Shanti (16) gave us a scare a few days back when she and her daughter Krishangi (10) did not come in from the pasture in the morning. I let all the other cows into the barn and went to look for her. She was in the farthest reaches of the field, peacefully lying down. It was a cool day and I was inclined to think she was just enjoying herself, but something told me I needed to take a closer look.
In the summer, my cows graze all night to avoid the biting flies that are active in the daytime. Once the sun rises, so do the flies. The cows quickly graze their way back to the barn, to seek shade and relief from the flies.
As I approached Shanti I could see she was covered with a wall of flies. More than I had ever seen on a cow! I knew something was wrong. Krishangi approached me and seemed distressed. When Shanti saw me, she attempted to stand. She got halfway up, but her back legs could not support her, and she flopped back down. Oh no, I thought, another down cow situation; what could be wrong.
I scanned my mind for all the clues I could think of. She was fine yesterday, and greeted me at the gate in the morning demanding to be let in and fed her grain. She and Maggie have both been losing weight, but they’re the only ones giving milk. Do they need more groceries? Could it be parasites? No, parasites would not make her unable to get up. Could it be a mineral imbalance? We almost lost Chintamani to grass tetany once, but that happens in the Spring when the grass is immature. Milk fever, ketosis? No, those things happen to cows that have just given birth.
I called my farmer friends. Neither of them could come help. "She’ll be in the sun all day. Make sure she has water nearby. Don’t let her give up. We can get there this evening."
I called the vet. The office could not send anyone for a few hours.
I called my husband. "Shanti‘s down, she needs water and shade. Should we buy a tent? Can you run a hose?"
"It’s 800 feet", he said. "I’ll bring some buckets of water."
I went to get a rubber plate for her to drink from. Rubber troughs are heavy, but she would knock over a water bucket and all the labor of lugging water through the field would be wasted.
While I walked back to the barn, I was on the phone calling local stores, trying to find one with a tent available that we could to set up to provide shade.
The sun was increasing in strength. By the time I got back to give her water, Shanti looked horrible. Her black coat was absorbing the heat of the sun. She had flipped herself over while struggling to get up. She was exhausted, harassed by flies, and overheated.
When my husband arrived with water, Shanti drank it all gratefully, but was too tired to attempt to stand again. I sat with her to reassure her, but the flies were terrible. My husband went to get more water. I went back to the barn, filling a backpack with fly spray, a fly mask and an iPad to play music in case she was stuck there all day. My Americorp intern suggested we give her a bath. Great idea, that will cool her down while we wait for the vet.
Shanti drank all of the second batch of 4 gallons of water that my husband hauled over to her. I had to get more water to give her a bath. I slowly poured water on her, slowing it down with a washcloth so it could soak into her coat. I could feel the water heat up, and used the cloth to wick it away; and then poured more cool water in its place. It's necessary to wipe off the excess water so it doesn’t insulate the heat inside of her coat. There was a good breeze which helped to cool her. The water dissipated the flies. Hardly a need for fly spray. I put some on anyway and headed back to the barn to greet the veterinarian.
"I'm sorry, she is in the far corner of the pasture", I told him.
"They always are," he said.
We headed out to see Shanti. When we got there, she looked much better from the bath, but she was scared of the veterinarian. She’s had her share of shots. She did not want another one. She tried to stand, and he steadied her. He listened to her rumen and managed to take her temperature. She’s in fine health metabolically. Could she have arthritis? She has been fine until this morning, getting up and down and crushing around the pasture with the others.
The vet suggested we try to get her up. He poked at her with the pointy part of the thermometer and twisted her tail. Shanti struggled to her feet with a last gasp of effort. She knocked over the rubber plate, and almost fell over with it. Somehow she managed to get up and headed home for the barn as fast as she could stumble.
"I can tell by watching her walk that she’s been injured", said the young vet.
We got her into a stall in the barn where he took a stool sample and did an internal exam.
"Yeah, I can tell she is in heat, (ovulating). I bet she got knocked over by the other cows, and injured herself. When cows are in heat, they will mount each other. Sometimes this causes injuries to their spine. Their back end just gives out from the weight of another cow on her back", he told us. Of course we know this.
Heat, (ovulation), can be a big problem when keeping cows without constantly breeding them. They cycle in and out of heat monthly. It seems that someone is always in heat. In the winter you need to separate them because someone can slip and fall on ice. In wet weather they tear up the fields ruining the pasture and creating mud from all the running around. You don’t want them chasing each other around inside the barn either, or they can knock each other over and break the walls in the barn. Thus it’s important to have a secure stall to separate cows for their own safety and yours!
The vet gave Shanti a shot, and a pour-on medication for pain and to help with inflammation. He advised us to keep her separated from the other cows. Shanti remained standing all day long and even went out to graze in the side pasture, but by the evening she was tired and laid down. Meanwhile, her daughter was crying and carrying on because her mom was not out in the pasture with her. Krishangi kept the whole neighborhood up that night with her loud mooing.
I went down around midnight to check on Shanti. It was obvious that she had been trying to stand up again but could not. It’s a big problem if cows lie down without being able to get up. Their sheer weight, lying on their own limbs, will cause compression injuring their muscles irreparably. Some Goshalas in India have lifts, to hoist cows up, or they shift them from left to right side every few hours until they are able to heal and stand again. My family did this for one cow named Bella Laxmi a few years back. We had to assist her in getting up when she fell from arthritis. But now we’re getting older and so are all the friends we used to rely on for this kind of help.
I massaged Shanti's back for two hours. She relaxed; I could feel her muscles loosening up. Finally, I was too sleepy to go on. "I will be back in the morning", I told her. I knew it was a risk to leave her that long. I had done all I could.
I was awakened by a text from my husband: Shanti is up! She’s out grazing in the side pasture. Thank goodness!!!
Shanti has been able to get up and down the past few days. We are keeping her separate from everyone else for her safety since several of the other cows, including her daughter, Krishangi, are still in heat. Cows are unpredictable when they are in heat. Krishangi was so hysterical for her mother that we decided to let her stay near her mom, but when she saw the rest of the herd leaving for the pasture, she flipped and broke through her stall to join them. We were astounded, but it reinforced our determination to keep Shanti by herself for a while.
Shanti is NOT happy about this change. In fact she is rather indignant about being treated as a frail cow. We have rearranged the barn so she can eat hay across the fence from her daughter and granddaughter. We are bringing her treats and making extra trips to the barn to give her attention and scratches on the head that she loves. Shanti is OK. But tonight she is the one mooing for her herd and keeping the neighbors awake.
Goshala‘s keep cows for their whole lives. There are many considerations that ordinary farmers do not have to contend with. When cows are bred for milk production, they will only come into heat once or twice a year, until they are bred again. They do not go into heat during pregnancy. Goshalas have special needs animals, all requiring different types of care and diet. The frail cows need a separate area in the barn so they are not jostled by the younger animals, and get enough to eat. We now have 6 cows. That’s enough adventure for us at age 60 and 69.