In some circles, increased dairy cow culling and the trend toward more dairy farmers breeding a percentage of their dairy cows and heifers to beef sires has raised concerns over the impact on U.S. beef supplies. Latest data from University of Wisconsin – River Falls ag economics professor, Brenda Boetel, and research assistant, Jared Geiser, shows the importance of dairy-beef to the total U.S. beef supply, but also puts some of those concerns to rest.
Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

Dairy animals have been a stable source of total U.S. beef production for some time, contributing to the total beef supply in three ways (in order by volume): finished steers, cull cows and finished heifers. In 2018:

  • The dairy sector contributed 5.6 billion pounds (21 percent) of beef to the U.S. commercial beef supply. Since 2002, the percentage of dairy beef contribution to the total U.S. beef supply has ranged from 18 to 24 percent.

  • Fnished dairy steers contributed 3.37 billion pounds (12.6 percent) to the total pounds of U.S. beef. Since 2002, dairy steers have made up between 10.8 and 14.7 percent annually.

  • Cull dairy cows contributed 1.8 billion pounds (7 percent) and, historically, have made up between 5.8 and 8 percent of total beef production since 2002.

  • Finished dairy heifers contributed 419 million pounds (1.5 percent) in 2018, historically ranging from 0.6 to 1.7 percent of total beef production.

In 2018, total U.S. commercial beef production was 26.9 billion pounds, the highest total since 2002. While dairy-beef contributed to that higher total, the increasing size of the native beef cattle herd has had the biggest impact, and dairy-beef’s contribution to the total has been declining incrementally from the highs of 2015.

As of Jan. 1, 2019, the number of U.S. beef cows were estimated at 31.77 million head, up 299,500 head from the year before. In contrast, the number of U.S. dairy cows was estimated at 9.35 million head, down 78,700 from a year earlier.

April cow slaughter follows seasonal patterns

U.S. dairy farmers moved fewer cull cows to slaughter in April 2019 than the month before, but the four-month total to start the year is still the most since 1986. Historical culling patterns show dairy cow culling slows in spring, but the April 2019 total is the highest for the month since 2013.


Federally inspected milk cow slaughter was estimated at 268,500 head in April 2019, 33,900 head fewer than March 2019 but 19,600 head more than April 2018, according to the USDA’s Livestock Slaughter report. At 1.15 million head, January-April 2019 slaughter is already nearly 63,000 ahead of the same period a year ago. 

So far this year, dairy cull cow slaughter has averaged about 11,200 per day (weekdays and Saturdays), 700 head more per day than January-April 2018.

The heavy culling is having an impact on the size of the U.S. dairy herd. The USDA’s Milk Production report estimated U.S. dairy cow numbers at 9.328 million head in April 2019, down 90,000 head from the year before and the lowest total since June 2016. (Read: U.S. milk production growth remains small.)

Heaviest culling is in the Upper Midwest. A breakout of April 2019 dairy cull cow slaughter estimates in major dairy regions follows:

  • 71,100 head in an area including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin
  • 59,300 head in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada.
  • 45,500 head in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.
  • 32,500 head in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington  end mark
Dave Natzke