From Farm to Market: Maintaining Carcass Quality and Animal Welfare of Market Cows

Aerica Bjurstrom | Agriculture Agent | Extension Kewaunee County

Nearly one-third of the U.S. dairy herd is culled annually. Culling decisions vary from farm-to-farm, and cows often leave the herd in varied stages of physical health and body condition. Nearly all market dairy cows (previously called cull cows) arrive at processing facilities either direct from the dairy or via livestock auctions. All dairy cows sent to market should be sound and in good health. A cow’s condition before embarking on the journey to processing affects both meat quality and quantity – due to potential losses from bruising – as well as her welfare throughout transit, stops along the way, and at the harvest facility. Therefore, the decisions a producer makes on farm, including where to place injections, how to handle cows to avoid bruising, which cows to cull, whether they are fit to be transported or need more time to recover on farm (or instead should be euthanized), can all affect both the animals’ welfare and the products they produce.

Carcass Considerations

Dairy cattle are estimated to contribute 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. beef market on an annual basis. Cull cows provide more than ground beef to the food industry. A 2012 cull cow audit stated 75 percent of individual market cow or bull carcasses were marketed as whole muscle cuts, and not as ground beef. Some lean cuts from a dairy cow have more value than those of a fed steer or heifer. Specifically, round cuts, or rear leg cuts, can be hard to sell in the fed beef industry because they are tougher, but dairy cow rounds are lean and can be more valuable to retailers. Because dairy cattle have the potential to provide value through whole muscle cuts, this means that management practices during their first careers on the dairy farm have important implications later on for meat quality and quantity. Specifically, the choice of injection site and how cows are handled are both important considerations.

Injection site and lesions. Dairy cattle vaccination and reproduction protocols often require a series of injections, which can add up over the course of an animal’s life. Injection site lesions continue to be at the top of the list resulting in economic losses to the industry. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program has promoted neck injections for many years. Neck injections have reduced the incidence of injection site lesions overall but meat losses from lesions continues to be an issue in dairy cattle. National Beef Quality Audits conducted in 2017 show dairy cattle have over twice as many rear leg injection lesions than beef cattle. Lesion areas must be cut out of carcasses and discarded. Economic loss to a dairy cow carcass can be significant if injection lesions are present in the highest value round cuts. While lesions are issues in meat cuts, improperly administered injections or dirty needles may also cause abscesses. Abscesses must be trimmed, or in some cases may cause the entire carcass to be condemned.

Handling and bruising. The 2016 NBQA for Bulls and Market Cows states that over half the cow carcasses surveyed were bruised, and the greatest percentage of bruises were located on the round or sirloin. Bruises are often the result of handling practices within the 24 hours before harvest. To reduce bruising, employees moving cattle should be trained in safe handling practices, and facilities should allow animals to be moved with the least amount of potential for injury. Cattle should also be transported according to accepted good handling practices.

Culling decisions

Cows are typically culled from the dairy under two different categories: voluntary, or cows culled based on milk production levels, and involuntary, which can be based on a variety of health issues such as lameness, mastitis, injury, or other illness. Typically, involuntary culls are an emergency situation where the cow’s health has deteriorated to the point where she can no longer remain productive in the herd. According to the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA), 36 percent of market cows had cancer eye, 20 percent had a displaced abomasum, 19 percent had been down for at least 24 hours, and 15 percent were lame. Compromised cows typically cannot be expected to make a journey to the processing plant without prolonged or additional suffering. Cattle that do not meet the minimum requirements of transport should either be held at the farm until they are fit for transport, or humanely euthanized if they cannot, or will not ever be fit for transport.     

Fitness for transport

Physical health of a market cow impacts her ability to manage the trip to the processing plant. Just because there may be a large slaughter plant down the road does not mean farmers should take for granted their cows will be processed there. Cows can travel long distances and make stops at multiple facilities before reaching their final destination. Cows can be exposed to stressors during shipping such as deprivation of food and water, unfamiliar handling practices, engorged udders, injury during shipping, and unfamiliar environments. Additionally, cows often stand during the majority of shipping time, which adds additional stress on their feet and legs, especially to lame, or compromised, cows. Extreme cold or hot temperatures can add an additional level of stress to animals on trailers.

The 2016 NBQA states market cows and bulls arriving at processing plants nationwide, on average, were in transit for 6.7 hours, with a few loads in transit over 24 hours. On-farm best management practices should include protocols developed with a veterinarian to assess and determine which animals are fit for transport. Herd managers should understand and implement these protocols, taking into consideration the animal’s ability to withstand a long transport.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) has developed a set of guidelines for determining if an animal is fit for transport (Table 1). The AABP recommends not shipping cows that could experience pain or ambulatory issues during transit, or which have conditions that will not pass pre-harvest inspection.

Market dairy cows are a valuable and important part of the U.S. beef industry. Dairy producers should establish a set of standards with herd managers and their veterinarian that results in marketing the best cow possible. Proactive culling can prevent cattle health and welfare issues, such as loss of body condition and increased lameness, which can reduce the value of the cow. Culling and welfare are two aspects of

management that should go hand-in-hand. Even though a cow is leaving the herd, her welfare should be ensured through every step of the way to the processing facility.

Table 1.

Table adapted from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners’ transportation and fitness-to-travel recommendations for cattle guidelines 

Yes No
1. Are any udders distended? Do not ship – milk right before shipping Ok to ship
2. Were cows milked right before transport? Ok to ship Do not ship – milk before shipping
3. Do any cows have ambulatory issues? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
4. Do any cows have cancer eye or blindness in both yes? Do not ship – euthanize Ok to ship
5. Do any cows have fever greater than 103°F? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
6. Do any cows have potential drug residues (still within drug withdrawal or withhold period)? Do not ship – wait until withdrawal or withhold period has passed Ok to ship
7. Do any cows have peritonitis? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
8. Do any cows have leg fractures or severe lameness (4 or 5 on 5-pt scale)? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
9. Do any cows have unreduced prolapses? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
10. Are any cows currently calving or have a high likelihood of calving during transport? Do not ship – allow to calve on farm first Ok to ship
11. Do any cows have suspected nervous system symptoms? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship
12. Do any cows have visible open wounds? Do not ship – allow to recover on farm or euthanize Ok to ship

Sharing is Caring - Click Below to Share