The 2019 U.S. dairy herd was smaller than in 2018, but the number of cull cows slaughtered during the past year was the highest total since 1986, the year of a federal whole-herd buyout program.
Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

Federally inspected milk cow slaughter was estimated at 265,400 head in December 2019, 9,300 head more than November 2019 and 4,200 head more than December 2018, according to the USDA’s Livestock Slaughter report.

At 3.224 million head, total year 2019 slaughter was about 71,200 more than 2018. It’s just the fourth time slaughter topped 3 million head a year over a period of more than three decades.

Based on the latest USDA Milk Production report, U.S. cow numbers averaged 9.332 million head in 2019, down from 9.339 million head in 2018. As a percentage of the dairy herd, about 34.5% were slaughtered in 2019 compared to 33.5% the year before.

Heaviest culling during the year occurred in the Upper Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin), where 2019 slaughter removed nearly 847,000 dairy cows. That was followed by 762,000 head in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada; about 550,000 head in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia; about 358,000 head in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas; and about 341,000 head in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.


On an annual basis, 2019 cull cow carcass weights (dairy and beef combined) averaged 639 pounds, down about 6 pounds from 2018.

LMIC: Crossbreeding impacting calf slaughter?

Dairy contributes large volumes of animals to the beef market. In addition to cull cows, virtually all U.S. veal comes from calves that originated in the dairy sector. Dairy-origin calves also are inputs into the beef feedlot production system. In both the U.S. dairy and beef sectors, there has been lots of discussion during the last couple of years about producing crossbred calves, mostly Holstein cows bred to beef bulls.

Progressive Dairy previously discussed how crossbreeding practices are impacting the number of U.S. dairy heifers available for export. (Read: Herd management changes could impact heifer export market.)

The change in breeding management could be having a modest but growing impact on U.S. calf slaughter trends, according to a recent summary from the Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC).

There has been a long-term transition of Holstein bull calves away from veal and into the beef production system, which has periodically bolstered U.S. beef output. However, that trend reversed in response to the September 2016 announcement by Tyson Foods that they would no longer harvest those animals. However, more crossbreeding by dairy farms may cause a shift back to fewer calves going into veal production and more back toward beef.

According to LMIC, one of the few leading indicators available of more crossbreeding in the dairy sector is the number of calves being harvested for veal production compared to that in prior years. For each of the 14 weeks that began 2019, federally inspected calf slaughter was above the corresponding weeks in 2018. During the next 28 weeks of the year, it was a mixture of year-over-year changes in direction (10 weeks down and 18 weeks up). Then, the last 10 weeks of the year had fewer calves slaughtered than a year earlier.

Some of that final 10-week period of declines was due to fewer dairy cows in the U.S. The revised USDA National Agricultural Statistics estimates put October 2019 U.S. dairy cows down about 34,000 head from the year before, with the revised November estimate down 19,000 head. During the final 10 weeks of 2019, federally inspected calf slaughter dropped year over year by over 14,000 head, a decline of 11.2%. The year-over-year slip in the dairy cow herd would represent only a 2,000 to 3,000 head drop in calf slaughter for the last 10 weeks of 2019.

So far, the crossbreeding trend has been rather short-term and modest: On an annualized basis, about 35,000 to 40,000 head have been removed from calf slaughter and added to feedlots. That trend may gain momentum; currently, the LMIC forecasts record small annual calf slaughter levels by 2022.

It is unlikely that all dairy producers will move to produce crossbred steers, the LMIC noted. Some regions of the U.S. could see stronger preferences for this strategy than others. Overall, the amount of interest by dairy producers is mounting because it pencils out nicely for those with the reproductive management skills to capitalize on higher crossbred calf prices.  end mark

Dave Natzke