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Animal Welfare and Health

Dealing with Downer Cows 

A downer cow is an animal that cannot stand from a lying down position of rest due to broken bones, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured backbone or disease. As a result of a ruling by the United States Department of Agriculture, it is illegal to sell non-ambulatory cows (downer cows) for food consumption. The issue of food safety of non-ambulatory cattle suspected to have mad cow disease was the basis for the development of this rule.

Managing to decrease the number of downer cows on a dairy is the most efficient method to avoid dealing with them. Lame cows, injured cows, cows with calving difficulties and extremely thin cows are the most likely to become non-ambulatory. Lame cows and injured cows usually become extremely thin because of their inability to go frequently to the feed alley, stand for a long period of time and/or compete with other cows for feed. This typically leads to a substantial decrease in their feed intake.

Many cases of downer cows can be prevented. The following examples of management practices could be followed to minimize the occurrence of downer cows on a dairy:

  • Maintain your handling facilities to prevent the occurrence of downer causing injuries.
  • Handle cattle quietly and gently to prevent injury.
  • Develop good health protocols and closely observe the cows. This will allow you to detect health problems during early stages and treat them accordingly.
  • Evaluate cows for lameness.
  • Reduce calving problems. Nerve damage during calving is one of the most common reasons that a cow becomes non-ambulatory. Select sires with appropriate birth weight.
  • Cull cows before they become extremely sick. If cows are not culled early, the dairy risks losing 100 percent of the value of the cow if it becomes downer or if its carcass is condemned. Animals should be culled and harvested as soon as possible before animal health issues progress to advanced stages and become ineligible for slaughter.
  • Provide rough surfaces. Slick surfaces are responsible for a great percentage of injuries that occur on dairies.
  • Provide adequate nutrition to cows.
  • Monitor body condition of cows. Cows with a Body Condition Score of 2.5 or less typically become weak and are more likely to become disabled when transported.
  • Safely transport culled cows. Transporting lame or weak cows can often result in them becoming a downer. When transporting cattle, be sure that adequate space is provided so cattle can stand without the risk of being forced down due to overcrowding. Do not load cattle that are unable to withstand the rigors of transportation. If a trailer is not full, safely partition cattle into smaller areas to provide stability for the cattle.

Be extra careful when handling downer cattle by:

  • Immediately determining whether a downer cow should be humanely euthanized or receive additional care.
  • Providing feed and water to downer cows at least once daily.
  • Not dragging downer cows or lifting them with chains. If movement is necessary, use caretakers to humanely roll the animal onto a sled or low-boy trailer, or into the bucket of a large loader.
  • Euthanizing cattle that are unable to sit up unaided or refuse to drink or eat within 24-36 hours of initial onset.
  • Not sending downer animals to a livestock auction or a packing plant. These facilities are not the place to dispose of dying or sick cows.
  • Selling cows to slaughter before they become downers to provide a better quality of life for the animal and provide economic benefit for the operation. 

In some cases, euthanasia should be used. Euthanasia means humane death without pain and suffering, commonly performed on-farm by the owner since a veterinarian may not be immediately available. The decision to euthanize an animal should consider the animal’s welfare.

Reasons to euthanize:

  • Severely thin or weak cattle that are at risk of becoming a downer.
  • Downer cattle that will not sit up, eat or drink and have not responded to therapy and have been down for 24 hours or more.
  • Rapid deterioration of a medical condition.
  • Severe, debilitating pain.
  • Compound (open) bone fracture, including spinal injury.
  • Central nervous system disease.
  • Multiple joint infections with chronic weight loss.


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