Maybe you have driven by a farm and seen a dead cow that had been pulled out of the barn for pickup by the rendering works truck. Death happens all the time on farms. It is not necessarily reflective of bad management. Animals die for many reasons, or combination of them, as do people.
Recently, we euthanized a young calf with septic arthritis that we couldn’t remedy with antibiotic therapy. Perhaps the bacteria entered the calf’s body through the navel cord at birth and then found an opportunity to grow in the carpus (front knee joint). She was a nice heifer calf, but there was no economically viable alternative to euthanasia.
We also lost a calf in the maternity pen that day. The calf’s presentation appeared normal and the cow delivered the calf without help; but as she pushed her calf out into the bedding, the calf’s neck flexed, leaving its head under its body. The cow rested and didn’t get up to lick the calf immediately. Her calf suffocated.
The numbers I hear repeatedly on dairies are 6 to 8 percent death loss per year — animals that die on the farm, not animals sold for meat slaughter. Over the years, I’ve seen cows die from many causes. Some die from chronic or acute infections around their hearts, bellies or udders.
Not all deaths, though, are related to medical issues. A cow lying in a bedded pen or on pasture can get herself at a disadvantage — off the level — and be unable to “get sternal.” Without help, she’ll lie on her side, bloat and die. Cattle are inquisitive, and they stick their heads in places they can’t get out of; they might choke or become exhausted waiting for help.
And cattle are susceptible to electrocution, be it from chewing on exposed wiring or being struck by lightning.
Unfortunately, regardless of how much attention to detail we give to cow care, some cows, like all animals, will die.
There are certain times in a cow’s life, at which she is at greater risk of death. At calving, for example, both cow and calf are at increased risk of dying. The same would be true for all animals — humans, too.
Extreme cold also puts both the young and older cattle at increased risk. In the winter, diarrhea in a calf can be life-threatening if we can’t get enough energy into the calf at ambient temperature that already demand more energy intake.
Frostbit teat ends predispose udders to mastitis, and such infections can make a cow feel sick, fail to eat and lose significant weight in the cold weather. Healthy cows can fall down on ice or snowy concrete, just as we might, with some of the same consequences. But we generally can’t cast a cow’s leg.
Cattle farmers typically have a couple options for disposing of dead animals: render or compost. There are rules governing this, at the county, state and federal levels. Independent rendering businesses, for decades, picked up dead animals from farms, taking them to receiving plants to process, or cook, the carcasses and yield inedible fats for soaps, and protein meals for mink or pet foods. There are now, however, more restrictions on rendered end-product uses than there were years ago.
Rendering companies used to pay a farmer a nominal amount for a dead cow. Now there is a significant charge to pick up a dead cow or some dead calves. Many states (including Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) allow and encourage farmers to follow approved methods of composting dead animals on the farm.
Death is part of life. As best I can tell, all of us will die someday. Farmers probably appreciate this concept more than most people.