A cow’s second career

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by Sally Colby

When dairy cows leave the herd, they’re often referred to as cull cows. Culling is typically done to reduce the herd size or eliminate animals that are weak or sick. Aerica Bjurstrom, University of Wisconsin dairy Extension specialist, would like dairy producers to think of cull cows as market animals – and more importantly, as beef.

“Market cows have value and are contributing to farm income,” said Bjurstrom. “A lot of dairy farmers don’t consider themselves beef producers, but they should. You are producing beef in the end, and according to FarmBench, cows sold for slaughter make up about 6.6% of total farm sales.” Bjurstrom said on a 250-cow dairy, income from market cows averages between $60,000 and $100,000 annually.

Bjurstrom said dairy cattle comprise about 20% to 25% of the U.S. beef market, and market dairy cattle provide more than ground beef. The 2012 BQA audit stated that 75% of individual cow and/or bull carcasses are sold as whole cuts – not ground beef – especially from the rear legs.

“Farm management practices with milk cows have important implications on the cow’s second career as beef,” said Bjurstrom. “A 2016 National Beef Quality Audit said 90% of dairy cows are too light muscled. If you put a little weight on the cow, the muscle will build up.”

The BQA audit also showed that dairy cattle have more than twice as many rear leg injection lesions as beeves, the result of numerous shots some dairy cattle are given (often in the wrong place).

“BQA wants injections in the neck,” said Bjurstrom. “The neck isn’t a very useable part of the animal, and they’d rather have the back legs with no scar tissue or lesions.” Lesions in the high value rear leg must be cut out and discarded from an animal that’s already light muscled. Bruising typically happens within the 24 hours prior to harvest, the result of poor handling on the farm or during shipping.

Cows leaving the herd should be ensured good welfare until harvest, so Bjurstrom recommended every farm establish a set of standards to ensure everyone understands exactly what should be done with a cow if she’s going to be shipped, held back or euthanized. Standards should be established with herd managers and the herd veterinarian, and should result in marketing the best cow possible.

Since market cows will be transported, the FARM program’s Fitness for Transport guidelines should be followed. The physical health of a cow impacts her ability to withstand the trip, so all cows sent to market should be sound and in good health as determined by caretakers, transporters and auditors.

Transportation is very stressful for cows. They’re mingling with new cattle, usually have long periods of standing, food and water deprivation, are unfamiliar with the handling practices, may have engorged udders, are in pain or being shipped in extreme weather.

Bjurstrom listed criteria to determine whether cows are fit for transport. Cows with full, distended udders should not be shipped – they should be milked as close to shipping as possible. Cows unable to walk properly should not be shipped, but instead euthanized on the farm. Any blind cows or cows with cancer eye should not be shipped because the likelihood of the cow bumping into objects and becoming injured is high.

Any cow with a fever greater than 103º should be allowed to recover prior to shipping. It’s also critical to ensure drug withdrawal periods have been observed. Cows with peritonitis, fractures or open wounds should be allowed to recover or be euthanized on the farm. Any cow that’s highly likely to calve within 24 to 48 hours of shipping should be allowed to calve on the farm and then shipped.

A cow with an unreduced prolapse should not shipped. “That cow is in a lot of pain,” said Bjurstrom. “She doesn’t feel good, and in a trailer with other cows, she’ll be mashed against other animals. There’s also a risk of the cow bleeding out on the trailer. Prolapsed cows should be euthanized on the farm.”

Bjurstrom said the proximity of a large processing facility doesn’t mean that’s where your cows will end up. Market cattle are mixed with animals from hundreds of other farm herds in unfamiliar surroundings. “The Beef Quality Audit states market cows and bulls arriving at processing plants nationwide, on average, were in transit for 6.7 hours,” she said. “Some loads are in transit over 24 hours.”

The 28-hour law states that livestock may not be confined for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading the animals for feed, water and rest. Holding time at sale barns varies widely, but packing plants schedule arrivals so cattle aren’t held overnight in trailers.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) transportation audit tool includes criteria for acceptable wait time for unloading at the plant and requires wait time to be less than 60 minutes. However, Bjurstrom said the wait can be more than 60 minutes, and in hot weather, extended wait time is too difficult for cattle to handle.

Although producers don’t know where their cattle will end up, Bjurstrom said they should care about plant facilities. Poorly designed facilities can lead to bruising; bruising costs money because bruised areas must be trimmed. “Federal regulations require facilities ‘shall be maintained in good repair and free from sharp and protruding objects,’” she said. “When in not good repair, FSIS will disallow the use of that area until repaired. Poorly designed facilities can lead to bruising, so it’s in the plant’s best interest to provide appropriate handling areas.”

Lairage refers to the time animals spend in holding pens at the processing faculty. “This is highly dependent on the facility, harvest speed, space available, number of animals to be harvested,” said Bjurstrom. “They know how many animals they can process in a day and how many they can hold. They are required to provide water without restriction. They’re also required to have adequate laying space if needed.” Cows in lairage are usually given hay to minimize vocalization.

“We would like you to get into the market cow mentality,” said Bjurstrom. “This cow isn’t something you’re throwing away – it’s a valuable asset to the farm and you want to put the best you have on the trailer. Dairy farmers need to consider themselves beef producers from the start and for the animal’s whole life because the animal ultimately will be beef.”

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