Animal Health Notebook
Dead cow Alan Newport
Most deaths, when correctly investigated, prove they could have been prevented by better management, author says.

No postmortem, no accurate diagnosis

Management is usually the answer to the dead-cattle problem.

I read recently that there has been a 1,000% increase of farm “dead cows” since 1970. I really don’t know if this figure is accurate but the other day I was sitting and visiting with the “boys” at a cow-buying station about two miles up the road. An old dairy farmer client of mine brought in a six-head load of culls. The manager told him that his last bunch of three had 100% failed to pass inspection.

“We’re talking about $1,500,” said the dairyman with shock. “Hell yes, and I lost the freight,” replied the manager. He does not cut a check on a spent old girl that fails inspection. Just because she can walk on and off the trailer is not enough anymore. Two of the cows were diagnosed with septicemia and one with pneumonia.

What does this mean? The answer is extreme stress. I’ll guarantee that the problem and deaths were management induced. They are really hard to correct in a CAFO operation -- maybe impossible.

A good cow doctor needs lots of skills that have been honed with experience, science and knowledge about people and animals. Nutrition and natural model systems are a necessity in my opinion. Understanding stress and stress management is a big deal. So is animal handling. Then there is mud, concrete and bad feet. Oh yeah, let’s not forget housing and holding pens. Cattle do not need to stand for longer than 60 minutes before milking. Animals, buildings and concrete don’t mix very well.

Longevity is a good beef cow’s best attribute. If upkeep and other production cost are held to a minimum and we have a good product to sell from her every year. Then she will or should be highly profitable. Trouble is that most cows fail to hang around and produce for enough years to make good money. If your main profit center is cull cows, I hope you’ve got a town job that pays good. The average beef cow in the US brings 2.8 calves to the market. That average is not profitable.

The consolidation of the packing industry and the kill numbers per hour, processing speed, distance and local disappearance of processing plants have made it tough for producers and veterinarians to get answers to our demands. Most cattle die for a reason and a high percentage can be diagnosed with a high degree of accuracy when history, management and feed knowledge, plus on-the-ground presence and a thorough postmortem are combined. Yes, I know there is a cost. It is hard to view animals at a slaughter facility that is hundreds of miles away.

Postmortems tell us if sick cattle diagnosis and ante-mortem lab work were accurate. Often we find they were not. Most of us realize that our management or that the previous manager’s priorities make big impressions on health. Cows that die at 3 years of age with their second calf weighing 90 pounds at a month of age are often a challenge. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Where did she come from? And history?
  • When did she arrive?
  • What’s her actual age?
  • What’s her body condition? Has it changed? How fast?
  • Where is she as to calving and lactation and milk?
  • What has she been eating/grazing? Supplements? Fertilizer?
  • Any changes in the past month, two weeks or days? Has anybody paid attention?
  • What is the time of year? Weather and pasture conditions are always important.

Our job as a veterinarian starts on the phone and often gives us thinking time before we arrive at the scene. The time of the year and weather conditions are always important. The less familiar we are with the operation and the less we know about the management, the slower and more methodical we likely need to move. There is nothing wrong with thinking out loud if you acknowledge what you are doing. This is a time to make it or break it.

Postmortem examinations properly executed are or should be a learning experience for everyone involved. A chance to doctor on an ailing bovine is a chance to polish the chain that drags off the dead. But much and maybe all of the dead need an autopsy and diagnosis. The knives, equipment and knowledge and experience to perform quality necropsies are an asset that cow doctors need to attain. “I don’t know” happens but it does not need to be frequent. It usually needs to be followed by “I’ll find out.” I’ve had headaches that were solved by labs, phone calls and books. But mostly they’ve come from thinking.

Remember that much sickness and death result from management. Here are a few common causes.

  • Lactic acidosis (grain overload) may be No. 1. Common when new feed is introduced.
  • Lack of fresh recovered forage and forage diversity is likely problem No. 2. Problems are often in short, immature and pretty grass that is basically a monoculture. Veterinarians need to know their plants.
  • Lightning strikes. Although natural, severe weather system deaths can be management induced because of planning mistakes.
  • Toxic and/or poisonous plants, are usually the result of insufficient forage.
  • Lack of energy due to milk and supplement mistakes and poor quality feed or feeding method and fiber length or mixing. Soil and analysis and location can be big.
  • Pneumonia, both acute and chronic, should have an understandable reason. We need to discern between the two.
  • Liver-related disease, including liver abscesses and fatty livers.
  • Shipping fever and pneumonia relate to management and environment and timing and vaccination. Age and weaning are often major issues.
  • Blackleg and tetanus and other clostridials – remember that clostridial vaccines tend to be highly efficacious within five to seven days. Tetanus needs to be boostered before banding.
  • Metabolic disease – grass tetany, milk fever and ketosis are connected with potassium, broiler litter, salt fertilizers, lush pastures, weight loss and stress due to genetics and our management. Time and timing are always important. Don’t forget to evaluate manure.
  • Fescue toxicosis opens an important can of worms throughout most of the mid-South and Midwest.

I have posted lots of cattle that died from many other maladies. But the truth is that few can actually be called natural. It may be natural for a 20-year-old cow to die in an ice storm in March. Truth is that it doesn’t happen very often. We should have loaded her in July!

Good postmortems are rewarding and information rich. What we don’t find is often as rewarding as what stands out. Ruling out can be as important as ruling in. If your veterinarian fails to be at the top of his/her necropsy game, you’re missing an opportunity to really learn something.

The opinions of this author are not necessarily those of Beef Producer or Farm Progress.

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