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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

What to Do When Cows Die

Livestock Update, May 2009

Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Cattle
VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, VA Tech

Arriving to a field of dead cows is a nightmare that all cattle producers would like to avoid. Just the same, every year in Virginia, a number of incidents occur that result in several dead cows and a big financial loss for producers. This article is designed to have producers implement some procedures in their operations to prevent this awful happening, as well as some ideas that will help minimize losses if a death loss event occurs in your operation.

Although occasionally a death loss outbreak occurs instantaneously (lightning strike for example), more often it occurs over several days. Often producers hope that the event is over when they find the first cow, delaying action that may prevent the loss of additional cows if swift action is taken. Here are some actions that may be helpful when cow death loss is first noticed:

- Don’t ignore a single unexplained death.
- Learn as much about a single death as you can. Even if it is not practical to do an autopsy on the first cow, use the event as a heads up to examine feed, water, mineral, cattle behavior and the environment in which the cows live.
- Make veterinary contact or at least have a way in place to make contact with a professional who can help with contacts and accessing services of professionals. A single cow death may not warrant a veterinary visit, but starting the process may start things moving in such a way that the next steps, if needed, can happen more quickly.
- Increase the frequency that cows are checked. If this event turns into a serial even the sooner an outbreak is recognized, the faster things can be done to minimize loss.

If a second death loss occurs within hours or days of the first, immediate action is merited. Here are some ideas:

- Get an autopsy done as fast as possible. Because the rumen of a cow continues to produce heat after the cow is dead, decomposition of the animal proceeds rapidly, even in cool weather. Waiting until the next day for an autopsy often results in a carcass that is too decayed to give much useful information.
- Consider moving cattle. With poisonings or some infectious causes of death, getting cows to a new location quickly may save lives. Mixing cows with other cattle, however, should be avoided as infectious diseases may be spread.
- Seek help from professionals: your local veterinarian, laboratory officials, extension personnel, etc.
- Look through cattle carefully. Are there more sick cows? Is cattle behavior, appetite, water consumption, appearance normal?

Some of the more common causes of outbreaks of death loss in cows and a few comments about avoiding these events are as follows:

- Salmonella outbreaks. Cows get severe diarrhea and may die or go down quickly. Outbreaks occur following introduction of infected cattle or when feed or water sources become infected. Waterfowl may infect ponds. Moving cattle immediately and aggressive treatment may decrease losses.
- Overconsumption of grain or soybeans. Cattle appear very full or are bloated. Rapid treatment can be quite helpful.
- Anaplasmosis outbreaks. Cattle die from low red blood cells after infection. Outbreaks typically in the summer and fall. Outbreaks in areas bordering infected areas or after injections if new infected cattle have come into the herd.
- Grass or winter tetany outbreaks. Most often occur in the spring when grass is lush but occasionally in the fall. Usually cows with small calves are affected. Monitor mineral consumption of high-magnesium mineral when conditions are appropriate.
- Poisonings. Most poisoning occur from on-farm sources. Cattle get into sheds or barns where herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides are stored. Sometimes feeds or minerals are contaminated with or mistakenly mixed with poisons. Poison plants are a less common cause for poisonings.
- Pneumonia outbreaks. Of course, pneumonia is most common in young cattle. However, outbreaks of pneumonia can happen in adult cattle as well. Sometimes these follow the introduction of other cattle that, although they appear normal, are carrying disease agents to which the new herd is not immune. In other cases stress sets off the disease caused by organisms that are normally present in the cattle without causing harm. Rapid recognition and treatment of the disease will decrease losses.

Although loss of adult cows is always discouraging and costly in a cattle operation, several steps can be taken to prevent outbreaks of death. Rapid action once losses are recognized can frequently minimize new cases and save the lives of affected cattle that have not yet died.

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