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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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The expression “until the cows come home” can mean one of two things.  Either the cows are expected to come home for milking and will be there or else it can mean waiting a very, very long time.  Getting aligned with the routine of these creatures of habit is a daily activity on dairy farms and when it moves along smoothly it`s great but too often the opposite is true and it becomes a daily frustration. When cows refuse to move easily from one location to another or one activity to another, it costs time and money.  Both bovine and human stress levels can skyrocket with a corresponding rise in injuries.

It`s Time to Get A Handle on Handling

When day to day interaction between cows and handlers results in injuries to either party there are lost workdays and decreased milk production. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at human handlers. However, for this interaction to work successfully both sides have to be calm.  Handlers need to calm plus reassuring.  As a result, cows will be calm plus comfortable.

Is Your Cattle Comfort Checklist as Ticked Off as Your Cows?

  • Cows behave unnaturally and stand or lie down uneasily.
  • Patches of rubbed-off hair and injuries to hocks and knees indicate that, when rising or lying down, cows are repeatedly rubbing on stall partitions or neck rails.
  • When cows are moving, they have an unsteady gait.  If they are walking slowly, or timidly, with rear feet spread wide, this is a sign of poor traction and that something is negatively affecting their confidence in their footing.
  • Mastitis, sore feet and swollen hocks are also signs that handling needs attention.
  • If more than 20 percent of the cows defecate in the parlor, the cause needs to be determined.
  • All concrete should be grooved to make it less slippery.
  • Check stray voltage
  • Confirm that milkers are calm and reassuring as they handle and milk cows.
  • Maintain routine contact with animals to retain familiarity

Quick Changes … Get Cow Comfort Corrected

Cow Kindness not Over-Rated!

Temple Grandin, remarkable advocate of animal caretaking, Karen Lancaster, from England, and other experts who consult and provide cow handling seminars are agreed on one basic premise. “When the cows are happy, we know they eat more, when they eat more they make more milk.” Results report that cow comfort can mean the difference of several thousand pounds of rolling herd average milk production between two herds of similar genetics and rations.  Simply upgrading a cow’s surroundings to light, clean and airy can radically move the following five performance parameters in the right direction.

  • Production
  • Performance
  • Efficiency
  • Safety
  • Animal Welfare
  • Quality of life

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that light, clean and airy can improve the same five criteria for the human dairy staff as well: production; performance; efficiency; safety; personal welfare and quality of work-life.

Put Yourself in the Cow’s Position

When we are consulting in business or trying to improve our personal working conditions, we often advise peers and clients to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. It isn’t bad advice when considering the best ways to handle our bovine workforce. Imagine yourself in the milking set up, the stall or the alleyways and pastures in between.  Consider the logistics of size and ask yourself if this would be an area you would want to walk, sleep or work hard in? Cold, dark and damp are probably NOT the three top features you would be seeking out.

If you are eager to remind me that some cows are just “difficult,” perhaps it’s time to consider the same label can be applied to complaining cow handlers.  I continue to be amazed that people who wouldn’t think of yelling at each other, or pushing or shoving, find that style an easy one to adopt when moving calves, heifers or cows.

One Video is Worth a 1000 Words

You can find a lot of enlightening advice from online videos on cattle handling.

No man or animal likes surprises or walking (or being pushed) into dangerous situations and it is important to give consideration to the actual sightlines of the animals.  When calves and cows learn to trust that you have their interests at heart, they will be ready and responsive to your commands.

Cattle are creatures of habit and they have long memories.  It’s a good idea to “start the way you want to end.”  From first contact as calves … to final turnout to greener pastures… your interaction with herd and individuals should be calm, consistent and kind.

Talk Softly and DON’T Carry a Big Stick!

Dr. Joep Driessen, Director/Owner of CowSignals Training Company, says research shows that women get 10 percent more milk out of cows.” He suggests that farmers modulate their barn voices to more soothing tones. “Women are more gentle and cows like the soft voice of the women more.”  All cow handling consultants insist that shouting at cows won’t help, because loud human voices stress cows even more than being physically slapped.
Curt Pate, well known for low stress cattle handling, has a list of tips which include the following:

  1. Make sure the cattle can see you.
  2. Don’t make sharp, loud noises.
  3. Don’t rush the animals.
  4. Use cattle prods and other equipment as little as possible.

“Farmers who don’t follow these guidelines and rush their animals harass them with noise or prod them unnecessarily risk raising their stress, increasing sickness and lowering production,” says Pate.

When trying to move cows, the handler needs be aware of his/her timing, angle, speed and direction of approach.

Obviously, the handler has to plan ahead where he/she wants to move the cows so that clear signals for the direction can be given.

If the handler can’t see a cow’s eye, the cow can’t see the handler and so the cow won’t be able to respond to the handler’s signals.

Part of the timing during cattle handling is to give cows time to react to the handler’s signals and to release the pressure once cows are starting to do what you asked of them.

Who Needs the Training First? Cows? Handlers?

Many times a situation on the dairy farm has become so repetitive that the only interaction certain individuals have with the cows is negative. It is necessary to see yourself as part of a team that involves the cows.  Good behavior should be rewarded and repeated.

An interesting finding of one survey was that herds that had previous stockmanship training tended to have about 1,760 pounds higher rolling herd average than herds that did not – even after accounting for the herd size.

Studies have shown that if cows are stressed, adrenalin will diminish the oxytocin response and their milk let down will be impaired. As a result, cows will not milk out and producers will lose milk.  In addition, stressed cows are more likely to defecate or urinate as well as kick in the parlor – none of which are particularly pleasant for the people working in the parlor and will likely affect their attitude towards work, as well.

Regularly revisit animal handling protocols to determine if updates are needed.

DIY or Experts … Who do You Turn to?

Training is traditionally done by herd owners or managers who have learned cattle handling predominantly from family members or by trial-and-error. However, today, in particular producers of larger farms (>200 milking cows), managers seek out low-stress handling training seminars to learn more about best cattle handling practices.  There is an abundance of resources to take your herd handling to the next level.  Online articles and videos are available from world renowned experts such as Temple Grandin and Dr. Joep Driessen.   Several well-respected animal handlers are available for onsite farm demonstrations or seminars for groups. Of course, you can send out a call for help and your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn connections may be ready to give you help.

Bullvine Bottom Line

There are many good reasons to improve, modify and make over your cattle handling techniques.  With daily opportunities for improvement, it’s safe to say that, although the practice may not make perfect, it can forge a willing and productive partnership between cows and farm staff.

Now everyone can handle that! 



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