Animals unable to stand or walk without assistance are a major welfare issue for the beef and dairy industries. Unfortunately, it took the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company incident in 2008 to sound the need for review. Video footage of downers being dragged or treated inhumanely in processing facilities varnished an entire industry and created an attitude of zero tolerance among consumers.
The old saying that a person who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything rings true around the subject of downer cows. While change is a constant part of life, change for the beef industry generally occurs in slow motion, making adjustments easy to overlook and hard to measure. The Westland/Hallmark incident proved the exception in that virtually overnight the public and political disgust triggered a flush of new rules dealing with downer animals.
If there is a “downer season” for beef cows, we are now in it. Regardless of our effort to prevent downers, they are unavoidable in the cattle business. And each downer presents ethical, moral and legal considerations for producers. Attitude and tradition often become barriers to change.
Getting better starts with planning. An important first step in dealing with downer cows is to develop a plan beforehand with your veterinarian. Prevention is one side of the plan. Managing downers when they occur is the other.
Prevention starts by identifying potential downers and times when this risk is highest. For beef cattle, calving season and early spring are the worst for downers. Obstetrical injuries during calving are the single biggest cause of hind leg paralysis. Injuries from slipping and falling on frozen surfaces often complicate the picture. Metabolic problems also rank high as a cause of downer animals.
This year, any thought of an early spring has long withered. Many producers are dealing with the double jeopardy of poor-quality feed over an extended cold spell and thin cows in late pregnancy. Steps taken now to improve nutrition of the brood cow are essential.
Hypomagnesemia (low blood magnesium) in late winter and grass tetany on early pastures kill many cows every year. An elevated intake of potassium (K) decreases absorption of magnesium (Mg) from the gut. High levels of protein and potassium in new pasture growth are predisposing causes of grass tetany, which often affects the best cows nursing the best calves because top-end cows draw heavily on calcium and magnesium for milk production. Animals initially exhibit a depressed appetite and a dull, lethargic appearance that progresses to a staggering gait, nervousness, excitability, muscular tremors, collapse and convulsions. Mortality among untreated clinical cases may exceed 30 per cent. Low blood calcium and the paralytic signs of milk fever can confound signs in herds suffering from mineral imbalances.
Research has shown that when the ratio of potassium to the sum of calcium and magnesium (the tetany ratio) is less than 2.2, there are few cases of tetany. To avert potentially serious problems in high-risk herds this spring, producers should work with a veterinarian to analyze feed and blood samples. Diseases like metritis (uterine infections) and mastitis can be predisposing causes. Appropriate supplementation with minerals and ration adjustments prevent problems.
Downers should be considered emergencies. There’s a good chance that cows down for more than three hours on a hard, cold surface probably are not going to get back up.
If necessary, downers should be moved to a sheltered area where food, water, and medical treatment can be provided while being protected from the elements, other cattle and wildlife. Downer animals can be rolled onto skids, or a plywood sled, and moved safely. Slings and lifts, if available, help. Downers animals need to be placed on a straw pack or deep bedding. A 25-to 30-centimetre layer of sand beneath the straw pack in a hospital pen is ideal. Sand helps minimize muscle and nerve damage, provides traction, and decreases sores and urine scalding. Cold, hard ground or cement intensify muscle and nerve damage, compounding any disability.
While moving and positioning downer animals, make an effort to assess its level of distress. Check for fractures and other traumatic injury. A critical part of managing downers is estimating the chances for recovery as early as possible. When the prognosis is poor, as would be the case with a fractured long bone, euthanasia is indicated. Prolonging the suffering of any animal when a positive outcome is in doubt for economic reasons is not acceptable.
A veterinarian can help make essential decisions around prognosis and assist with medical treatment. Mature cows will drink up to 80 litres a day and most cannot drink out of a standing five-gallon pail while lying down. A rubber feed tub with 12 to 15 centimetre sides works well for water. Long-stemmed hay provided free choice is recommended.
When all else fails, simply waiting for an animal to die is inhumane. In this day and age, everyone in the production chain involving live animals must have the capability, plus the skill to end life humanely. Many do not. Be it the use of an appropriate captive bolt, gun or veterinary administered drug, humane euthanasia must be part of any plan for dealing with downer animals.