Dairy Excel: A morbid article about dairy cows

The 22nd annual Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference was held April 23-24 in Ft. Wayne, Ind. at the Grand Wayne Convention Center.

This conference each year is hosted by Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue universities. Attendance for the conference was up this year compared to last year. The new workshop held on Monday evening pertaining to ration software got high marks and there was great attendance at the pre-conference hosted by RP Components. There was a vibrant trade show and excellent participation occurred for the undergraduate and graduate student presentation contests.

Additional information about the conference can be found at http://tristatedairy.osu.edu. So, what is morbid about this? Nothing — quite the contrary. Yet, the kick-off speaker for the conference, Dr. Franklyn Garry, professor, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Colorado State University, discussed “Why Cows Die on Dairy Farms.”

Financial impact

The death of cows on dairy farms has huge financial implications to the farmer and has implications for animal well-being. Thus, I want to share some of the highlights of the information that he presented. Information is available on the conference’s website about how to obtain a complete copy of his paper.

Mortality rates for adult dairy cows on farms have increased during the past 10 years, sometimes exceeding 10 percent per year.

The period with the highest risk for mortality is during the first 30 days in milk. In the 2007 study conducted by the National Animal Health Monitoring Systems, the five major causes of death on dairy farms were: Euthanasia for lameness or injury, mastitis, calving problems, respiratory problems, and diarrhea or other digestive problems.

You will note that these causes are somewhat broad, and thus Dr. Garry emphasized that recording of causes of death by farmers and veterinarians has been inadequate.

Actually, the veterinarian is often not included in defining the cause of death. The NAHMS study revealed that only about 13 percent of the dairy farms perform necropsies and only 4.4 percent of the cows having died received a post-mortem examination.

In Dr. Garry’s assessments, the cause of death provided by farmers is incorrect about 50 percent of the time. Because of these situations, it is often difficult to expediently identify corrective actions to lessen disease problems within herds.

What’s the cause?

The actual cause of the increased mortality on dairy farms in recent years is uncertain. Some have conjectured increased incidence of certain diseases, cost of treatment for seriously ill cows relative to ample availability of replacement heifers, and increased federal restrictions on sale of downed cows.

The death of a cow results in accumulation of unrecovered costs from treatment prior to death, loss of income from sale as a cull cow, and provides evidence for a potentially larger problem within a herd.

Some general recommendations provided include providing an assessment of the death rate on a given farm and work with the farmer to develop a plan of action to reduce the death rate which may include training of farm employees to better identify causes of death.

Increased use of necropsy on dairy farms should occur by veterinarians or farm workers trained by a veterinarian. Causes of death and episodes of specific diseases should be recorded within computer record systems. In addition, increased monitoring for subclinical diseases should be occurring.

All of this information should then be regularly monitored so expedient corrective actions can be taken. These actions can improve animal well-being and the productive state of individual cows and thus the whole herd. Monitoring disease and mortality rates can result in non-morbid outcomes.

About the Author

Maurice Eastridge is a professor and Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. More Stories by Maurice Eastridge

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