Large quantities of wholesome, quality milk are the major goals of dairy producers. However, dairymen also contribute to the beef supply each year through elimination of market (cull) cows and bulls. Approximately one-third of the total non-fed beef production originates from dairy cows, and one-half of all cows processed for beef in the U.S. are dairy cattle.

Furthermore, six million dairy calves enter the food chain as feeder or veal calves each year. About 250 million Americans eat beef each week.

The beef industry has conducted three National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audits since 1994. Goals of these audits, funded by the Beef Checkoff Program, were to develop strategies for improving beef quality and minimizing economic losses. A previous audit in 1999 concluded that dairy producers were losing approximately $70 for every cow and bull marketed due to quality defects.

A popular misconception is that the majority of beef from market cattle is used for ground beef; therefore, it is thought that handling, and the timely marketing of dairy cattle is of less concern. This notion is inaccurate! Surprisingly, meats from the rib, loin and round from market animals are removed and marketed as higher-quality cuts of beef. Products from the rib and round areas are used to form deli and steak sandwich meats. Rib eye steaks and tenderloins from market cows and bulls are marketed to “family” steak houses.

The purpose of the 2007 audit was to compare current results with findings from the 1994 and 1999 audits. There are a number of management and marketing strategies that producers may implement to prevent monetary losses and improve the quality of beef from culled animals. Several areas of animal handling and management had improved in 2007 compared to previous years including reduced number of downer cattle, less hide damage from brands, fewer horns, less arthritic joints and a more desirable fat color; however, there was still room for improvement.


Injection site lesions
One of the major quality defects in culled dairy cattle is injection site lesions and abscesses. In the 2007 audit, dairy cattle had more visible injection-site blemishes than beef cows (11 percent versus 2 percent). Injection site lesions cost the U.S. beef industry $0.66 per head or an annual total of $4.2 million dollars. A Colorado State University study found 58 percent of rounds from dairy carcasses had at least one injection site. The majority of these abscesses were in the back of the leg and were the result of swelling associated with intramuscular injections.

Dairy producers should avoid intramuscular injections whenever other routes of administration are available; most animal drugs are labeled for subcutaneous injection. If no alternative, administer all injectable products in the neck or shoulder region to reduce the incidence of injection site lesions. Furthermore, no more than 10 cubic centimeters (cc) of any product should be administered in any one injection site.

Young cattle are just as susceptible to lesions. Intramuscular injections of young calves were still present in the carcass 380 days after injection in one research study.

Drug residues
Dairy cows and veal calves are the two classes of cattle with the greatest violation of antibiotic residues according to the USDA National Residue Monitoring program. Occurrence of antibiotic residues is due to inadequate clearance time between administration and slaughter, and extra-label usage of health products. Extra-labeled product use must be avoided unless a valid veterinarian/client/patient relationship has been established. Furthermore, withdrawal time is often not the same for both meat and milk.

It is not common practice on dairy farms to weigh cows prior to administering medication, increasing the possibility of over (or under) medicating cows and affecting the expected withdrawal periods. A New Mexico State University study concluded that additional feeding (30 to 60 days) of cows treated with penicillin would ensure that the antibiotic withdrawal times were exceeded. Many of the antibiotic residue concerns involving the dairy industry also could be decreased with proper on-farm medical records.

Lame cattle
Disabled cows pose a major challenge to the entire beef industry. More dairy cows (49 percent) were lame in the 2007 audit than in the 1994 (23 percent) and 1999 (39 percent) audits; the number of lame dairy bulls was decreased in 2007 compared to previous years. Four percent of all cattle observed in holding pens prior to harvest were classified as ‘very disabled.’ An average of $70 is lost for every disabled cow processed. Processing costs increase because of excessive trimming due to increased bruising and the likelihood that the carcass will be condemned. Dairy producers can decrease the incidence of lame cattle by selling market animals prior to deterioration of health. This will increase economic returns and more importantly safeguard the image of the dairy industry.

Body condition
Body condition score of dairy cattle is usually measured on a scale of 1 (very thin) to 5 (obese). According to the 2007 audit, approximately 63 percent of market dairy cattle had body condition scores of 2.5 and lower at the time of harvest, while 3 percent of dairy cows had excess fat cover (greater than 4.5 body condition score). Cows in poor condition are more susceptible to bruising and possible injury during transit from the auction to the packer. Cows with excess body condition must be trimmed in order to market a more desirable beef product.

Dairy producers should evaluate individual market cows and consider management strategies, such as supplemental feeding, to increase body condition while minimizing carcass bruises and the incidence of carcass condemnation. Managing thin cows to obtain adequate body condition and preventing well-conditioned cows from becoming too fat will increase carcass quality and net profit.

Manage, monitor and market
The bottom line concluded from all three audits was it pays to do things right, on the farm, during transit, at auction and in the packing plant.

The keys to improving the quality and economic value of market cattle are management, monitoring and marketing. If dairy producers manage cattle to minimize quality defects by eliminating injection site lesions and drug residues, economic returns from beef harvested from market dairy cattle will increase. Likewise, monitoring herd health and body condition should reduce the incidence of lame cows and condemned carcasses.

Supplemental feeding of excess cows prior to marketing may be a viable option for dairy producers. Additional time on feed prior to marketing may improve bodyweight and condition, and decrease the incidence of carcass condemnation and antibiotic residues in the meat tissues of market cows. However, health and the ability to gain weight are extremely variable in market cows and not all cows are suitable candidates for additional feeding protocols.

Marketing at the right time of year could increase economic returns to the dairy producer. Data collected from 1995 to 2003 by the USDA show seasonal effects on the selling price of market beef and dairy cows, with lower prices during November and December and higher prices during March, April and May. Monitoring the health of market cattle is of the utmost importance. Cows and bulls that have outlived their productive life are no longer an asset, but a liability. Cattle that cannot be marketed in a timely and prudent manner should be humanely euthanized on the farm in order to prevent suffering, protect public health and safeguard our food supply.

Since the first non-fed beef quality audit in 1994, dairy producers have moved aggressively to ‘do the right thing’ and enhance the quality of beef harvested. Implementation of proactive management, monitoring and marketing strategies will ensure the integrity of the beef industry, improve economic returns and minimize mandated scrutiny from regulatory agencies. PD

Author note: Contact the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to obtain a copy of the 2007 audit.