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Ship them or not? Key decision points for nonambulatory cattle

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 30 April 2019

Not every down cow can or should be saved. It’s a harsh truth, but sometimes euthanasia is in the animal’s best interest. However, euthanizing every down or sick cow isn’t the right answer either.

Shipping the animal to the slaughterhouse is not only a viable option for some animals, it also mitigates the dairy’s economic loss from that animal. So what criteria should farmers use to make that call?

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During his presentation at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council symposium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Daryl Nydam, an associate professor and Director of Quality Milk Production Services at Cornell University, discussed key issues in making this decision.

Statistically, Nydam said about 30 percent of nonambulatory cows do recover according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, but giving a cow an indefinite amount of time hoping it’ll be part of that 30 percent isn’t necessarily fair to the cow or good for the dairy.

“The challenge comes really with how long do we mess around with these down cows?” Nydam said. “From either a producer or a veterinary standpoint, how long do we wait? What do we try?”

Good versus poor prognosis

The key here lies in whether or not the animal has a good or poor prognosis, Nydam said. A poor prognosis means the animal shows no signs of improvement and has no viable treatment plan. These animals should be humanely euthanized soon after diagnosis to prevent any unnecessary suffering.

Animals with a good prognosis should show signs of improvement and have a clear treatment option. However, just because the cow has a good prognosis doesn’t mean it should be saved. It means attempting to save the cow is a viable option, and that it is likely to respond well to treatment and either return to the milking herd or be fit enough to ship.

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To make this decision, Nydam suggested reviewing the list of indications for euthanasia compiled by the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (see sidebar) to help determine the cow’s prognosis. When evaluating some of the more nebulous reasons such as quality of life, it is important to consult your veterinarian. Putting an animal on the truck that should’ve stayed on the farm is not only bad for the industry, it’s costly for the farmer since the animal may be condemned.

While quality of life has a different meaning for healthy animals, in this particular scenario Nydam adapted that description to apply to down animals.

“If I think she can somewhat comfortably make the transport from farm to slaughter and remain ambulatory for that specific situation, I think her life is OK for that short amount of time,” Nydam said.

If the cow is determined to be fit for transport, next evaluate if it is the cost-effective solution. It’s not worth shipping an animal that will likely be condemned upon arrival at the slaughterhouse. Assess the animal’s body condition score (BCS) and residue risk, and look for any other reasons this animal might be condemned. Nydam said slaughterhouses don’t like to see BCS extremes, and he doesn’t recommend shipping cattle with a BCS lower than 2. In addition, cattle that have the slightest chance of a drug residue violation should never leave the farm. It isn’t worth the risk.

It also may be helpful to run an analysis comparing the net present value of the down cow versus the farm’s average replacement heifer. Determine which animal will be more valuable in the herd. If the down cow is more valuable and it is likely to make a full recovery, then consider keeping the cow in the herd. If the heifer is more valuable, then use the opportunity to free up a stall for a younger, more productive animal and re-examine saving the cow and available options for it off the dairy. In this case, even if the cow can be saved and eventually shipped, the costs of doing so may not be economically viable.

“It helps quantify this and takes some of the subjectivity out of it after you’ve gone through all of those hard decisions,” Nydam said.

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Nydam suggested using a program such as DairyComp 305 and the COWVAL module for this analysis. However, the farm must have accurate and complete cow, herd and economic data for it to be accurate.

Float tanks and hip lifts

Float tanks and hip lifts are excellent tools when used correctly. Hip lifts work well to quickly lift a cow and perhaps flip it over, but they are not a long-term solution.

If available, float tanks can be a viable option for cows that need a little extra help standing. However, Nydam noted that not every cow will benefit from a float tank, and farmers should work with their vet to determine if it’s worth the expense. In general, Nydam said cows that are able to stand squarely in a float tank usually recover while cows that cannot stand squarely typically do not recover.

Develop standard operating procedures

Good employees care about the animals they manage. That shouldn’t be a surprise. It is what makes them good at their job. However, it can also make the decision to euthanize an animal more difficult. Many find it hard to give up on an animal even if it is the right decision. For this reason, Nydam recommended making the euthanasia protocol a group decision so the burden isn’t on one person. In addition, having multiple employees capable of managing down cows helps to ensure there is always someone available to do so.

Nydam said in his experience, vets are not often called out to a dairy just to look at a down cow these days. They usually see the down cow during a regular herd check or if they’ve been called out for another emergency. While calling a vet out for every down cow isn’t the answer, Nydam did advise a close working relationship between the vet, farm managers and other key employees.

Vets can be a valuable resource for dairies, especially when it comes to managing down cows. Utilize their expertise to help train employees and develop protocols for how to properly move, treat and care for down cows and if necessary, how to humanely euthanize them.

When possible, develop strategies to prevent cows from becoming nonambulatory in the first place. This can mean finding solutions to treat conditions that can cause cows to go down, evaluating facilities and fixing problem areas, or identifying cows at a higher risk for going down and culling them before they become an issue.

Above all, always have a plan for down cows. Know exactly how to move them safely and quickly determine the best method of care for that animal. Waiting to see what happens isn’t a good option. It isn’t fair to the cow, and it isn’t the right thing to do.  end mark

Jenna Hurty-Person
  • Jenna Hurty-Person

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Indications for euthanasia

1. Fractures, trauma, disease of the limbs

2. Loss of production

3. Quality of life

4. Diseases with no known treatment

5. Diseases that pose a significant threat to human health

6. Advanced ocular neoplastic conditions

7. Disease conditions that produce a level of pain or distress that cannot be adequately managed

8. Emaciation and debilitation from disease, age or injury

9. Disease conditions for which treatment is cost-prohibitive 

10. Potential risk for residue

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