Profit margins decrease and additional concerns arise because of the possibility of further deaths in the herd. By using necropsy to determine the cause of death, producers can find peace of mind – especially if it means a change in management.

Woolsey cassidy
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho
Cassidy is a contributing editor to Progressive Cattle and Progressive Forage magazines.

A necropsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, is a surgical procedure used to visually determine what damage occurred inside the animal. It is a tool to identify and prevent issues that may be emerging in the herd.

Though it is used most often in feedlot operations, cow-calf producers can also benefit from the diagnosis.

“A necropsy basically provides a way for producers to tailor their management program,” says Nicole Kenney, feedlot extension educator at the University of Minnesota.

“Producers for the most part are good at identifying the reasons for death. But sometimes it might be a little more difficult.”


Cattle Empire LLC, a cattle-feeding organization in southwest Kansas, routinely performs necropsies as a way to target and prevent issues within the operation.

Sometimes a trend is detected and employees are able to treat and stop the problem from affecting the remaining animals.

“It would be a lot easier if we didn’t do it, but then we would be guessing the cause of death,” says Nick Chesnut, operation manger at Cattle Empire.

“When you feed 200,000-something cattle, some are going to die. If there are an unusual amount of deaths, we want to get to the bottom of it and figure out why they are dying.”

There are some instances where the diagnosis is clear before death. Animals that die from scours or respiratory disease can often be determined without performing a necropsy.

Although in some cases, a necropsy can be useful to target the specific bacteria – which in return could save lives.

Dr. Russ Daly, extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University, gives an example of a cow-calf operation in South Dakota that benefited from deciding to have a necropsy performed.

He says the cattle that died had vague symptoms and needed to be examined to determine the reason for death. After the procedure, Daly found that the animals had eaten wires – the same kind of wires found in worn-out tractor tires used to feed cattle on the operation.

Though it was a facility-type situation, the producer was able to fix the problem and prevent more deaths from occurring.

“I don’t think it is ever a waste of time or money to get more knowledge about what is going on in those animals. Even if it turns out to be an individual animal problem, it can still give valuable knowledge for keeping the rest of the herd safe,” Daly says.

Unexpected death should trigger a necropsy
Whenever there is an unexpected death on a cattle operation, a necropsy should be considered, Daly says. A good healthy cow found dead in the pasture is something that should be investigated.

Older cows that have been ill for a long time probably won’t be a good economical choice to have examined. It is also just as important to have any dead calves examined to prevent diseases or other problems from spreading to the remaining calves.

“Your calf crop is a cow-calf producer’s income; if they lose half the calf crop it can be enough to put a small producer out of business,” Kenney says.

“Cattle producers do a good job of putting the calf on the ground, but it is with the ‘in between’ that calves are lost.”

Determine a normal level of death loss
Every operation can expect a certain level of death. With the help of good record keeping, producers can establish a threshold and know what a typical loss is each year.

If, for example, the death loss in calves exceeds 2 percent, that should be an indication something is wrong, Kenney says. In a small operation, however, one death can be a big deal.

Kenney points out that as the value of cattle continues to rise, more producers are starting to utilize things such as necropsy.

These management practices have become even more important today because of the lower number of cattle herds, she says.

Seasonality determines the time frame for necropsy
Depending on the season, the producer may only have a maximum of 24 hours to have a necropsy done. In colder weather, the animal can sit for a day or two before the carcass starts to deteriorate.

However, in the warmer months, the sooner the veterinarian can get to the animal, the better information they can receive.

Some of the digestive diseases in calves can only be diagnosed by getting fresh samples from the intestine. The intestine is one of the first organs that starts to break down.

If a necropsy isn’t performed within the seasonal time frame, it could preclude the veterinarian from getting a good diagnostic report on the animal, Daly says.

Another option beyond visually observing the internal organs on the animal is to have a sample sent to a diagnostic lab for further research.

This allows for more information regarding the cause of death. Daly says in this case it is important the veterinarian takes a sample as soon as possible.

“If I was a producer I sure wouldn’t pay money to have a necropsy done on an animal that has sat there too long,” Daly says. “If you can get to the animal pretty quick and get some good information on it, necropsy is definitely worth the money.”

Cost factors to consider
The cost of the procedure depends on the veterinarian practice. Many charge an hourly fee, but in general the cost can range anywhere between $50 to $100, Daly says.

The lab-testing fee also depends on where you send it and what is done with the sample. But in general, basic lab fees run between $40 and $80.

In some cases the examination can take approximately a half-hour to 45 minutes. Some procedures may be easier to diagnose and could only take five minutes. It depends on how obvious the problem is, Daly says.

“Sometimes we open the animal up thinking it should be pretty obvious why it died and we end up not finding anything wrong.

Animals that die from lightning can sometimes be that way,” Daly says. “Some animals will always remain a mystery.”

Necropsy can be a management tool in any operation. Depending on the situation, necropsy can assist in management decisions and production practices.

Now more than ever, producers can utilize and reap the benefits of good management.  end mark