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Every dairy farmer knows the health of their herd is paramount. However, despite our best efforts, downer cows are still too common an occurrence, presenting a concerning challenge. Unable to stand or move, these cows not only pose a risk to themselves but also to the overall productivity and profitability of your farm. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of downer cows, their causes, and most importantly, how to address and prevent them.

Different types of downer cows

Calcium downer

You’ll have heard of milk fever and most likely encountered a “sad cow” on your farm. These are the symptoms of calcium deficiency, leading to a downer cow. Recognising this type is crucial – they often appear non-responsive upon approach and display symptoms such as weakness or inability to stand. The root cause? A lack of calcium, particularly common in springers and soon after calving. Administering calcium supplements swiftly can help alleviate the immediate issue, but what about long-term effects? We’ll discuss these further down in the article.

Phosphorus downer

Often referred to as the crawler cow, phosphorus deficiency can lead to similar downer cow scenarios. These cows are typically bright in the eye, can be agitated, and often crawl while trying to get up – basically, they lack the coordination to stay on their feet. Identifying this type quickly is essential for effective intervention. By addressing the phosphorus deficiency and providing appropriate supplements, we can support these cows back to health and mitigate any lasting effects.

Magnesium downer

When talking downer cows, grass tetany, or magnesium deficiency, is a particularly alarming concern. Most common in early lactation, these cows show muscle tremors and incoordination leading to a staggering gait. Despite efforts to prevent it, sub-clinically affected cows still exist. Correct timing of supplementation and the use of the correct amounts of good quality magnesium supplements is essential in proactively managing this deficiency and preventing this problem.

How to avoid downer cows | Agvance

Lasting impacts for downer cows

A downer cow, if they manage to survive the initial incident, will often be a lower producing cow, and can have lower immunity and reproductive health for the remainder of that season. 

Production loss: Cows impacted by metabolic disease will produce less milk than their healthy counterparts. This reduction in productivity can directly impact your operation’s bottom line and overall efficiency.

Fertility issues: The downer cow is more likely to suffer from metritis. If she does become pregnant, she often takes longer to conceive and is more likely to be culled.

Impaired immunity: Downer cows are more susceptible to a range of health issues, including infections, metabolic disorders, and musculoskeletal problems. Calcium underpins immunity and the initial deficiency leads to low immunity. Added to this, the stress and strain of being immobile can also weaken the immune system and exacerbate existing health issues, leading to a vicious cycle of poor health and decreased productivity.

Long-term mobility issues: Even after recovering from the initial incident, downer cows may continue to experience mobility issues. Chronic joint or muscle pain, arthritis, and nerve damage can all contribute to ongoing difficulties with standing, walking, and moving around the paddock. This reduced mobility not only affects the cow’s quality of life but also makes them more prone to accidents and injuries.

Behavioural changes: Downer cows may also face social and behavioural challenges within the herd. Their decreased mobility and health status can make them more vulnerable to bullying or aggression from other cows, leading to further stress and discomfort. Additionally, their altered behaviour and movement patterns may disrupt the social dynamics of the herd, potentially affecting overall herd cohesion and management.

Financial loss: The ongoing care and management of downer cows can impose a significant financial strain. From vet and medication costs to additional labour and resources required for their care, the cumulative expenses associated with managing downer cows can quickly add up. This financial burden can be especially challenging if you’re running a smaller-scale or family farm with limited resources.

How can mineral supplementation prevent downer cows?

Adequate mineral supplementation plays a vital role in preventing downer cows by addressing nutritional deficiencies and supporting overall health and wellbeing.

Balanced nutrition: Providing a balanced diet that meets the nutritional needs of cows is essential for preventing mineral deficiencies that can lead to downer cow syndrome. Mineral supplements are formulated to provide essential nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and other trace minerals that may be lacking in the cow’s diet, especially during critical periods like spring or times of increased demand such as pregnancy or lactation.

Prevent metabolic disorders: Metabolic disorders, such as milk fever (hypocalcemia), are a common cause of downer cow syndrome. Calcium supplementation along with a good pre-calving negative DCAD diet for springers, helps prevent or mitigate the onset of milk fever by ensuring adequate calcium levels in the bloodstream. Calcium supports proper muscle function and nerve transmission, and successful stimulation calcium into the bloodstream can help prevent cows from becoming downers during the calving period.

Improving bone health: Both calcium and phosphorus are essential for bone formation and maintenance. Deficiency of either can lead to weak or brittle bones, increasing the risk of fractures and musculoskeletal issues. Phosphorus supplementation helps support good bone health and strength, reducing the likelihood of injuries that could result in downer cow syndrome.

Reducing stress and fatigue: Magnesium supplementation is particularly important for preventing grass tetany (hypomagnesemia), a condition characterised by low magnesium levels that can lead to muscle tremors, convulsions, and ultimately, downer cow syndrome. By ensuring adequate magnesium intake, supplementation helps reduce stress and fatigue in cows, promoting overall health and resilience.

Enhancing immunity: Essential trace minerals such as zinc, copper, and selenium play critical roles in immune function and disease resistance. Supplementing with these minerals helps support a robust immune system, reducing the risk of infections and other health issues that could contribute to downer cow syndrome.

Monitoring and adjusting mineral supplementation: Regular monitoring of mineral levels in feed and water, as well as periodic testing of blood or tissue samples, allows you to assess the effectiveness of supplementation and make adjustments as needed. By tailoring supplementation programmes to the specific needs of your herd and accounting for factors such as soil composition and forage quality, you can optimise mineral intake and prevent deficiencies that could lead to downer cow incidents.

Zero downer cows is a realistic goal

Is it possible to have zero downer cows? Yes, with the right approach. Adequate mineral supplementation is a vital component of preventive healthcare for dairy cows, helping to ensure optimal nutrition, bone health, immune function, and overall health. By addressing mineral deficiencies and supporting the nutritional needs of your herd, you can significantly reduce the risk of downer cow syndrome and promote the health and productivity of their livestock.