Like most farm kids, I came to understand death at a pretty early age, but comprehension does not beget acceptance. And so I know that all lives must come to an end, but I still get upset when they do. Especially when I also have to accept responsibility, in one way or another, for the end of that life.
We had to cut down some really old oak trees when we remodeled our manure lagoon; it made me sick to my stomach to think about killing those majestic trees. Just last week, I found one of my favorite houseplants had died, the one that was a gift from my grandfather's funeral. I was so busy that I had neglected to water it. (It's probably a good thing everyone else around here yells or bellows when they're thirsty!)
Death is even worse when it's an animal's life that has come to an end. We've all heard the phrase, "anyone who has livestock also has dead stock;" but that doesn't make it any easier to lose a life on the farm.
Earlier this spring, right after I wrote about our low mortality rate, I lost my first heifer calf in nearly two years. (Serves me right for patting myself on the back.) Luego was a stylish little calf, off to a great start. She came down with a mild case of diarrhea. She was alert and still eating, so I didn't get too excited. I figured it would go away in a day or two. But since I had some on hand, I decided to try a new nutritional supplement which claimed to be ideal for situations like this. I'm not sure what prompted me to abandon protocol. (Luego would have been just fine if I'd done nothing at all but continue to monitor her, feed her and keep her dry.) But there's something inside dairy farmers (and parents, for that matter), that urges us to do something to try to help. I'm guessing this need to intervene and coddle is what led to the warning about killing calves with kindness.
Anyway, the morning after I gave her the supplement, Luego died from a clostridium infection. Our vet tried to reassure me that I hadn't caused her death, but I think he was just trying to be nice. Since this was our first experience with clostridia, I looked it up in our Dairy Health Reference Manual; it read, "In the intestines, clostridia, which normally grow and divide slowly, become active when there's a sudden increase in milk sugar or other digestible carbohydrate. This is the only disturbance the bacteria need to suddenly multiply very rapidly and begin releasing toxin. Death occurs through the effects of the toxins, which are carried to other tissues and organs."
Bottom line: The supplement I gave her provided more sugars than her little intestines could handle and created the perfect environment for Clostridium perfringens (most likely type D).
If it wasn't bad enough that my good-intentioned intervention didn't go as planned with Luego, we lost one of our good, old cows last week after complications from treatment, too.
Rosie was just starting a new lactation when she came down with a case of mastitis. We usually don't get many cases of mastitis during the summer with the cows on pasture, but last week's rain turned part of our lane into a muddy mess. The mud didn't affect most of the cows, but older cows, like Rosie, with deeper udders ended up pretty muddy after coming through the low spot in the lane. Being just fresh, her immune system just wasn't able to fight off the bacteria that hitched a ride onto her udder with the mud.
Rosie's mastitis seemed to be a mild case, so we proceeded with our first line of treatment for ill cows - fluids, aspirin and immune system support (B vitamins and TDN Rockets).
Unfortunately, what should have been a routine treatment instead went terribly wrong. While Glen was administering the fluids, Rosie jerked her head, caught the hose on the drinking cup and pulled the stomach tube half-way out. In the process, she aspirated some of the electrolyte and alfalfa meal solution.
Glen quickly called the vet and he recommended treatment to help minimize irritation to her lungs and prevent infection. At first, the treatment seemed to work. Rosie looked tough, but she went out to pasture with the rest of the herd and came back in for evening milking. In the end, though, Rosie's lungs were too damaged. She passed away the next morning. We found her lying in the tall grass on the hillside.
We were pretty bummed, Glen especially. And then the questions started. We've given fluids to cows hundreds of times without incident, why did it go wrong this time? What should have been done differently? We always go through the same line of questioning when seemingly preventable deaths like Rosie's (and Luego's) occur. If we can learn something from the experience, then the animal's untimely passing will not be for naught.
We're fortunate that we don't have to deal with death very often, but when we do, it's always a solemn reminder of our responsibility to do what's best for the lives in our care. And even though we do our best, sometimes things go wrong.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have two children - Dan, 3, and Monika, 1. When she's not parenting or farming, she's writing for the Dairy Star. Sadie can be reached at