Publications

Quantifying calf mortality on dairy farms: Challenges and solutions

Santman-Berends, I.M.G.A.; Schukken, Y.H.; Schaik, G. van

Summary

In the Netherlands, the mortality rate of ear-tagged calves <1 yr is one of the indicators that is continuously monitored in census data and is defined as the number of deceased calves relative to the number of calf-days-at-risk. In 2017, yearly calf mortality rates were published in the lay press and resulted in discussions about the calculation of this parameter among stakeholders because the same parameter appeared to be calculated in many different ways by different organizations. These diverse definitions of calf mortality answered different aims such as early detection of deviations, monitoring trends, or providing insight into herd-specific results, but were difficult to understand by stakeholders. The aim of this study was to evaluate several definitions of calf mortality for scientific validity, usefulness for policymakers, and comprehensibility by farmers. Based on expert consultations, 10 definitions for calf mortality were evaluated that assessed different age categories, time periods, and denominators. Differences in definitions appeared to have a large effect on the magnitude of mortality. For example, with the original mortality parameter, the mortality rate was 16.5% per year. When the first year of life was subdivided into 3 age categories, the mortality rate was 3.3, 4.5, and 3.1% for postnatal calves (≤14 d), preweaned calves (15–55 d), and weaned calves (56 d–1 yr), respectively. Although it was logical that these mortality rates were lower than the original, the sum of the 3 separate mortality rates was also lower than the original mortality rate. The reason was that the number of calves present in a herd and the risk of mortality are not randomly distributed over a calf's first year of life and the conditional nature of mortality rates when calculated for different age categories. Ultimately, 4 parameters to monitor calf mortality in Dutch dairy herds were chosen based on scientific value, usefulness for monitoring of trends, and comprehensibility by farmers: perinatal calf mortality risk (i.e., mortality before, during, or shortly after the moment of birth up to the moment of ear-tagging), postnatal calf mortality risk (≤14 d), preweaned calf mortality rate (15–55 d), and weaned calf mortality rate (56 d–1 yr). Slight differences in definitions of parameters can have a major effect on results, and many factors have to be taken into account when defining an important health indicator such as mortality. Our evaluation resulted in a more thorough understanding of the definitions of the selected parameters and agreement by the stakeholders to use these key indicators to monitor calf mortality.