If a fire broke out at your dairy, would you and your employees know what to do? Would anyone evacuate the cows from the barn, or would the reaction be to fight the fire?

"You'd be surprised how many people call the fire department and can't even remember their home address, let alone a work address during an emergency," says Leonard Meador, environmental management consultant at Global Eco-Tech in Rossville. Ind., who was a volunteer fireman for 15 years. People don't think clearly in the midst of an emergency. That's why you need a comprehensive emergency action plan (EAP) for your dairy. A comprehensive EAP spells out what steps to take if an emergency should occur.

Most producers have partial EAPs, covering such things as employee injur-ies, basic biosecurity, and handling a lagoon overflow. But an EAP that addresses just a few key issues barely scratches the surface of what you should plan for, stresses Meador.

Say your employees' first reaction was to try and contain that fire. The fire gets away from them and sweeps through the nicely bedded transition cow barn. Fifteen cows and their unborn calves are lost. Now you have a catastrophic mortality loss.

Catastrophic mortality loss is one of the biggest things producers fail to plan for. But it is something you definitely need to include in your EAP.

It won't happen to me
Most producers believe they will never have to deal with a catastrophic loss. Therefore, writing a plan for how to deal with one just wastes time.

A catastrophic loss doesn't mean the whole herd gets wiped out. It is a loss where more than a "normal" number of animals die that day. So, if your herd averages a 5 percent death loss for the year, and you lose 5 percent of the herd in one day, that is a catastrophic loss.

These types of losses can result from a number of reasons - lightning, tornado, blizzard, flood, disease outbreak, power failure, fire, contaminated feed, and even bioterrorism. And chances are you probably know a producer who has lost animals from one of the above scenarios.

Following a lightning strike that kills several cows, or cows start dropping from a load of feed contaminated with a virulent strain of salmonella, is not the time to start thinking about how to handle the loss. That was exactly the case for an Indiana hog producer a few years ago, says Meador. A fire burned down one of his finishing barns, and he did not have an EAP that addressed catastrophic death loss. It took two days of phone calls and frustration to get to the right state agency to get a permit to bury the hogs. During those two days, that pile of charred hogs was not the most pleasant smell in the neighborhood.

Plan ahead
When it comes to the business of dairying, you need to take time to plan. You can't be on the dairy every single day.

That's why a written comprehensive emergency action plan is so important. It guides your employees on how to handle various emergencies, including:

  • Accidents involving employees.
  • Biosecurity concerns, such as visitors to the farm.
  • Disease outbreaks.
  • Manure spills, lagoon overflows.
  • Power failures.
  • Fire.
  • Tornadoes, blizzards, floods.

All of these things can occur - and usually do occur -when you least expect them or have time to deal with them. Having a written plan means you or your employees won't have to stop and wonder what to do with all of the dead animals. You will already know if your renderer can handle the extra animals, or what your options are with your composting operation. You will know who to call and will be able to take immediate action.

Write it down
The EAP on how to handle a catastrophic loss doesn't have to be a long, detailed document. It just needs to cover the basics.

A key component of your EAP must be to identify what state agency you need to contact in order to get permission - and, in some cases, a permit - to dispose of the carcasses. In most states you need to report a catastrophic death loss to the State Board of Health. That also is the agency that can give you permission to bury the animals, or compost them.

You'll definitely want to call your veterinarian, too. If the cause of death is not obvious, as it is with a lightning strike or fire, you'll need to do some investigation. And the State Board of Health will need those results. The state health board tracks large-animal death losses and would be the first agency to spot a pattern if, say, producer A lost 50 cows on Monday, and 25 miles down the road producer B lost 20 cows on that same day.

Be prepared
No one likes to think about death - especially a catastrophic loss. But these types of losses happen each year. A few from recent memory include: the blizzard in western Kansas that claimed the lives of several dairy cows; the storm that knocked out power in a large Iowa pork operation, suffocating a barn full of hogs; a salmonella outbreak on a dairy in California, and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England.

Although you never want it to happen, writing a comprehensive emergency action plan that outlines how you will deal with such a loss will help you get through it. In situations like this, it is best to follow the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.