Table of ContentsBy Louisa Shepard
The lovely cow Lavender is lying down, her black-and-white body barely fitting into a watertight metal trailer at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center. Warm water is pouring into this Aqua Cow tank, slowly rising from Lavender’s legs, up and around her sides, and then finally, the top of her back.
The veterinarians and staff gathered around the tank anxiously watch and wait. Suddenly Lavender heaves her massive body out of the water and stands up, and the crowd cheers.
“We always hold our breath when we put cows into the Aqua Cow. You always hope they get up that first time,” said Amy Johnson, DVM, Assistant Professor of Large Animal Internal Medicine and Neurology at New Bolton Center. “Lavender stood up really well and she immediately started eating. She was pretty content.”
The phrase is familiar on farms: “A down cow is a dead cow.” Because cows can weigh more than 1,500 pounds, if they lay for too long, their own weight damages their bodies to the point where they cannot stand.
After giving birth to a bull calf the last week of September, Lavender went down and couldn’t get up. Not every cow in that condition is given a chance. But Lavender is extraordinary, a top-rated Holstein and 4-H champion as well as an exceptional milker. Owner Jenna Sattazahn raised her from a baby calf.
“She’s always been a nice cow,” said Jenna, a 17-year-old senior at Conrad Weiser High School. “She won Best Udder at the Reading Fair, and three years ago I was named Grand Champion Showman when showing her at the Kutztown Fair.”
The Sattazahn family decided to take Lavender to New Bolton Center, especially since they were extra busy managing corn and soybean harvest in addition to their 110-cow dairy business.
“We knew that New Bolton would be able to give her the care and attention that she needed,” said David Sattazahn, co-owner of Zahncroft Dairy with his twin brother, Doug. They are cousins of Jenna’s father, and care for Lavender on their farm in Womelsdorf, PA.
Lavender had developed what farmers call “milk fever,” which does not involve a fever, but instead a dramatic drop in calcium levels. “She calved and made a lot of milk and her blood calcium level dropped,” Dr. Johnson explained. “She became so weak that she was unable to stand.”
Lavender was given calcium at the farm. She was then able to stand, but eventually went back down. “When she got to us, the muscle damage was the primary problem.” Dr. Johnson said.
New Bolton Center has a “down cow” stall, which has a large opening on the outer wall of the barn to accommodate a trailer. Lavender was down in the trailer upon arrival and had to be hauled into the stall by about a dozen New Bolton clinicians and staff members.
A thorough physical, orthopedic, and neurologic examination did not show a source of injury or illness. The answer came with the blood analysis: the muscle enzymes from the damaged muscle cells were extraordinarily high at 100,000 units per liter instead of the normal 200 units.
“It is a vicious cycle because once a cow develops muscle damage, it affects the animal’s ability to get up, and the longer they are down, it causes more muscle damage,” Dr. Johnson said. “If you don’t do something to break that cycle, they eventually have so much muscle damage that they can’t get up.”
The best way to get cows on their feet is to “float” them in the Aqua Cow tank. The buoyancy of the water lifts enough weight from their bodies that they can get up. “If they are able to stand with the support of the water, they usually do pretty well,” Dr. Johnson added. The cows will stand calmly in the water and can stay there comfortably for about 24 hours.
Lavender went into the tank three separate times. She steadily improved and her muscle enzyme levels returned to normal. She developed a mild case of mastitis, an infection of the udder, but it was easily treated.
A week after arriving at New Bolton Center, Lavender returned home. David Sattazahn reports that she is doing well and is back to her normal milk production. “We are really happy things turned out the way they did,” he said. “We couldn’t have rehabilitated her ourselves.”
Lavender, who has been with Jenna from middle through high school, may be sold next year to help pay for Jenna’s college tuition. Jenna is currently raising Lavender’s two heifer calves, two-year-old Lily and one-year-old Lilac. She plans to show them all in 4-H next summer.
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