April 15 2014 06:58 AM

Cow health and welfare benefit when causes of death are identified and changes are implemented.

Those in production agriculture know that animal mortality on farms is inevitable.

But how much death loss is normal? According to Franklyn Garry, Colorado State University, there is no specific benchmark for what death loss on dairy farms should be.

In his presentation at a PDPW transition cow workshop, Garry shared that dairy cattle mortality appears to be on the rise. NAHMS data has shown an uptick death rate over the past two decades. In 1996, it was at 3.8 percent. By 2002, it was up to 4.8, and in 2007 average reported death loss was 5.7 percent on dairy farms.

Garry suspects these estimates are a little low. "You know how much milk your cows make," he said, "but do you know your actual rate of death loss?"

Dairy producers must acknowledge the importance of cow mortality as a feature of dairy management that needs to be paid attention to, Garry explained. "We can only change when we see problems, and we can only see where problems are by gathering data," he emphasized.

Garry recommends that farms work with their veterinarian to improve health data recording. This includes finding a way to document illnesses and deaths with enough detail to recognize patterns when they arise. Standardize the nomenclature used to identify health events, he said, and be specific when coding deaths into the record-keeping system.

He also encourages farms to do more necropsies to better pinpoint the most common causes of death on farms. Identify poor outcomes that may have been based off of poor decisions, he said. He recommends using necropsies as a teaching opportunity and getting employees involved as well.

Focusing on death loss is not a pleasant topic but an important one, and understanding why cows get sick and die benefits the herd as a whole. "We should focus on identifying and fixing subclinical causes of death for overall better cow health and welfare," Garry said.

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The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.