“Being a dairy cow is fairly risky business,” according to Dr. Frank Garry, Colorado State University. During his presentation at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit, Garry drew attention to the trend for increasing death losses among dairy cows and called producers to take action on this economic and dairy welfare issue.

How big of a problem is death loss on dairies?
According to data from various recording sources such as National Animal Health Monitoring Systems (NAHMS), Dairy Records Management Systems (DRMS) and DHI, death losses on dairies range from 6 to 10 percent.

This is a steady increase over previous NAHMS estimates of 3.8 percent in 1996 and 5.7 percent in 2007. Compared to other sectors of the livestock industry, cow-calf herds see death losses at less than 1 percent, and feedlots around 1.5 percent.

There is also great variance from one farm to the next when it comes to the portion of cows leaving herds due to death. One study that looked at 21 New York dairies found death loss as low as 2 percent on some dairies, and as high as 15 percent on others.

Though these numbers are somewhat limited and subjective, Garry pointed out that the trend clearly indicates more and more cows are leaving herds with “death” as the documented reason.


While some may argue that genetics, management and environmental factors contribute to climbing death losses, Garry challenged dairy producers to dig deeper in order to find the true cause of death and to document and investigate these occurrences.

A necropsy of the animal, along with an interview of the producer or employee on the scene, can provide a much more accurate picture of why a death has occurred and what actions can be taken to prevent future losses.

What can we really learn from investigating the cause of death?
“Until we really know why cows die, we cannot prevent deaths,” he stated.

For this reason, uncovering the “who, what, when, where, why and how” at the scene is critically important.

Garry explained the difference between tracking basic death loss data versus performing an in-depth investigation. In the case of one particular dairy, a cow went down 13 days post-fresh and was euthanized. On many dairies, this cow would simply be recorded as “dead” with the cause as “shot.” However, upon a necropsy and a little research, a much different cause was discovered.

As Garry examined the cow, she appeared to have neurological damage, which he linked to a spinal fracture. Upon asking the workers, he learned that the cow had gone down coming out of the milking parlor, as had several other cows recently.

Further questioning revealed that the workers were instructed to increase parlor throughput, thus, they were pushing cows through faster using the gate. It turned out that the spinal fracture was actually due to injury caused by the gate.

From this investigation, the actual cause of death was determined, and action could then be taken to prevent future occurrences.

“We know have a very specific way to stop this death loss,” said Garry. “I can’t do that based on ‘shot’.”

What can you do to prevent death loss on your dairy?
Garry believes that, with producer commitment, on-farm death losses can be reduced.

“I think it is an achievable thing,” he stated. “It’s not that hard to decrease deaths on dairies.”

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of cow mortality.

“Go home and commit to evaluating, monitoring and decreasing its occurrence,” he said. “Once your attention is called to this, you will find things you need to change.”

The second step is to formulate a strategy for performing thorough post-mortem exams. Garry suggests bringing together the herd veterinarian and employees together for this process.

“Get more necropsies. It is a reasonable, worthwhile thing to do,” Garry added. “And make them count.”

Third, utilize hard copies to keep an accurate detail of deaths and to capture more information that what the computer system will track. Come up with a coding system that denotes causes related to management problems, failure to identify disease, calving trauma, and other trends that can be acted upon and corrected.

A self-evaluation of how your dairy is currently handling deaths begins by asking some tough questions.

“If you are really sincere and it really makes a difference to you that cows should not die on your dairy … you should go home and ask how many cows do die on my dairy?” Garry said. “Do I know why they die? And, do I do anything about it?” PD

View a Vita Plus video of the event.


Peggy Coffeen
PD Staff

Check out a slideshow featuring various activities at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit.

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Other aspects of the summit are covered on the Vita Plus website.