The death of a cow.

On Friday I shadowed a vet whilst he observed and certified the emergency euthanasia of a cow. This was a new procedure for me and one which would once have made me very sad. However the welfare needs of the cow and the professionalism of everyone involved meant that although it was a shame to see an animal killed before its time, it was clearly a necessity and it was carried out in the proper fashion.

The cow was a dairy Holstein or Fresian type with a non-recoverable injury to one or both hind limbs. When we arrived on the farm she was laid in a frog-like position. Apparently there have been studies of how well a cow’s collapsed position predicts her chance of survival and if she’s landed this way, the prognosis is very poor. She did not try and move away as the farmer, vet and slaughterman inspected her and was clearly in a sorry state.

Of course cows should usually be killed in the slaughterhouse (a topic I’ve written about before) but if it would be inhumane to transport the animal, for example due to her damaged legs, she can be killed on farm. If the vet can be present and certify that the animal was not suffering from a disease or chronic condition, but has instead had an accident, then the animal can still enter the food chain. This is better for the farmer because instead of paying for removal of the carcass as fallen stock he will get a small payment for it, although once you factor in the collection fee and vet’s call-out, he doesn’t exactly make a profit. There’s also the sad fact that until she fell, she was worth over a thousand pounds plus her everyday milk yeild and future calves. The attending vet must also sign off on the time of slaughter as the carcass must not spent more than two hours unrefrigerated before it reaches the slaughterhouse or cutting room.

We had arranged to meet an employee from a local abattoir who would slaughter, bleed and remove the cow – the vet was simply required to watch and sign. As I said already when I was younger I would probably have been upset by all this but everyone knew what they were doing and it was a relief to see the cow put out of her pain and suffering.

The other helpful factor was the incredibly professional slaughterman. Firstly he showed me the captive bolt gun and explained the stunning method and the bleeding which would follow. He quickly reached out with one arm and stunned the cow with no preamble or fuss which might have made things more stressful for her. The cow was instantly insensible which struck me as a contrast to the first time I saw a horse put to sleep by lethal injection. He didn’t like the catheter then staggered and fell; the cow simply lolled onto one side. The farmer brought over a tractor and he showed me how we would winch and hang her, then explained the cuts he was making where the arteries leave the heart and the easier ones in the throat that I might use as a beginner. She did twitch and kick a little and he explained what was normal in this regard.

According to him (I never got his name and we actually wanted to tell his boss how good his lesson to me was!) the muscles have a store of glycogen which they will continue to use even after death. As the heart and circulation has stopped there is no oxygen reaching the muscles so this takes place anaerobically. The product of this is lactic acid, which has a tenderising effect on the meat. This is why cows which have experienced short-term stress prior to slaughter, such as bulls penned up together overnight, have tougher meat – they had less glygocen left when they died and so their anaerobic respiration produces less lactic acid.

(I’ve found a good explanation of this online here if you want to read another version. For me any mention of muscle fibres just brings back memories of Dr Tollhurst in Cambridge. His animation of actin and myosin fibres wouldn’t play on screen so he enacted the process himelf via a funny walk and injured his back in the process.)

Finally the carcass was placed in the lorry to be taken to the slaughterhouse and be further cut and prepared. We commiserated with the owner over the loss of his cow, admired the bull and thanked the slaughterman. For me the morning was very informative and whilst definitely sad for the cow and the farmer it was reassuring to know that everything came together to quickly end her suffering, protect her owner’s income and ensure she entered the food chain safely.

Further reading:

British Cattle Veterinary Association – Guidance for Veterinary Surgeons on the Emergency Slaughter of Cattle

Human Slaughter Association – Emergency Slaughter


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