For most of us, down cows are a downer. We do not like to see them. We feel bad for the animals; we worry they will never get up again, and we know that moving and caring for them will take extra work. Yet, we know that sooner or later every farm will have one. Every farm needs to be equipped to handle down cows, and needs to have time to care and handle them properly.
    Veterinarians see quite a few down cows. We may be called to examine or treat them. We may notice them in a pen while we are on the farm. Because we see a lot of them, we see a wide range of how they are handled and treated. On one end of the spectrum, we see farmers who spend time and work hard to help down cows recover even when the prognosis is poor. On the other end, we see farmers who euthanize cows not long after they are determined to be down. Most farms have an approach somewhere between these two. There is no perfect approach or system, but there are some principles we should be able to agree upon. Added together they answer the question: Do you have time, facilities and systems for dealing with down cows?
    The first consideration is moving. Do you have a method to humanely and safely move a down cow? If not, then euthanasia is the preferred option. Cows can get themselves in some awful predicaments on farms, and sometimes it may not be possible to accomplish safe and humane moving. This also applies to moving down cows off the farm when they are not going to be slaughtered for human consumption. If, for some reason, they cannot be euthanized before leaving, there must be a humane way to get them on and off of the trailer, the trailer needs to have a soft or well bedded floor, and they should be protected from other ambulatory cows while on the trailer.
    Prognosis is another consideration. Sometimes it is obvious that an animal will not recover. For example, a cow with a broken leg should be euthanized as soon as possible. On the other hand, a cow with a very good to excellent prognosis probably deserves some time to try to recover. Many times, though, the prognosis is somewhere between or unknown. In these cases, one should devise a plan. For example, one might decide to wait another 24 hours and reassess. There is nothing wrong with delaying euthanasia for a cow that does not have a great chance of recovery if she is well cared for and not suffering significant pain if one is willing to provide for her care. But, there should be a plan, and part of the plan should include steps to take if her prognosis changes.
    A third consideration is pain and discomfort. While it can be hard to assess pain, good cow people can use observations about appetite, water intake, cud chewing and the like to determine whether animals are in significant pain. Cows suffering from significant pain that cannot be relieved in a reasonable amount of time should be euthanized.
    Proper care, feeding and housing are another. Is there an appropriate place to house a down cow? For example, a proper place means a soft surface, not a bare concrete floor. Can the cow be isolated from significant numbers of ambulatory cows? Is there a way to make sure she always has water and feed? A 5 gallon bucket will almost always be tipped soon after presented to a down cow. Is there someone available or assigned to take care of her? If no one is in charge, or no one has time, down animals will suffer.
    FARM 4.0 recognizes that down cows are a potential animal welfare concern and requires that all farmers practice acceptable handling of down cows, have written protocols to that effect and have criteria to determine when to euthanize an animal. Yes, down cows are downers, but they are a fact of dairy farming, and they deserve extra time and care. If we do not have the extra time, or we cannot provide needed care, then euthanasia becomes the best option and should be done as soon as possible.
    Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at with comments or questions.