|From The State Vet's Office|
|What is a Dead Cow (or Calf) Worth?|
This is not a loaded question. I’m not referring to what beef is worth at the grocery store or what a steak is worth when it gets to the restaurant. I’m talking about the cow that was doing fine yesterday and you find her dead in the pasture today. Or the sick calf you’ve been treating for a week and it finally loses the battle to shipping fever. What are those animals worth? The quick answer is they are not only worth nothing, but they are probably going to cost to dispose of the carcass. However, those recently deceased animals may be able to give us information worth quite a bit. They may provide us with diagnostic information that could save us money and keep us from losing more animals down the road.
One of my veterinarian friends once told me about an experience he had years ago. It seems he had a client who owned about a 100 momma cows. One summer, the client started finding dead calves. It was one of those summers with several 100-plus degree days in a row. So when the farmer found a calf had died since he checked the day before, the carcass would be too decomposed to make any determination as to why it died. My friend knew the producer didn’t vaccinate against blackleg, so he told his client, if you play the odds, blackleg was the culprit. The farmer’s response was always, "We’ve never had blackleg in 20 years, so I don’t believe that’s what it is." Finally, my friend’s client happened upon a calf that had just died. He loaded it onto his trailer and took it to my friend to have a necropsy (same as an autopsy in humans). Guess what….it was blackleg. The producer had lost 10 calves. The next day, he caught the remainder of his calf crop, vaccinated them and gave them an injection of penicillin to stop the epidemic on his farm. And it did stop the losses. He did not lose another calf. The unfortunate thing, beyond the fact he should have been vaccinating against blackleg to begin with, is this producer would never in his lifetime even come close to buying enough blackleg vaccine to equal the losses he suffered that summer.
The Alabama Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System offers a very valuable service to livestock producers in our state. It is especially true in a time when cattle prices are at record highs. We work with your veterinarian to get a diagnosis and even to determine which antibiotic is most appropriate in an outbreak of a bacterial disease. There are some "big gun" antibiotics out there that are quite expensive, but our laboratory microbiologists tell us some bacteria are even resistant to these powerful antibiotics. We always encourage you to work with a veterinarian when using our diagnostic labs so they can not only help you with the interpretation of the lab reports, but also help you determine a plan for treating other sick animals. Your veterinarian can wade through terms like "hepatocellular necrosis" or "lymphocytic infiltration" and tell you what is pertinent to you. Occasionally, the cause of death may be toxins from plants or chemicals animals get into. Many times an accurate diagnosis of how one cow in the herd died helps us prevent further losses.
Our laboratory system has state-of-the-art equipment aiding in making accurate diagnoses in much less time than it took a while back. Even though it occasionally may take a few weeks to complete all the tests needed to close a case, from the time an animal carcass or laboratory sample like blood or serum arrives at the lab, our staff goes to work on the case. Often, if there is pertinent information needed to be passed on immediately to the veterinarian or the owner, it may come as a phone call or an e-mail.
A long time ago, a wise old veterinarian told me: when a client called him with a sick animal, they were already losing money. He said it was his responsibility to help them stop the loss as quickly as possible. Of course, he was aware his veterinary fees were part of the loss to which he was referring, so he felt he needed to try to move the cost of his time, expertise and treatment from the loss column to that of an investment. If $150 to $200 keeps you from losing a cow or possibly a cow and calf, then I believe that becomes an investment paying a return. The same is true with our laboratory system. When you use us, it is often because you have already lost money. It is a responsibility felt by all of our employees that we should move the fees you pay for laboratory services from the loss column to the investment column.
Do we always get a diagnosis? Unfortunately, there are a number of cases we are unable to pinpoint a reason for an animal’s death, an abortion, inability to breed or chronic weight loss. Even determining a cause of death in humans can sometimes be frustrating to pathologists who are left with unanswered questions. It is not always like the TV shows, NCIS or CSI, where the pathologists can not only tell you the cause of death, but they can also tell you what the killer was wearing, what he had for breakfast three days ago and how long it has been since he called his mother three states away.
Nonetheless, on those occasions when we don’t get a diagnosis, I believe we provide some valuable information. If peace of mind is worth anything, to know there is not an infectious disease working its way through your herd should be worth something. When our test for certain toxins come back negative, it means you will not have to walk your pasture for the 78th time looking for some toxic weed or chemical containers that may have caused the loss of your livestock.
I once wrote a column about how we balance risk and cost. From my perspective, the laboratory fees we charge are pretty small when we think reducing animal disease risks with the information we can provide. Think back to the producer who lost the 10 calves to blackleg. Not that he was trying to live on luck. In fact, he wanted a necropsy to determine why he was losing calves. But how much money could have been saved if he could have gotten a necropsy on the first dead calf he found?
If this has sounded like a bit of an infomercial for our veterinary diagnostic system, I suppose it sort of is. It’s not because they need more to do (so don’t tell them about this column if they don’t see it). It is just I believe in our lab system and in what we have to offer to you, the producer. I just want you to know we are open and available, and would be a great tool in your production animal agriculture tool box.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for the state of Alabama.