My Quest To Save A Cow

They say “a down cow is a dead cow,” so there was no time to waste

photo by tavi merrill
Miles Smith Farm owners Bruce Dawson and Carole Soule with Clemy

I shut off my alarm, looked at the clock: 2 a.m. It took a while, but then I remembered why I was up in the middle of the night. Clemy needed to take a walk. Earlier that day I watched as Clemy, a Scottish Highlander cow, staggered into the holding pen and lay down. I called Christina, my vet, and told her to come to the farm, fast. Clemy is one of 50 head of cattle we raise on our 36-acre hilltop farm in Loudon.

I had put my three “riding cattle,” Missy, Curious Bleu and Clemy, in a pasture near the barn so they would be ready and available to give cow rides at our Summer Farm Day. Maybe there was bacteria in the water in this new pasture, or maybe there were lambsquarters, a high-nitrogen plant that can kill cattle if overeaten. Whatever it was, these three cattle were sick.

Curious Bleu and Missy recovered quickly after I gave them kaolin-pectin, a stomach reliever for cattle that soothes a cow’s stomach and helps natural recovery. This same treatment did not work for Clemy. She was down with a temperature of 104. 

Several years earlier, during a January thaw and subsequent freeze, one of our cows slipped and refused to get up. No matter what we did, we could not get her to stand. On the last day, we tried to help her up with straps and a tractor, but when she moaned in pain we realized her pelvis was broken and there was nothing we could do. This was a friendly, trusting cow who had produced three calves during her short life. It was hard to let her go, but harder to watch her suffer.

After that experience, these words struck home: “A down cow is a dead cow.” Lying too long compresses a cow’s organs and can cause death. Besides giving her antibiotics, I had to get Clemy on her feet every few hours. I set my alarm for every two hours during the night to get her to stand and walk. I pulled on her halter, begged her, with tears in my eyes and in my voice, to stand. I promised to brush her and scratch her ears if she would do this one thing — stand up. 

Each session was a battle of wills. I think Clemy just wanted to stay down and never get up. Maybe she did it for me or maybe she just got tired of my nagging, but each time I asked, this trusting cow eventually stood up and walked a bit. This went on for a week, day and night.

After 10 days of antibiotics (twice the normal dosage), she was up and walking on her own, better but still refusing to eat. Antibiotics kill all bacteria, good and bad. Cattle depend on “good” bacteria in their stomachs to digest food. Without it, Clemy wouldn’t be able to digest food and could die of starvation. Her system had to be kick-started with good bacteria.

To kick-start a cow’s digestion, some suggest taking the “cud” from a healthy cow and feeding it to the sick cow. When cattle eat, their stomachs process food and any unprocessed food is regurgitated to be chewed, producing the act known as “chewing their cud.” For this treatment, I would have to take the cud out of the mouth of a healthy cow and put it Clemy’s mouth. I’ve castrated pigs and pulled calves from their mothers, but this sounded gross, even to me. Instead, I decided to feed Clemy yogurt, rich in naturally occurring bacteria. With Clemy unwilling at first to be spoon fed, I think I got more yogurt on me than in her mouth. Far less disgusting that the “cud treatment,” the yogurt treatment eventually worked, and I was soon able to coax Clemy into eating a few alfalfa pellets and drinking the molasses-water mix I made for her each day. 

Clemy took almost a year to completely recover. Exactly 12 months after her sickness, her hooves started to peel off. Just like fingernails stop growing, her hooves had stopped growing when she was sick. A year later, new growth caused the old hoof to partially peel off, making walking difficult and painful. I cut off the partially peeled hoof so she could walk normally.

Now Clemy is her fully recovered self, ready to do anything we ask — including giving youngsters rides. She’s a special cow with a special place on the farm, and I’m a somewhat rested farmer ready to face the next crisis — including losing a bit of sleep. While my job as a farmer is to raise cattle to be processed, it’s always a happy day when I get to save one.

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