What Should Mortality Rates Be On A Dairy Farm?

With good data dairy farmers can know what keeps cows healthy and what causes mortality. ( Farm Journal )

“Where there’s livestock, there’s also deadstock” is a saying that is often uttered in agriculture circles. For dairies, mortality of mature animals compares poorly to the beef sector, but can be lowered with management practices. 

According to data compiled by USDA through National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) studies, dairies euthanized 2.4% of cows and had another 3.2% die without assistance, for a total death percentage of 5.6% during 2013. This is a slight decrease from the 5.7% death rate witnessed in 2007’s NAHMS data, but still much higher than the 4.8% mortality rate of 2002 and 3.8% death loss from 1996.

When compared to beef production in both the cow-calf and feedlot setting, dairy has some work to do to  improve. The latest available NAMHS data from 2008 shows a 1% mortality rate for beef cows, although this data might not be the best comparison for dairy cows that are primarily confined while beef cows on pasture. However, feedlot mortality rates are still drastically lower than dairy cattle. For 2011, feedlots ranging in size from 1,000–7,999 head capacity reported 1.4% death loss and those holding 8,000 head or more had a 1.6% mortality rate. 

Mortality rates have been an area of focus and research for Franklyn Garry, veterinarian with Colorado State University, for more than a decade. “Mortality rates vary widely between farms, so even with that NAMHS data it means somebody is at 10%,” Garry says. He believes that all dairies should aim for a mortality rate of 5% or lower, and achieving 3% would be more ideal. 

Garry thinks one obvious reason beef feedlots have such a reduced death rate is they are younger animals. Another reason is that feedlots conduct necropsies on a more regular basis. 

“On well ran feedlots up to 90% of animals get a necropsy,” Garry says. “They still see value in doing necropsies because that level of information is informative. It’s what they use to make better decisions in the future.”

There isn’t hard data on the amount of dairies that conduct necropsies when cattle die, but in Garry’s experience it is relatively low. 

Having a necropsy done on at least half of the mature cows that die on a dairy – even if euthanized – should be more routine since it helps drive management decisions. “If you do necropsies with the workers present, they begin to catch on that it’s important, and they start paying more attention to the details,” Garry says. “They’ll actually manage the cows differently, even without instruction.” 

He also believes conducting necropsies will help with record keeping to accurately monitor any mortality trends. “Those answers won’t be there, because you don’t have the information in the records to tell you what the problem is,” Garry says of not having accurate records backed up by necropsies. 

To address record keeping Garry and Craig McConnel, a veterinarian at Washington State University, created a dairy death certificate. The death certificate has fields to fill out, like if the cow was down prior to death and for how long. It also allows producers to easily categorize causes of death such as bloat, fatty liver and ketosis. The death certificate can be used “as is” printed out or easily recreated in a computer program like Excel to keep track of what is happening. 

Then by having better data, patterns can start to show up in particular areas of the dairy that need to be addressed. Maybe more cows are dying during or after calving, showing that changes are needed in the maternity pen or how fresh cows are handled. 

“That’s where the money’s to be made,” Garry relates of identifying problem areas causing mortality. “If you did really good analysis of each cow’s cause of death, then you begin to come up with things to improve.”
 

 
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