Animal Health

Downer, but not always out if you get the management right

By Dairy News Australia

DOWNER COWS can be a massive drain of time, resources and emotional energy.

A down cow is a cow that lays down due to a primary condition such as milk fever, sepsis or calving paralysis.

A downer cow is a cow that remains down after 12 hours regardless of whether the primary cause is known or not but remains bright, alert and without systemic illness.

Downers need to be thought of in terms of two phases — the initial cause (going down) and the secondary damage (from becoming a downer).

Downer cows are best moved to a close, comfortable and protected environment for ongoing care and can be moved short distances using a front-end loader with head secured by a halter or using both a chest strap and pelvic lifter or hip clamps.

Basic rules for providing high quality downer cow care include:


Shelter from wind, rain and extreme heat including easy access to clean water and good quality feed.

Hygienic, dry and non-slip surface with 30–50 cm soft bedding made from straw, rice hulls etc.

An area large enough for a cow to stand but not walk or turn around in to reduce risk of falling over — if left unconfined a cow will often crawl off soft bedding and end up back on a hard surface, putting herself at high risk of further nerve or muscle damage.


Drowsy, depressed and non-responsive cows need checking every two to four hours.

Bright, aware and responsive cows should be reassessed every eight to 10 hours.

If in the milking herd, strip all four quarters to reduce risk of mastitis at least once daily (can use a calf if cow is able to stand, or while being lifted).

Regular rolling and flexing of hindlimbs to maintain circulation and reduce secondary muscle or nerve damage and pressure sores. Your local vet clinic may also offer an electrostimulation physiotherapy service.

If a downer cow hasn’t stood eight to 12 hours after initial treatment, lifting should be attempted and pain relief administered.

Lifting does not equal hanging! Lift to a height the cow can stand in a natural posture and take some of her own weight.

If the cow hangs, use chest strap or immediately place down and reattempt in a few hours. Hip clamps are quick and effective but are not appropriate for long-term use and if used inappropriately can cause significant trauma to the pelvis. Cows should never be left unsupervised during lifting.


Nursing downer cows can be time consuming and labour intensive. A recent study in south Gippsland found that while good nursing can deliver good results, poor nursing greatly reduces the likelihood of recovery and the occurrence of clinically significant secondary damage further impeding recovery was approaching 75 per cent.

If chances of recovery are low from the outset and response to treatment is unsatisfactory, or there is insufficient labour or expertise to provide optimal nursing care, euthanasia must be considered.

If a cow has neurological signs and fits within a certain set of criteria, she may qualify for a special government testing rebate — your local or district vet service will know more about this.

Avoid nursing a downer in a paddock with direct frontage to a main road. Onlookers have the potential to misinterpret your best efforts.

A laminated ‘downer cow decision tree’, management guide and treatment protocol can be helpful tools for making timely, practical and sensible decisions.

Downer cows present a significant and ongoing animal welfare challenge for the dairy industry, and their nursing and management needs to be taken seriously.

Dairy Australia has plenty of great online resources available, including videos on assessing, lifting, moving and rolling down cows, setting up a nursing area, and ongoing care.

Lucy Collins is completing her dairy residency with The University of Melbourne. She works as an on-farm veterinarian in Kyabram with Apiam Animal Health and alongside her partner on his 600-cow dairy farm in Dixie.