NEW! Veterinarian’s Corner: When to Do a Necropsy – Dr. Jenn Rowntree, Military Ridge Veterinary Service
Calf rearing is one of the most time-consuming and important tasks on a dairy farm. The performance of any pre-weaned calf program has a direct impact on a herd’s future and milk production. Whether it’s a 50-cow dairy or a 5,000-cow dairy, it is easy for attentive calf caretakers to become frustrated when calves get sick or die. Working closely with your herd veterinarian is crucial when it comes to investigating causes of calf illness, whether it’s due to scours, pneumonia or other diseases.
Your herd veterinarian should be familiar with your calf-rearing process, as this will allow him or her to identify and analyze any gaps in your calf-rearing program that may contribute to disease and death. As a veterinarian, I ask about calf health during routine herd checks with all my clients and visit the calves when possible to evaluate them for signs of disease. Prompt identification of illness in any calf is necessary so treatment can be initiated in a timely manner, giving a calf the best chance for a successful outcome. Even in cases of death – whether sudden or following an apparent illness – prompt identification of the cause, done via necropsy (AKA post) by your herd veterinarian, can directly impact the health of your other calves.
When making the decision of whether to necropsy a dead calf, it is important to think about all the beneficial knowledge you and your veterinarian can gain from evaluating organs and gathering tissue samples to send to a lab for further diagnostics. Besides helping identify the cause of death in a calf and diseases contributing to that death, a necropsy is invaluable in helping your veterinarian decide on future appropriate treatments for other calves that may become sick. Successful treatment of the identified illness will then help to limit future losses in your herd.
As the dairy industry progresses, herd owners tend to use current benchmarks to evaluate their pre-weaned calves’ growth and health. My suggestion to dairies that struggle to meet current calf mortality benchmarks for calves between 24 hours and 60 days old, as well as those that struggle with scours and respiratory disease incidence in calves less than 60 days, is to work with your veterinarian to identify areas for potential improvement.
This may involve collecting blood samples, deep nasopharyngeal swabs, fecal samples, and even a necropsy or two, depending on what your veterinarian thinks is necessary. Depending on what your veterinarian finds during the necropsy, tissue samples may or may not need to be submitted. During an outbreak situation, euthanizing a sick calf that presents typical early disease prior to any treatments may provide the best diagnostic information for treating other sick calves. Even for herds with above-average calf health and growth, consider a necropsy in any case of sudden death in a healthy calf as this could indicate the beginning of a disease outbreak. Keep in mind, a timely necropsy is just as important as conducting one; tissue changes can occur in as little as 20 minutes after death, especially during the summer, if the calf had a fever, or if the gastrointestinal system is involved.
The next time a calf dies in your herd, think about investing in a necropsy to find out why the death occurred and how to prevent future health issues in other calves. You will save time and money on antibiotics and other palliative treatments that may or may not work and, more than likely, you will have a better understanding of what types of diseases are specific to your farm. Armed with this valuable information, you can better work with your herd veterinarian, nutritionist, and management team to implement necessary changes, such as vaccinations or upgrading cleaning protocols, that will aid in decreasing any disease’s effects on your calves and, ultimately, your bottom line.
Starting Strong - Calf Care