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Post-mortem exams can save animals, held producers with management strategies

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University, tells producers that their dead calf is worth nothing, but a dead calf with a diagnosis can be the most valuable animal on the farm. 

Knowing the cause of death may enable a producer to prevent future deaths on down the road. 

Accident versus problem

“I feel good when a producer calls me out to necropsy a two-month-old calf, and I open it up and find that he ate some twine and got plugged up,” says Hilton. “It’s always a relief to know it’s just a freak incident.”

“The owner may be initially disappointed because he spent money for a necropsy, but it’s a great thing to find out that this is not a herd-wide problem or a tip-of-the-iceberg situation,” Hilton added. “By contrast, if someone has 150 cows and lost seven calves in a day, they recognize this is a serious situation and usually call me immediately. If those seven calves are lost over a three-week period of time, however, the owner may not get as excited and might try to justify or rationalize or guess at the causes of death.”

“I want clients to spend their money wisely. Being able to make a diagnosis after the first or second death is important,” says Hilton. 

This might have helped prevent the other losses.

Abortion implications

Abortions are a slightly different situation. 

“When a 150-cow herd has a starting calving date of March 1 and the owner tells me on Feb. 20 he just had his second cow abort, I generally tell him not to get too worried about it yet,” Hilton explains. “If he has another one, that’s the time I get it in and try to determine what’s going on.” 

“Other veterinarians may want you to call sooner, but for me, I don’t usually send tissues to the lab until we have more than two percent abortions,” he says. 

Sudden deaths

“If a cow or calf dies suddenly – an unexplained death – I want to see the first case, and I don’t want to wait until the second or third one,” he says. 

Otherwise, the producer may regret not having checked them, if additional animals die.

“I am pretty aggressive on getting young calves necropsied because it is important to find out whether they died of pneumonia or scours,” Hilton explains. “Even if the rancher says a calf was born dead, it may be of interest to open it up and put a piece of lung into a bucket of water. If it floats, the calf was born alive and started breathing because the lungs are full of air.” 

“If the lung tissue sinks, he was born dead, and he never took a breath,” explains Hilton. 

Hilton encourages producers to take calves to their vet and have it examined. The test is very easy to do, and the result will show whether the calf breathed or not. 

“If a producer has calves born dead, the number one reason for this is too-large calves at birth, and they need to look at dystocia problems,” he says. 

Not all dystocias need help, he continued. The cow finally gets the calf out, but the calf doesn’t survive the lengthy period in the birth canal. 

Additionally, a lot of calves that are called stillborn were actually alive at birth and just didn’t get going.

Herd health

“I was in private practice for 15 years, and one of my main jobs now as a university veterinarian is to tell clients to use their herd health veterinarian,” Hilton explains. “That’s the person who knows the most about a producer’s herd.”

“Have a veterinarian out on the farm occasionally to look around. It’s amazing how many times I go onto a farm and see something that the owner doesn’t see,” he continues. 

If the producer sees something everyday, they may get used to it or become not as inquisitive as someone seeing it with fresh eyes.

Solving problems

“Once we had a herd that was having a terrible coccidiosis problem in young calves,” he said, as an example. “They couldn’t reach the water troughs and were drinking the water out in the field, which was heavily contaminated with manure.” 

Some calves like to drink out of puddles even if fresh water is available. They like to taste everything and try it out.

“We filled in those low areas that collected water and fenced out some parts of the field, so calves wouldn’t have access to so much ground water, and the problem went away,” Hilton explained. “I wouldn’t have been able to see this problem, however, if I hadn’t been out on the farm to take a look.”

“Often we veterinarians are reluctant to spend our clients’ money, but considering the amount of money a stockman has invested in his operation, spending $100 or so for a necropsy to try to prevent future losses is not unreasonable. This is a good investment in the overall business of the farm,” says Hilton. 

Sometimes producers can make an immediate management change, knowing the cause of death. 

If the animal ate some poisonous plants, for instance, they could prevent more deaths by moving the cattle out of that pasture. 

Hilton commented that any unexplained death needs to be investigated.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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