Facing death on dairy farms is definitely a hard part of dairy management.  On-farm death of adult dairy cows is a significant problem for both economic and animal welfare reasons.  Unfortunately, adult dairy cow death losses are on the rise.  It is time for recognition, monitoring and action to address this critical situation.

Rising Problem with Too Little Information.

Information from computerized dairy record systems suggests that mortality rates have continually increased over the last 10 years. In some states, adult cow mortality exceeds 10% per year. Very few formal studies have focused on this issue, yet dairy cattle death losses are a critical problem. Not only are these losses an economic disaster, they also represent very real problems with animal well-being. This would seem to be an issue requiring substantial veterinary attention, but at present it does not appear that veterinarians or producers have the information required to manage the problem appropriately.

Why Do Dairy Cows Die?

There are multiple reasons for cow deaths.

  • Training: Lack of trained caregivers on modern dairy farms.
  • Diagnosis: Significant health problems that are not identified in time for successful intervention.
  • Analysis: Causes of mortality are not carefully monitored or analyzed and, therefore, cannot be properly managed.

Necropsy:  Start where you don’t want to end.

The absolute first step is to acknowledge the problem and through record keeping and observation to change the outcome.  No one wants to have dead cows.  Avoidance and denial will not make the problem go away.  Therefore, the best place to start is with the negative outcome. Take steps to find exactly what caused the animal’s death.

Farm Necropsy is an Underutilized Tool

Veterinarians, researchers and () breeders are adamant that farm necropsy examinations should be used to help discover the cause of adult cow death.  Unfortunately, necropsy of dead animals is rarely performed on dairies, even though, other intensive livestock systems, such as poultry, beef and swine routinely use necropsy monitoring.  The lack of monitoring and information prevents accurate assessment of the problems and, therefore, prevents effective intervention.

First Comes Training

It might seem logical that farm staff should be trained in the prevention long before they learn how to perform on-farm necropsy examinations.  However, both skills are needed tools for everyone working with the herd. Veterinarians are not always present to perform the examination of a freshly dead carcass and therefore it needs to be done by trained staff in a timely and well-recorded manner.

The Dairy Cattle Necropsy Manual.  Get Your Hands on It!

If lack of information causes death, it follows that having the information drives the solution. A team at Colorado State University has produced the Dairy Cattle Necropsy Manual. Unfortunately, they report  “Very few producers or veterinarians have pursued this approach, attesting to the notion that monitoring actual cause of death has not been seen as a valuable pursuit.”  Ordinarily, dairy farmers are open to tools that affect their work day but, quite significantly, their bottom line. Studies suggest that at least 50% — half— of all cow death losses are caused by management related issues. This clearly puts the solutions in the hands of the people working with the cattle every day.

What Good is a Necropsy Examination?

There are three main reasons to see that necropsy examinations are able to be handled efficiently and effectively on your dairy.

  1.  Necropsy examination of dead animals provides information about the specific cause of death.
  2.  Investigation beyond necropsy findings helps determine why specific causes of death occur, so that management can be changed to minimize risks for future problems. Such investigation is rarely performed or tracked on dairies.
  3. Paying attention to causes of death can promote changes that substantially decrease cow health problems and death losses.

The Importance of Record Keeping

It is wrong to begrudge the time that it takes to keep good records. If the system is working effectively in other areas of the operation, it needs to be modified to capture information on causes of death so that it can be used to manage improvements. By themselves, the diagnoses will determine what the death resulted from.  They don’t necessarily provide information about why that specific cause occurred.  Change can only occur if consideration is given to all aspects of the historical information on the animal.  Factors such as time of the year, stage of lactation, housing and level of staff monitoring all provide useful information. The way that all  the variables work in concert with each other provides a basis for making management changes.

Going Beyond the “To Do” List

The focus has to shift from the immediate actions to be taken in dealing with the problem, to the bigger picture impacts of mature cow deaths.  Enough information and critical assessment needs to be applied to the determination of what the health challenges were that are impacting this situation.  Healthy cows not dead ones are the only acceptable option.

Training First

Whether you have had a lifetime on a dairy farm or are newly employed and without pre-existing cow management skills, it is quite possible not to have hands-on experience with the diagnosis and autopsy skills required in dealing with (mature cow deaths. The first step is to provide and become proficient in being able to identify disease in individual animals and respond with individual animal care.

Expert Consultation:

There are numerous reasons given for the fact that the overwhelming majority of sick cows on dairies are identified, diagnosed, and treated by farm workers rather than veterinarians. Time, money, accessibility, and strategic planning may be the excuses, but poor outcomes must then be accepted as the responsibility of managers and not brushed off as attributable only to any pre-existing problems with cow physiology.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It is unrealistic to hope that there could ever be a single simple answer to the problem of high mortality on dairies. That doesn’t mean that the problem cannot be dramatically improved by taking the right steps. This means recognizing and defining the problem, improving information systems to provide details necessary to take action, and monitoring appropriate metrics that promote ongoing attention to management corrections.

It is said simply and best by the researcher who strongly emphasizes:  “As much as anything, the simple act of recognizing mortality as a problem might be the most fundamental step toward controlling its progression.”



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