Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Are you putting revenues at risk?

John Lee Published on 15 March 2011

Imagine if your tank average dropped by 15 percent one month. Or you had to dump 15 percent of your milk each pick-up. Think of that impact on your bottom line.

Dairy producers may find themselves in a similar situation if they don’t practice food safety as actively with cull cows as they are with milk. Cull cows and bull calves can represent between 10 to 15 percent of gross farm income, according to most industry statistics.



So while not as significant as the milk check, revenue from cull cows is an important income stream, and steps should be taken to protect it.

Start with residue avoidance
The U.S. agricultural industry produces the safest food in the world; however, drug residues in meat are under the microscope. Dairy cows and calves represent a much higher percentage of drug residue violations at slaughter than any other class of animal.

Even though less than 8 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. each year are cull dairy cattle, they represent 67 percent of the tissue residue violations reported by U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service. That means cull dairy cows are 20 times more likely than cull beef cows and 400 times more likely than fed cattle to be flagged for a carcass residue.

These numbers are unacceptable and a reason to take a hard look at practices that potentially contribute to the problem.

Most trace drug residues can be attributed to mistakes made on the dairy operation. These mistakes often involve pharmaceuticals used in a manner not addressed by their approved Food and Drug Administration (FDA) label.


If certain legal requirements are met, veterinarians may prescribe this type of extra-label drug use when necessary to preserve the health of livestock. This can mean that the dosage administered or method of administration is different than what is indicated on the label.

When extra-label use of a pharmaceutical is prescribed, the veterinarian must document the prescribed protocol, as well as determine an appropriate milk and meat withdrawal time. Residues may occur if the dairy producer either does not understand or does not comply with the directions or observe proper withholding periods for extra-label use.

The consequences of a violation are severe and long-lasting. First-time residue violators will be investigated by the state dairy inspector to identify what led to the residue violation. Repeat offenders may be inspected by federal officials.

All producers who have a cull cow flagged for a drug residue violation are added to the database of residue offenders available to the public, and many newspapers and residue watchdog websites are publishing articles about violations.

Repeat residue violators can have their facility quarantined and lose the right to ship cull cows to slaughter for entry into the food system. Meat packers are already concerned about the quality of cattle they are receiving from the dairy industry and may choose not to buy cattle from particular operations.

This can dramatically decrease or eliminate the revenue a producer captures from cull cows. Legal action is even possible.


Cows have two careers
Dairy producers should send to slaughter only healthy, mobile cattle fit for human consumption. This will not only protect the dairy from the consequences of a drug residue, but it may offer opportunities to generate more income from cull cow sales.

Beef processors are concerned about the quality of cattle they are buying and reduce the price they pay for high-risk cows. Dairy cows are considered a high-risk group for residues and carcass blemishes, and receive additional testing and scrutiny at the slaughter plant.

Producers may notice deductions taken for cows sent to market in poor condition, including those with any lesions or blemishes that reduce the percentage of high-quality beef on each carcass.

The condition of the cows a dairy sends to slaughter also will have a direct effect on scrutiny for residues. Federal inspectors are looking more closely for meat residue violations, and testing is not conducted on a random basis.

Cattle showing signs of mastitis, metritis, pneumonia, lameness, peritonitis, recent surgery or injection site lesions are almost guaranteed to be selected for additional screening.

Producers should work with their veterinarian to develop a dairy cow exit strategy that helps to ensure the risk of a residue is minimized. Dairies with available facilities may want to feed cull cows with feed refusals for a few extra weeks to add 100 to 200 pounds of weight. The added gain can improve the market price the dairy receives while protecting the food supply.

The public places a high level of trust in our industry to produce safe milk and meat. Producers can demonstrate their respect for that trust by using animal health products responsibly and only marketing animals fit for human consumption. PD

Develop a residue prevention plan
No one sets out to have a drug residue violation, and there are certain steps that can be taken to reduce the risk to your operation. Developing a residue prevention plan with your herd veterinarian is an important step every dairy should take.

1. Get everyone involved.
Set up a meeting with the herd veterinarian to establish a residue prevention plan. Make sure everyone who makes animal health decisions or administers treatment is present. Mistakes can happen when a communication gap exists between the dairy owner and employees.

Employees are a critical control point, and anyone who treats cows must understand the importance of his or her job and how it can affect the dairy.

2. Develop protocols for disease.
Work with your veterinarian to draft protocols to cover major herd health events and provide a clear course of action once a disease is diagnosed. Make sure to gather input from farm workers, as well, to secure their buy-in and understanding on standard operating procedures.

Once established, the protocols should serve as a guideline for how things are done on the dairy – how to identify diseases, what drugs should be used, how and for what the drugs should be used, and how long to withhold milk and meat.

3. Document herd health protocols in management software.
Once everyone has agreed on disease diagnosis and treatment guidelines, written protocols must be developed with the herd veterinarian. These protocols will serve as a legally binding document between the herd owner and the veterinarian.

As dairy producers, you need to respect the legal responsibility the veterinarian is assuming and ensure all employees will respect and follow established protocols.

4. Keep good treatment records daily.
Accurate record keeping is a critical part of a residue avoidance plan and is the only way a dairy can know if a treated cow has passed proper milk and meat withholding times. Systems should be put in place to ensure all treatments are properly recorded and entered into herd management software every day.

Leg bands, clips or crayons are simple tools for effective visual identification of treated cattle. All farm workers must be able to understand the record-keeping and identification program, as well as its importance.

5. Train everyone who administers pharmaceuticals.
Everyone on the dairy who administers drugs should go through a training program in which they learn the established farm protocols for disease detection and treatment. Just like the milking routine, proper re-training, at least every six months, should be held with the involvement of the herd veterinarian to prevent procedural drift and reinforce to employees the importance of what they do.

6. Double-check every animal before they leave.
Verify that every animal, whether returning to the milking herd or being sent for slaughter, has its records reviewed to ensure it has cleared any milk or meat withholding times before it contributes to the food supply.

No cows should be sent for slaughter until their treatment records have been checked. Keep an eye out for any exceptions or cows that are dehydrated, have kidney failure, liver problems or poor rumen function.

These conditions can slow clearance of medications and may extend the withholding time of medications. If you have any questions about whether a cow is suitable for slaughter, discuss the issue with your veterinarian. PD


John Lee
Senior Veterinarian
Pfizer Animal Health