Downer Cow Syndrome

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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in February 2008 ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of Chino, California USDA officials estimated about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school districts nationwide, but they believe most of it already had been eaten. The action was taken after a video allegedly showed workers brutalizing sick, downer cows.

The video showed workers kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, and applying painful electrical shocks in order to force them to walk to the slaughterhouse.

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Entry Into the Human Food Chain

Not only is the treatment of the cattle appalling, what is worse is that these non-ambulatory cattle were allowed entry into the human food chain. This not only brings diseased meat in the food chain but also increases the risk of mad cow disease.

In Europe studies have indicated that cattle that cannot rise or walk have a greater incidence of mad cow disease than those that can. It is often difficult to distinguish these diseases from those of other bovine illnesses.

What is a Downer Cow?

  • Cows with metabolic problems, such as milk fever (low calcium in the blood), grass tetani (low magnesium) or winter tetani (low calcium and magnesium).

  • Cows which had bone, joint or nerve injuries

  • Diseases like severe mastitis, uterine infection, poisonings or grain overload cause cows to go down. Johne's disease, hardware, chronic pneumonia and nervous conditions such as circling disease or polio also affect cows, forcing them to go down

  • Starvation exhausts the energy of cows. Rigors of travel to the slaughterhouse cripple many cows. These conditions exhaust their energy reserves, making them go down.

Origin of the Term

The term “downer cows” has been used for a long time in the livestock industry. Earlier it used to refer primarily to various metabolic problems or simple lameness. Though the term was loosely defined, downer cows in the meat supply were considered risky because of unacceptably high levels of E.coli.

During calving cows suffer from milk fever due to an increased demand on the supply of calcium. This, combined with increase in stress, makes the cow suffer from a lowered blood level of magnesium proportionate to supply. The trauma of calving causes stress, and as a result, the demand for phosphorus is elevated. Phosphorus plays a major role in animal metabolism.

Such common sense conclusions gave way to a new sense of urgency with the arrival of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalitis)

A downer cow fails to attain its normal standing posture and becomes recumbent for prolonged periods. Even proper support fails to make it rise. Downer cows always have a negative economic impact, sometimes one that is quite severe.

rBGH Milk and Cancer Fears

rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone, and all its synthetic forms (including Monsanto’s Posilac) are given to cows to increase milk production. There are growing concerns that rBGH milk leads to an increased risk of cancer. It is also reported that rBGH use increases the amount of pus in milk, birth defects in calves, mastitis (udder infection) in cows. These concerns have led Canada, Japan, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations to ban the use of the growth hormone.


Proper nursing is the key to treating downer syndrome in cattle. Lodge them in well bedded yards or loose-box if housed. Provide food and water in easy to reach wide-based containers. Give calcium, phosphorus and magnesium as necessary

More severe cases call for local disinfection and treatment.

Good management at calving is vital as in 46% of downer cows the primary problem was a difficult calving

The four most important factors are:

  • Provide a good, clean and environment

  • Ensure the cows are between BCS 2 and 3.5 at calving

  • Don’t be quick to interfere but watch from a distance

& Get timely help and assistance

Preventing milk fever will significantly reduce the number of downer cows as 38 percent of downer cows had milk fever as the primary cause.

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Know Your Farmers

It is an accepted fact that this type of cruelty and inhumane treatment will never vanish from the meat industry as long as there is a meat industry.

Animals are known to be fed with industrial leftovers, are implanted steroids to make them grow faster, fed antibiotics s so they can survive the poor diets and crowded feedlot conditions; and then shipped to slaughterhouses.

There is no true safety in being a vegan unless the food safety system is completely overhauled and modernized. It is safest to prefer local or grass fed meat and buy them locally. Another alternative is to shop at farmers’ markets


  • EPS quits using USDA-recalled beef
  • 'Downer' cows and what's at stake
  • The Downer Cow
  • Consumers told to eat local meat