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The post-mortem exam

Dave Barz, DVM

With the Memorial Day holiday, summer has officially arrived. Most of us have received adequate rain to assure at least one good cutting of hay and a great start to the breeding season. Now is the perfect time to reflect on your calving season and plan for next year. One very important procedure to diagnose problems and plan prevention programs is the necropsy, or post-mortem exam.

All that is required for a good postmortem exam (post) is a sharp knife, rib splitters and rubber gloves. In recent years rendering companies have refused to pick up animals which are improperly posted, because the hide is destroyed. We split the animal down the midline along the sternum to between the hind legs. We then reflect the hide avoiding any damage to it. We open the abdomen and the chest and do our exam. When finished we replace the hide and legs to normal position. Sometimes we place a few stitches on the midline with twine. We still have to pay the rendering truck, but at least he picks up.

Many producers don’t post until they have a large number of deaths and real herd problem. Most of the time, a single animal will die. If the producer overlooks this “indicator animal” and does not post it, the rest of the herd is at risk for major losses days or weeks later. With an early diagnosis the rest of the herd can be placed on a prevention program and subsequent losses are avoided.

At our clinic we post any arrival that dies. Many animals have been diagnosed and treated for respiratory disease. Posting gives us a chance to isolate the specific pathogen responsible for the pneumonia whether it be viral, bacterial or even Mycoplasm. This is very important in determining future vaccination and treatment programs.

Many times posts reveal non-infective problems. We find metal fragments, pieces of wire and nails causing hardware disease in cows and yearlings. Many times on chronic ‘poor doers,’ we find the calves abomassum (fourth stomach) blocked with balls of indigestible twine or net wrap. We now recommend all ground hay be unwrapped before grinding. This appears to be a greater problem in younger calves and feeders and not in cows. I once posted a 200 pound calf that had swallowed a complete plastic feed sack.

Every spring we post a lot of calves. Most producers believe scours are responsible for their problems. Posting many times reveals other problems which predispose the calf to other infections – scours. Heart defects, navel infections, etc. cause the calf to be weak at or shortly after birth which decrease the calf’s ability to suckle colostrum. Lack of colostral immunity predisposes the calf to scours or pneumonia.

Many times producers avoid posting an animal because it is bloated and “puffed up.” Many of these are believed to be bloat or postmortem tissue breakdown. We post these animals and find many of them to be infected with Clostridium. Reevaluation of the vaccination protocol ends these incidental deaths.

I think it is important for producers to diagnose their problems before mass treating hers. After observing several posts the producer may opt to attempt their own posts. With the internet and several excellent posting guides, most producers can gain valuable knowledge of herd problems.

The post-mortem exam has been recently sensationalized by TV shows. It has been the backbone of disease diagnosis for many years. It would seem prudent to post all losses to gain knowledge of disease syndromes moving through your herd. Visit with your veterinarian and set up a system which works for your ranch. Early diagnosis and proper treatment and prevention will eliminate monetary losses in your herd.

With the Memorial Day holiday, summer has officially arrived. Most of us have received adequate rain to assure at least one good cutting of hay and a great start to the breeding season. Now is the perfect time to reflect on your calving season and plan for next year. One very important procedure to diagnose problems and plan prevention programs is the necropsy, or post-mortem exam.

All that is required for a good postmortem exam (post) is a sharp knife, rib splitters and rubber gloves. In recent years rendering companies have refused to pick up animals which are improperly posted, because the hide is destroyed. We split the animal down the midline along the sternum to between the hind legs. We then reflect the hide avoiding any damage to it. We open the abdomen and the chest and do our exam. When finished we replace the hide and legs to normal position. Sometimes we place a few stitches on the midline with twine. We still have to pay the rendering truck, but at least he picks up.

Many producers don’t post until they have a large number of deaths and real herd problem. Most of the time, a single animal will die. If the producer overlooks this “indicator animal” and does not post it, the rest of the herd is at risk for major losses days or weeks later. With an early diagnosis the rest of the herd can be placed on a prevention program and subsequent losses are avoided.

At our clinic we post any arrival that dies. Many animals have been diagnosed and treated for respiratory disease. Posting gives us a chance to isolate the specific pathogen responsible for the pneumonia whether it be viral, bacterial or even Mycoplasm. This is very important in determining future vaccination and treatment programs.

Many times posts reveal non-infective problems. We find metal fragments, pieces of wire and nails causing hardware disease in cows and yearlings. Many times on chronic ‘poor doers,’ we find the calves abomassum (fourth stomach) blocked with balls of indigestible twine or net wrap. We now recommend all ground hay be unwrapped before grinding. This appears to be a greater problem in younger calves and feeders and not in cows. I once posted a 200 pound calf that had swallowed a complete plastic feed sack.

Every spring we post a lot of calves. Most producers believe scours are responsible for their problems. Posting many times reveals other problems which predispose the calf to other infections – scours. Heart defects, navel infections, etc. cause the calf to be weak at or shortly after birth which decrease the calf’s ability to suckle colostrum. Lack of colostral immunity predisposes the calf to scours or pneumonia.

Many times producers avoid posting an animal because it is bloated and “puffed up.” Many of these are believed to be bloat or postmortem tissue breakdown. We post these animals and find many of them to be infected with Clostridium. Reevaluation of the vaccination protocol ends these incidental deaths.

I think it is important for producers to diagnose their problems before mass treating hers. After observing several posts the producer may opt to attempt their own posts. With the internet and several excellent posting guides, most producers can gain valuable knowledge of herd problems.

The post-mortem exam has been recently sensationalized by TV shows. It has been the backbone of disease diagnosis for many years. It would seem prudent to post all losses to gain knowledge of disease syndromes moving through your herd. Visit with your veterinarian and set up a system which works for your ranch. Early diagnosis and proper treatment and prevention will eliminate monetary losses in your herd.


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