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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Herd-level risk factors for cow and calf on-farm mortality in Estonian dairy herds

Reimus, Kaari; Alvasen, Karin; Emanuelson, Ulf; Viltrop, Arvo; Motus, Kerli


BackgroundOn-farm mortality (unassisted death and euthanasia) is the unwanted loss of animals, and it comes with negative economic consequences. On-farm mortality rates reflect a herd's animal welfare status. The objective of this historical longitudinal single cohort study was to identify the associations between herd characteristics, animal housing conditions and management routines and within-herd calf and cow mortality rates in participating Estonian dairy herds. All farmers enrolled in the voluntary production recording system with a herd size of 20 or greater cow-years in 2015-2017 were contacted by mail or telephone between October 2017 and March 2018. The survey included questions about management routines and housing conditions of calves up to 3 months of age and of cows. In total, 214 completed questionnaires were returned, corresponding to a 63.3% response rate. The within-herd mortality rate of calves (aged 21-90 days) and cows (cattle over 24 months of age) in years 2017-2018 were calculated and used as outcome variables. Negative binomial and linear regression models were applied for risk factor analysis in calf and cow datasets, respectively.ResultsThe median within-herd mortality rate for calves aged 21 to 90 days was 0.15 per 100 calf-months (quartiles 0.00; 0.36). The median within-herd mortality rate for cattle over 24 months of age was 4.57 per 100 cow-years (quartiles 2.44; 6.86). Factors significantly associated with increased mortality of calves were larger herd size, higher proportion of stillbirths and abortions in a herd, prophylactic administration of vitamins to all calves and housing pre-weaned calves in single pens only compared with housing in both single and group pens. Also, farmers who attended more frequent trainings had higher calf mortality rates. Calving in a group pen or in a tie-stall compared with calving in multiple systems was associated with higher calf mortality rates. Higher cow mortality rates were present in herds that had a higher proportion of stillbirths and on farms where employees handled cows. Housing cows in free-stall barns, grazing cows and more frequent hoof trimming were protective for cow on-farm mortality.ConclusionsThis study identified the importance of housing conditions for on-farm cow and calf mortality rates. Our study results suggest that providing good care might ensure better health and welfare of dairy cows and calves.


Dairy cattle; Euthanasia; Mortality; Unassisted death; Housing conditions

Published in

Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica
2020, Volume: 62, number: 1
Publisher: BMC