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Get it right: Treat, cull or euthanize

Katie Mrdutt for Progessive Dairyman Published on 05 April 2018
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When making culling decisions on a dairy, four things should be considered: animal welfare, food safety, public perception and economics. With each individual situation, one of these items may slightly outweigh another, but all four are important before deciding to treat, cull from the herd or humanely euthanize an animal. Treatment and animal care protocols and records are crucial to make informed, responsible decisions.

Think dairy beef before you treat

The industry’s goal should be to maximize the health and profitability of the market cow. A relatively high proportion of dairy animals are condemned at slaughter facilities, which represents an opportunity to improve end-of-life decision making for many cows. When looking at condemnation rates of dairy animals from 2012-16, approximately 60,000 to 75,000 dairy animals presented as sale for food were condemned – out of the 2.7 to 3.1 million harvested. This equates to one out of 40 dairy animals, compared with approximately one out of 950 beef animals. While management systems do vary, dairies can focus on improving the health and quality of the animals they ship to slaughter.

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In addition, dairy animals, of all classes of animals, contribute the highest percentage of violative drug residues found at slaughter. In 2016, USDA slaughter data indicates 30.6 million cattle were harvested in the U.S. Of the total number of cattle harvested, 9.6 percent were dairy animals (approximately 2.94 million). From all classes of cattle, dairy animals account for 80 percent of the inspector-generated KIS test positives at the slaughter plant and 84 percent of secondary laboratory-confirmed positive tests. These numbers are consistent with previous years and provide evidence that continued work needs to be done on our nation’s dairy farms, through proper drug use education and veterinary oversight.

What do I need to make informed decisions?

Treatment protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are important to ensure consistency and competency in treatment decisions. Protocols tell farm personnel what to do to manage the treatments for sick animals on the farm. The disease definition section of the protocols should explain how to identify the disease and tell farm personnel when to begin treatment, or when to avoid treatment. The treatment instruction section specifies the drugs, fluids or other medications to be given and then how these treatments are specifically used to manage the disease or condition in question. SOPs indicate how farm personnel are to perform certain tasks. For example, farms could have a written SOP indicating how farm personnel are to handle a new case of mastitis or a written SOP instructing how to make decisions regarding selling an animal for beef.

When an animal is presented for evaluation, a full individual medical history provides valuable information for deciding what to do next. In some cases, provided there is a good likelihood of treatment success, deciding to treat the condition may be in the best interest of the animal and the farm. Once treated, the farm is responsible for keeping complete treatment records and ensuring any animal products from treated animals do not enter the food supply until all proper drug withholds are met.

In some cases, treating a disease is not in the best interest of the farm. It may be because the animal’s condition is incurable or lacks the likelihood of improvement despite treatment. Maybe it is because treatment is not a good economical decision. The better decision may be culling this animal from the herd, and the earlier this decision can be made, the better. However, a cull animal, one no longer productive enough to remain in the herd, is not the same as a market animal, one that will ultimately provide food for others. When deciding to put an animal on the truck, the first question producers should ask themselves is, “Would I want to eat the beef from this animal or feed it to my kids (or grandkids)?” If the answer is no, an alternative plan is needed.

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Reconditioning is a viable strategy

The goal of any dairy farmer shipping animals for human consumption should be to maximize the health and profitability of those animals. Evaluation of the overall health status of cull animals needs to be a priority before any animal leaves the farm intended for food. It requires us to go beyond the question, “Is her withdrawal time up?” One strategy farmers can employ to increase the value of their cull animals, with fairly low input and potentially high return, is a reconditioning program. Reconditioning nonproductive animals provides time for an animal to recover from an illness or injury and metabolize any medications still in her system. It also can increase the value of the animal by improving her body condition score, and in tough economic times, this practice can be well worth the additional effort. For animals unable to make it through a reconditioning program because of either illness or significant injury, on-farm euthanasia is a responsible and humane alternative option.

Producers have the responsibility of only selling high-quality and safe animal products. Healthy beef can only come from healthy animals.  end mark

Katie Mrdutt, DVM , is the Food Armor program manager. Email Katie Mrdutt.

PHOTO 1: When looking at condemnation rates of dairy animals from 2012-16, approximately 60,000 to 75,000 dairy animals presented as sale for food were condemned – out of the 2.7 to 3.1 million harvested. This equates to one out of 40 dairy animals, compared with approximately one out of 950 beef animals. While management systems do vary, dairies can focus on improving the health and quality of the animals they ship to slaughter.

PHOTO 2: A cull animal, one no longer productive enough to remain in the herd, is not the same as a market animal, one that will ultimately provide food for others. When deciding to put an animal on the truck, the first question producers should ask themselves is, “Would I want to eat the beef from this animal or feed it to my kids (or grandkids)?” If the answer is no, an alternative plan is needed. Photos provided by Katie Mrdutt.

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