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Performing calf necropsies could be a way to improve survivability

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Jan. 25, 2020

Any time a calf dies, it is an expense. The question is, is there any value to the production system? Dr. Becky Funk, DVM, MS at Rushville Veterinary Clinic in Rushville, Neb., tells producers she can still find value in the dead animal. 

            “Most of my toughest diagnoses are unfortunately found on the basis of a dead animal,” she says. “Once we lose one, I can do a lot more diagnostics than for an animal standing there looking at me wondering how I am going to treat it.”

            Industry-wide, preweaning death loss in U.S. beef cattle harbors between five to six percent. Additionally, two to three percent of those beef cow pregnancies will not yield a live calf, because it was stillborn through abortion or late fetal loss. 

            “Of mortalities in preweaned calves, roughly 20 percent are due to undetermined causes. When cattle die, it is an opportunity for our industry. We’re not always very good about finding out what kills our cattle,” Funk says.


        “Necropsy is the examination of the animal after death. Also called post-mortem or post, it is a way to determine the cause of death in an animal,” Funk explains. “The standard for finding the cause of death is either through a gross or full necropsy.”

            The gross necropsy is opening the animal up and taking a look at big, high level things, like its organs, to visually ascertain what killed the animal. 

            “When we do a gross necropsy, we are looking at the big picture, but it does not involve lab diagnoses of tissues,” Funk explains. 

            Obvious causes like a twisted gut, major trauma, stones in the urethra which ruptures the bladder and congenital defects in the heart or intestine can be determined with a gross necropsy. 

            “We can also use it as a follow-up on diseases impacting the herd, like pneumonia or scours,” she explains. “Everyone likes the gross necropsy because it doesn’t cost that much. It doesn’t require a lot of economic input, so producers feel like they can get a lot of bang for their buck if they can find an answer right there.”

            Full necropsies are more involved and require a veterinarian analyzing the animal and collecting samples to send to a laboratory. 

            “It’s warranted if we want to know the specific agent that caused that death, like pneumonia, or if it is a pasturella or bovine respiratory syncitial virus (BRSV). It’s also warranted when litigation is a possibility,” she tells producers. 

            Funk says there is dissension in the industry of whether producers should do their own necropsies. 

            “Some of the producers I work with are okay with it, and others bring me the animal saying it’s my job. The bottom line for me is if it gets more calves looked at, I’m okay with it,” she explains. 

            “Digital necropsies are relatively simple for producers to perform,” Funk says.

            It is a concept that started 10 to 15 years ago, primarily in the feeding industry. Most feedlots don’t have daily access to a veterinarian, which is unfortunate because they have several deads. 

            “We want to look at those because it tells us where we are going with our management,” she says. “It tells us if we are treating the ones that need treated and if we are missing ones we shouldn’t.” 

            “In this industry, I think it is good to open them up and see if things are going the way they should be when the vet is not on site,” Funk says. 

Necropsy tips

            During the necropsy, Funk says clear, concise pictures are essential. These pictures can be e-mailed as large files to the veterinarian or pathologist. 

            “If 10 pictures are needed, take 20. If in doubt, take a picture. More is better,” she explains. “Cell phones are a fantastic tool, but video can be even better. Some things can look like one thing, but be something entirely different.”

            She suggests a specific set of pictures, including the abdomen, laid open to see the liver, and any cuts or abscesses; intestines, abomasum, gall bladder and kidneys, which is a great indicator of what happened to the animal in the past. Look for any distinct lesions; intestinal sections looking for evidence of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), such as ulcers; thorax and trachea – cut open to look at the lining for appearance of IBR; cross-sections looking at different lobes of the lungs; the heart, laid open down the midline to expose all the different chambers of the heart and the papillary muscle, the large muscles that help control the valves.

            When Funk examines the photos, she looks for specific things in specific areas like BVD lesions in the spiral colon, purple gut in the small intestine, coccidiosis in the large intestine and ulcers in the abomasum.

            She also cautions producers about paying attention to the animal’s symptoms so they stay safe. 

            “If a producer needs to open up the brain, let us do that because rabies is real,” she states. “Anthrax is another. If the animal is bleeding from the nose, rectum or mouth, it can be a lot of things, but that also puts anthrax on the list.”

Gayle Smith is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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