November 10, 2022 at 4:10 p.m.
“Some years ago, I recognized that some of the farms I was working with had quite high death rates,” Dr. Franklyn Garry said. “Having grown up on a dairy farm, I thought that wasn’t quite right. People don’t question why the cow died. They just deal with the death.”
Garry, a member of the Colorado State Extension College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, spoke Oct. 19 at the Professional Dairy Producers Herdsperson Workshop Oct. 19 at Heeg Dairy in Colby.
Garry said farmers should take the time to perform necropsies to turn those deaths into a learning opportunity.
Garry said cow necropsies often times go undone on dairy farms for several reasons.
“If I talk to veterinarians, they’ll say the farmer doesn’t want me to necropsy,” Garry said. “If I talk to the producer, they’ll say the veterinarian is too busy to necropsy. You don’t actually need the veterinarian to open a cow up. I can show anyone how to do a necropsy. I’m not suggesting you take the place of your vet, but I am suggesting you start to look. And when you start to look, you’re going to start asking your vet a lot more questions, and you’ll start talking more and you will learn more. Then, you can start changing things.”
Garry encourages producers to start that dialogue with their veterinarian and learn the process for performing necropsies on their own.
Acknowledging the importance of cow mortality as it relates to productivity and profitability allows producers to learn more about what is happening within their herds.
According to Garry, evaluating and monitoring why deaths occur is one way to decrease the occurrence.
“The good news is a necropsy is the only way to accurately assess the proximate cause of death and describe the disease process that might have occurred,” Garry said. “The bad news is that often times there are more details than can be managed, and it is sometimes difficult to categorize the findings.”
According to Garry, the list of potential contributors to death in dairy cows can be categorized as one of the following: subclinical metabolic disorders such as issues like hypocalcemia or rumen acidosis; clinical disease such as a calving injury, ketosis or fatty liver, mastitis, milk fever or infectious disease; and injury or trauma.
“I urge people to make a record of what is happening when the cow dies,” Garry said.
The first step to keeping those accurate records, according to Garry, is to investigate and determine the progression of incidents that led to a cow’s death. Then, when a death is not easily explained from a situation such as injury, do the necropsy to find the underlying factors.
“I’m not saying that every single cow that dies on the farm needs to be necropsied,” Garry said. “That isn’t practical. But if there is one that you just don’t know where things went wrong, it will pay in the long run to figure it out. You might be able to prevent another death in the future by simply changing something that might be easy to change.”
Garry said the most important tool during a necropsy is a camera.
“Take pictures of everything you see,” Garry said. “Then you can go back to your veterinarian and share those photos. It will help you learn what is normal and what is not normal.”
Garry said a necropsy should be done as soon as possible after the animal’s death, so that tissues are fresh for obtaining any samples to aid in diagnosis.
Garry said to begin with the cow lying on her left side, to keep the rumen from obstructing access to other organs. Garry suggested working on a concrete surface, if possible, and to avoid an area where fluids could contaminate the living area of other animals or feed storage.
The method of disposal of the animal can dictate how you handle the necropsy, Garry said.
“If you need to utilize a rendering company for disposal, you need to keep that in mind,” Garry said. “Try to keep the hide as intact as possible, since that had value to the rendering company. You will need to sew her back up so that she can be picked up by the rendering company.”
According to Garry, a shingle knife is a good tool for cutting through the hide, as the hook at the end limits the likelihood that internal organs might be punctured or damaged. Other useful tools include boning knives and large branch cutters to cut the ribs.
“Have your vet come and help you with the first one,” Garry said. “It might seem like a daunting task, but if you take it step by step, it is not. And my guess is that you’ll become so interested in what you are finding, you will overcome your hesitancy pretty quickly.”
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