High dairy cow death losses cause for concern

Culling cattle | Dairy experts say an emphasis on genetics has resulted in poor management and high death rates

RED DEER — Too many dairy cows are dying on farms, veterinarians said at the Western Dairy Seminar held in Red Deer earlier this spring.

Disease has not been controlled as well as it should be because more emphasis has been placed on milk production. Genetic tests are emerging to breed a stronger cow, but results are some way off.

“We have not really paid a lot of attention to generating animals or building a dairy cow that is more disease resistant,” said Dave Kelton of the Ontario Veterinary College at Guelph University, where he holds the Dairy Farmers of Canada cattle health research chair.

The national organization is launching a study next year to survey management practices, production rates and disease prevalence. An online survey opened March 1 to see what kinds of information producers want included in the main study.

The survey can be found at fluidsurveys.com/s/DFC_PLC_Needs_Assessment.

It’s common that farmers don’t know why a cow died, and necropsies are seldom conducted.

“It is tragic that people haven’t paid attention to this,” said Franklyn Garry of Colorado State University.

U.S. data shows that on-farm death losses were 3.8 percent in 1996 and 5.7 percent by 2007.

A Cornell University study found that some herds have death rates as high as 17 percent and others are as low as three percent.

“This is not a genetics problem, this is a management problem,” he said.

Cows may succumb to disease or accidents or they are put down because of lameness or calving injuries.


“Something was wrong with most of these cows for a relatively long time before they died,” he said.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2007 found that 20 percent died as a result of lameness or injury, 16.5 percent had mastitis, 15.2 percent had calving problems and 15 percent died of unknown causes.

No one is sure what normal death losses should be.

By comparison, beef death losses are around one percent and feedlots, often considered a high risk environment, lose about 1.5 percent of their cattle.

Dairy deaths are consistently six to 10 percent, Garry said.

“Death losses reveal significant health and welfare issues. This is a really big issue. It is manageable and we can do a lot better,” he said.

The United Kingdom is also studying cull and death rates.

A national study looked at more than 840 herds and found the overall culling rate was 22 percent with a wide variation in reasons for losses.

Farmers tend to think high culling rates and deaths are normal, said Dick Sibley of the West Ridge Veterinary Practice in Devon, England.

In the U.K., BSE rules state any animal that died or had to be killed on the farm at 24 months of age or older must be tested.


Farmers must give the government reasons for the death.

Of the 107,000 beef and dairy cows submitted for tests in 2006, 40 percent listed the cause of death as unknown.

Johne’s disease was listed as the highest infectious disease to cause death, but a large number died of calving problems, lameness or injuries.

A common management problem on British dairy farms is cows going down because they fell on a slippery, wet surface and their legs splayed out.

Some herds never have this happen while others reported that as many as six percent left the farm because they did the splits.

“Having six or seven cows out of 100 doing the splits every year is pretty dodgy,” Sibley said.

There are also cows that face high risk situations.

“The highest risk cows are those that just had a baby,” Garry said.

“We have heifers calving day in and day out, sometimes spending six to 10 to 12 hours trying to push out an over-sized fetus.”

Some care and analgesia would help in the first few days, but they are often turned out into the herd before they are ready.


  • You would think,after all this time ,they would have developed skid proof floors so the cows don’t slip and do the splits. Please explain why this hasn’t been done?
    There are many studies out now that show that there are side effects from feeding GE corn and GE alfalfa ,over a long period of time, to dairy cattle and livestock in general. The side effects are as follows

    Immune dysfunction
    Accelerated aging
    Dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol
    Insulin regulation
    Cell signaling
    Protein formatiom
    Changes in the liver, kidneys,spleen and gastrointestinal system.

    Dr. Don Huber has done extenstive research on the effects of GE plants which can tolerate more and more pesticides, then becomes the diet of livestock which in turn causes health problems.
    When are you ever going to realize you can’t play God with nature and not expect it to come back and bit you in the pocket book?
    When consumers hear attitudes like Dave Kelton’s ” building a cow that is more disease resistant” and about the increasing animal abuse, you are losing customers in droves. It’S NOT THE COW that’s the problem These animals are not just milking machines. All this experimentation with feed is ruining their digestive and reproductive systems.
    Consumers are fed up.

  • Huguette Allenb

    It would be interesting to know whether industrial organic dairies are facing the same disease increases. I would bet they are not.

    GMO feed became widely planted in 1996 so it’s not surprising that second and third generation cows fed GMO feed are diseased – independent scientific experiments done with rats show severe and alarming health issues particularly in 2nd and 3rd generation animals.

    As well turning cows into machines of mass production cannot result in anything but disasters – these animals are meant to eat grass and give enough milk to raise their young, not to eat grain laden with pesticides so they can produce an average of 32 litres of milk a day for 10 1/2 months per year! That is the average in BC.

    The cow is NOT the problem.Chemical agriculture is the cancer that must be stopped.

    • Glen


      The “independent scientific experiments done with rats” to which you refer is almost certainly the infamous Seralini study, which has since been retracted by the journal that published it – the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology:


      In September, 2013, Italian scientists published a meta study of nearly 1,800 peer reviewed studies conducted over the previous 10 years that looked at the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods.

      The Italians concluded, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

      You can read their study for yourself here:


      Further, here is a list of the 1,783 studies they studied (Excel format):


      Huguette, the REAL problem here is the perpetuation of junk science (such as that conducted by Seralini) by otherwise well-meaning people who, quite frankly, simply haven’t taken the time to examine the research CRITICALLY.

      The science is in – GMOs are not the scary monsters some people would want you to believe.

      If you have questions about them, I would encourage you to check out the GMO Answers website, where you can see the responses from independent experts (NOT chem company staffers) to questions posed by people like yourself – http://gmoanswers.com

      Yes, the site is funded by the likes of Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta and others.

      But the tough questions you have will be answered, “straight from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak.

      Yes they all make millions of dollars from this technology and no, I do not work for any of them.

      Profits are not a bad thing – they’re necessary for the continued existence of all businesses, multi-national, mom and pop, even organic ones.

      I think there’s a place in ag for farmers of all stripes, whether they are organic or choose to use modern plant technology to help maximize their yields.

      Somehow farmers have to work together to help provide both the quality and quantity of crops a growing population requires.

      If you can figure out how to make THAT happen, then you’ll really be on to something!