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The ethics and economics for trimming cull cows

Skip Blake for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2016

When helping a dairyman sort cows to be trimmed, I often point out cows in the herd that have a limp or long toes. All too often, I hear the dairyman saying, “We won’t trim her because she’s a cull cow.”

I can appreciate his initial logic – because the cow will be sold, he may not want to spend or invest money into it. Although he may think this is a rational decision, it is quite possibly the worst management choice he can make.

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In selling cull cows, a producer should think of marketing them in the best possible condition. Most people are in agreement that all cows are beef cows eventually; it’s just that we milk dairy cows before they are sent to slaughter. It’s the progression of the dairy industry.

As a hoof trimmer and consultant for more than 20 years, I have made it my personal mission to educate everyone I come in contact with in the dairy industry on the importance of trimming cull cows.

Recently, I was speaking at a series of meetings for a nationally recognized dairy supply company. During my presentations, I shared my passion for this topic by stating, “If I could, I would stand on the highest soap box I could find and preach the importance of cull cow trimming.”

So, here goes my “soap box” moment.

The ugly side of the dairy industry

In animal welfare issues, perception is often reality. Although a cow with a slight limp may be able to get around, it is not normal – especially if it can be treated. As a hoof trimmer, it hurts me to think that a cow may have a small yet very painful wart (digital dermatitis) that isn’t treated.

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In other instances, the cow may have long hooves which keep it from standing comfortably. If the public knew cows they consume were being shipped in this condition, they would be infuriated, and rightfully so.

As consumers become more concerned over animal welfare issues, it is important that the dairy industry maintains the highest standards of ethical animal stewardship. In my opinion, cows and animals in general have no rights; God has given us dominion over them. They do, however, have a spirit and deserve to be humanely treated.

Why should we trim cull cows?

There are several reasons cows should be trimmed before being sent to market. For one, the majority of lameness issues can be treated. Even if not lame, they will be more comfortable with a maintenance trim. It can also serve to help public perception knowing they were being sent to market healthy. Additionally, from an ethical standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.

  • Economics: From an economic standpoint, it can also be beneficial. If the cow is lame and won’t be shipped for a week or more, it could potentially lose 50 pounds. If treated, it may actually gain 50 pounds.

    This constitutes a 100-pound difference. If cull cow price is $0.60 per pound, this weight increase could generate an additional $60 in market price, while total cost of treatment may be less than $20.

  • Ethics: When cull cows are sent to market, they may be on a truck for as long as 20 hours and pass through several transfer points. It’s far more humane to send them to market when they are not lame.

Further, from an animal welfare standpoint, it just makes sense. These animals have worked for us their entire lives to produce milk and give us calves. We, as an industry, should be sending them down the road in the best possible shape we can.

In conclusion, most producers sort out two groups of cows for the trimmer. Corrective cows (those cows that need treatment for lameness issues) and maintenance cows (those cows that are trimmed as a preventative measure). I would strongly advocate a third group: the cull cow group, for any cow scheduled to be culled before the next trimmer visit.  PD

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