Headstone marking the grave of You’ll Do Lobelia, a purebred Jersey cow, 1932-1941
They sure don’t all get this kind of memorial. photo: slgckgc via Flickr

We hate it when it happens, but sometimes cows (and heifers and calves) die on the farm. Along with the economic loss is the hit to morale. Mortality losses average 6-8% in U.S. dairy herds, which is higher than 40 years ago. Systematic collection and analysis of death information may help prevent other deaths in the future and improve overall welfare of the herd.

The Integrated Livestock Management program at Colorado State University’s vet school has a Certificate of Death form for dairy cattle. The purpose is to record detailed information about each animal’s death in order to improve overall health management. The form includes spots for the expected items like id, birth date, calving date, and death date, but also things like body condition score, days in milk, and calving ease score. The section for cause of death doesn’t have just one line, it has space to write in the conditions that led to the cow’s final demise. Did she have a metabolic imbalance? An infection? An injury from a piece of equipment? Identifying the timeline of contributing events allows for an assessment of health risks on the dairy. Causes that appear frequently in death certificates should serve as a call to action. The authors of the form advise using a coding system that allows for a more detailed cause of death to be included in the cow’s individual record.

The folks at Colorado State University have also written a Dairy Cattle Necropsy Manual that includes illustrated, step-by-step directions for conducting an on-farm necropsy. The manual has lots of photos of both normal organs and commonly found abnormalities. There is also guidance for taking tissue samples. When doing a “home” necropsy, take plenty of pictures for the subsequent conversation with your veterinarian.

Completing certificates of death for cows, heifers, and calves provides the necessary information for analyzing health management practices so that improvements can be made and mortality rate decreased. Information may be the only thing of value that comes from an animal’s untimely death. Let’s use it.

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