lay the canvas down on the ground, have your personnel roll the cow onto it and crank up the canvas under the cow. It should support her nicely.

Flotation devices might be the answer for down cows. The secret is not to wait two days, call your flotation service up and hope for a miracle. They use warm water in a large tank that literally “floats” the down cow to an upright position. You need to make a decision in one to two hours of a cow being down. Your decision will be based on the value of the cow, DIM, production, etc. My experience is about 50 percent success and when talking to others that’s what I hear also.

Another way is to use a front-end loader. With two or three people, roll the cow from the ground into the loader. It may look funny as all you might see are four legs sticking straight up! When you get to your cow recuperation area, make sure your workers prop the cow up properly and provide her with plenty of feed and water.

In whatever method you use, make sure someone attends to your cow’s needs. When all else fails – roll the cow from side to side every two hours. Nerve and muscle damage is generally greater on larger cows. Jerseys seem to respond quicker. The second part to the down cow problem is, what can you do for the pain she is feeling?

What about bovine pain control?
How in tune are you with pain control in your cows? Drugs for pain control should be administered with milk and meat withhold times firmly in mind. That’s because most of us are taught to treat symptoms. Some give little thought to pain control. As much as we would like, we’ve never had a cow turn around and tell us, “It hurts right here.”

Do we as dairymen have an understanding of the complexity of pain and the recent emphasis on the ethical obligation to treat pain in our cows? Do we as dairymen comprehend the need for assessment, prevention, and treatment of pain and why it should be an integral part of a physical examination?

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Here are some signs of cow pain.

• Loss of appetite

• Drop in milk production

• Increased heart rate or respiration

• Change in posture or stance

• Change in eating, drinking, urination or defecating

• Less vocal or aggressive

• Grinding teeth, licking, scratching or kicking

Pain control will minimize setbacks, bringing about a faster recovery time for cow appetites. The greatest utilization of pain control will be for lameness, acute mastitis and dystocia. Some drugs used in pain control include: Aspirin, Flunixin Meglamine, Dexamethasone and Isoflupredon. Unfortunately the dairyman does not have a lot of choices for pain control. Veterinarians also do not have the same arsenal of pain control medicines as human practice has.

Know when to euthanize by policing your sick pen frequently. Do not let cows suffer and terminate hopeless cases. I have talked with several veterinarians who have commented that they have known people who will spend two hours every day to take care of two or three cows for six weeks that aren’t worth $500. It just doesn’t make any sense. Use either a gunshot or the captive bolt gun to humanely terminate suffering cows. Do not let calves suffer for two or three days, either. Practice pain control. You’ll be a much better person for that! This leads us to our next topic.

Animal rights versus animal welfare
“Animal rights” is a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to animal welfare. Sometimes called “animal rights wackos,” the people who favor animal rights are opposed to any use of animals as a resource to be used by other people. They believe a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.

This philosophy argues that there is no morally relevant difference between people and other animals. Are cows, for example, sentient beings – are they aware of their own existence? Humans make moral choices, humans evaluate their actions in moral terms and humans construct moral laws. Animals do not make moral judgments; they have no capacity to understand moral laws. Thus, they possess no rights. Remember – the basis of rights originates from laws, principles, moral philosophy or a combination of these.

While cows do exhibit what we conclude to be almost human characteristics, they are not moral agents. (While at Utah State University, I helped take care of an excellent cow called Tess “9052.” She appeared to “pout” when she didn’t get her grain on her schedule.) Because we recognize that some animals are capable of suffering, we have modified our behavior to respect those interests. Rather, we place value in these cows because our moral laws and codes teach us to preserve and protect.

We need to carefully interpret several measures, both behavioral and physiological, to assess animal welfare. Note the following five freedoms.

1. Freedom from hunger and malnutrition

2. Freedom from thermal and physical discomfort

3. Freedom from injury and disease

4. Freedom from suppression of normal behavior

5. Freedom from fear and stress

In conclusion – use your head and your heart on these three important issues, and always remember, “When the door is broken, don’t burn down the barn.” PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by sending an email to .

Harley Wagenseller

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