Compromised dairy cows, such as those suffering from illness or injury, are likely to have different behavioral priorities and needs compared to healthy cows. Although hospital pens are typically required in animal welfare standards and assessment programs, there is surprisingly little information on best practices for housing and management of compromised cows. The purpose of this study was to provide descriptive information about management and husbandry practices of compromised cows on dairy farms in Iowa. A questionnaire-based survey was designed to examine demographic information, design and management of hospital pens, as well as decisions concerning humane endpoints when euthanasia is considered. The survey was sent to 300 Iowa dairy farmers including organic, large (>500 cows) and ordinary (≤500 cows) dairy farms, with overall response rate of 41%. Eighty-two percent of respondents had the possibility to house a sick or injured cow away from her normal pen. Hospital areas typically involved pen housing (89% of farms), and bedded pack was the most common flooring used (88%). Compromised cows were frequently housed in the same enclosure as fresh cows (45%), calving cows (36%), close up cows that are soon to calve (35%), dry cows (15%), or other cattle (8%), including heifers, calves and bulls. Half of the farms had standard management protocols for non-ambulatory cows. Calving difficulties, injury, milk fever, lameness and displaced abomasum were the most frequently cited conditions for moving cows into hospital pens. The present data can be used to formulate hypotheses and design experiments in order to examine relationships between the behavior of compromised cows under different management strategies. Research is needed to formulate recommendations for effective design and management of special needs areas and hospital pens, notably with respect to social groupings and behavioral needs of ill and injured cows.
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