Death is part of dairy farming. The National Animal Health Monitoring surveys estimate the death loss of adult cows on dairy farms to be 5 percent, with pre-weaning heifer deaths averaging 7.8 percent and post-weaning heifer losses at 1.8 percent. As these statistics indicate, death is an unfortunate reality of dairy farming. Deciding when euthanasia is necessary and how to do it humanely is a serious consideration for al livestock handlers and veterinarians.

Having said that, euthanasia isn’t just an on-farm issue.

Consumers are part of the equation. They are increasingly concerned about all aspects of how their food is grown or raised. The majority of consumers have no real connection to the farm, making it essential to open up discussion.  Euthanasia, although an unpleasant task, is an inevitable component of animal husbandry. It is necessary to establish a dialogue between agriculture and consumers and openly discuss why euthanasia is an essential and humane aspect of animal welfare.

If you work with livestock, you have to have the equipment and training to conduct euthanasia efficiently and effectively.

These are the first steps and will help minimize the apparent stress associated with carrying out this necessary act. The goal is always to prevent the unnecessary suffering of dairy animals. Working with a veterinarian you can set up operating procedures for your dairy farm.  Yearly review and ongoing training will be necessary as part of your herd health program

Make Sure You’re Using The Most Up-To-Date Euthanizing Information

As with most livestock handling procedures, the methods used are continuously being reviewed and revised. “There are not only right and wrong ways to euthanize dairy cows, but the guidelines for humane killing were recently revised,” say Jan Shearer of Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and James Reynolds of Western University College of Veterinary Medicine.

There are many excellent resources for learning about euthanasia. The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has classified euthanasia techniques as “acceptable,” meaning methods that consistently produce a humane death when used as the sole means of euthanasia; and “acceptable with conditions,” meaning methods that require certain conditions to be met to consistently produce a humane death. These may carry greater potential for human error or safety hazard and may require a secondary step to ensure death.

Establish Criteria for Decision Making

Animals that should be considered for humane euthanasia include:

  • Severely lame animals that do not respond to treatment or are in severe pain, especially if the foot or leg is extremely swollen.
  • Animals that cannot stand.
  • Animals that are not responding to treatment.
  • Animals with broken bones or severe injuries.
  • Animals with disease conditions for which no effective treatment is known (i.e. Johne’s disease, lymphoma).
  • Animals with diseases that involve significant threat to human health (i.e. rabies).

Euthanasia Dos and Don’ts

  • Do involve your veterinarian to create a euthanasia program, so you and your employees understand the correct way to induce a “good death” that causes no pain or distress for your animal.
  • Don’t cull sick animals as a way to “get rid of them.” The public does not want to consume infected cows especially if they have been treated with medications. Do not sell animals that may have violated drug residues.
  • Don’t leave ailing or suffering animals to die.
  • Don’t drag a non-ambulatory animal. “That is unacceptable,” says Iowa State University’s Jan Shearer. If the animal that is to be euthanized is ambulatory and can be moved without causing distress, discomfort or pain, consider moving it to an area—before euthanization—where the carcass may be more easily reached by removal equipment.
  • Do recognize that euthanasia is not a procedure that all persons are mentally or emotionally able to perform.
  • Do provide adequate training for euthanasia and support for individuals faced with this task.
    Source: Euthanasia Done Right

Proper Euthanasia Methods

There are only three approved methods of euthanasia for cattle, and they are: IV injection of a pentobarbital (a drug your veterinarian must administer), gunshot, or captive bolt. All other methods are not appropriate. It is important to note that all of these methods must be done correctly in order for it to be considered a humane euthanasia. Downloadable materials on cattle euthanasia.


Death of an animal can be a time to review what went wrong. It is necessary to evaluate your death rate in adults and heifers with your veterinarian. It is important to determine if there is a treatment failure, a problem with not intervening with treatment soon enough or a problem with not euthanizing the animal when she is suffering and instead letting her die an inhumane death. Consumers who have pets understand euthanasia is a humane choice for a suffering animal. It is important that euthanasia be given proper consideration on dairy farms.

Many farms, regardless of size, need to establish protocols for euthanasia.

Breeding, treating with medications, milking routines, and managing calving problems are examples of common protocols. Proper humane euthanasia is often a protocol that is overlooked, but it is one that is crucial to the consuming public. Every farm should work with their veterinarian to develop a proper Euthanasia Protocol and evaluate its implementation on a regular basis.

“The public is concerned about animal welfare, and their perception has a strong influence on today’s agricultural policies and industry standards.”

Notes Dr. Suzanne Millman of Iowa State University. She adds. “The more confidence the public has in animal agriculture’s programs to safeguard animal care, the less likely we are to see them legally regulate our policies.” Determining when to euthanize an animal and the most humane method to do it aren’t the only concerns. Those within the livestock industry must be cautious of the language used to avoid appearing or becoming insensitive.”

Temple Grandin, renowned advocate for the proper care and handling of animals, states that “Nature is cruel, we don’t have to be.”

Humane euthanasia should be a written protocol on all of our dairy farms.  One conference participant goes a step further “Every cow on our farms should come with an “end-of-life-plan.” Meaning that costs associated with a humane and respectful last few weeks of her life need to be accounted for when we take on the responsibility of bringing her onto our farm”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Unfortunately, death does occur on dairy farms, and we all need to be careful not to become “desensitized” to it. Euthanasia is part of the hard decisions that need to be taken with the goal of providing a gentle ending.



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