Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0109 PD: Maximize the value of your market dairy cows

Ronald F Eustice, Dan Hale & John Maas Published on 23 December 2008

While milk production is still the most important aspect of the dairy business, there are other considerations. Maximizing the value of a dairy cow includes making sure that when its usefulness for milk production goes away, the cow’s value is as great as it can be.

Nearly every dairy cow will eventually become part of the beef supply. Unfortunately, the market value of dairy cows is oftentimes overlooked.



Dairymen can add value to their market animals by making changes that require very little and sometimes no additional effort. There is no reason that a dairyman should accept less for their market animals than what they are actually worth.

Market cow and bull quality audits
Approximately every five years, the beef industry conducts a nationwide audit to evaluate the physical condition of market cows and bulls not raised solely for beef. The beef checkoff-funded effort is used to help improve the quality and minimize economic losses from beef produced from these animals.

In 1994, the first audit identified ways producers could improve the quality of market cows. In general, it showed that producers waited too long to market the animal, and it concluded that problems could have been reduced if producers managed and monitored their cattle more closely and marketed them in a more timely fashion.

In 1999, a second audit showed that the industry had made improvement in reducing condemnations, the frequency of disabled cattle sent to slaughter, bruising, damage caused by branding, injection-site lesions and overall condition of cattle at slaughter, but the audit also concluded much more work needed to be done to improve beef quality.

The 1999 audit showed the need to eliminate antibiotic residues and improve handling in order to minimize bruising and lower condemnation rate.


What the most recent audit shows
Researchers from seven universities conducted the 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit which is being used to evaluate progress. The latest audit showed fewer bruises, less hide damage and an overall improvement in animal welfare and handling practices compared to 1999.

However, condemnation rates of down cattle and incidence of antibiotic residues, bruising, and lameness need further attention.

The 2007 audit was conducted in four phases:

Phase I: Researchers visited packing plants to examine market cows and bulls in receiving areas and holding pens, on the harvest floor and in the cooler. The goal of the project was to determine how cattle producers could increase income from market cows and bulls and enhance the quality of beef.

The packing plant phase of the audit was the result of the work of more than 70 auditors, including faculty, staff and graduate students, as well as state beef council personnel.

The audit took place in 23 packing plants in 11 states. Collectively, these plants harvest more than 15,000 head per day. The audit surveyed more than 5,000 live animals and carcasses during harvest and 3,000 carcasses in coolers.


Forty-one percent of the cows surveyed were dairy cows. In 2007, the USDA reported that 2.4 million (45 percent) of the cows that were harvested were dairy cows.

Phase II: One packer and one Food Safety Inspection Service (FSlS) employee were interviewed at each plant to determine improvements and declines in the quality of cattle since the 1999 audit.

Phase III: Researchers interviewed eight end users, looking specifically at sub-primal defects, top sirloin center cuts, caps and bottom-round flats.

They also looked for injection-site lesions and other defects that would cause reduced carcass value.

Phase IV: Researchers, producers, retailers, restaurateurs, packers, processors and government representatives met for a two-day workshop to discuss strategies and tactics to ensure continued quality and animal-handling improvements.

What’s the future direction for market dairy cows?
Meat from market cows is no longer just used for ground beef.

Research shows that about 44 percent of the muscle from cull dairy animals is used as whole-muscle cuts. As a result, protecting the integrity of those whole muscles is becoming increasingly important.

There is a very good possibility that the beef from a dairy producer’s market cow will be consumed at a steak house and not as a fast food hamburger.

Many dairymen have also found that earlier culling to assure that a cow is able to get to market is a good practice. Since many of these cows make long trips to their final destination, animals need to be in good condition when they leave the farm as well as when they reach the plant.

Condition will become even more important, since there is a total ban on downer cows for human beef consumption. Not waiting until the last minute can be the difference between an animal that’s an asset and an animal that’s a liability for the dairy producer, for the plant and for the entire beef industry.

What you can do to help yourself and the dairy industry
Be proactive to ensure the safety and integrity of your product. Consumer confidence is one of the most important issues facing the dairy industry. Market dairy and beef cows and bulls must be free of chemical and physical hazards when they are shipped for harvest.

Injectable pharmaceuticals must be administered using recommended guidelines regarding location or route of administration, dosage and specified withdrawal time to ensure cattle are free of antibiotic and other violative residues.

Following proper industry guidelines will also minimize the occurrence of injection-site lesions in whole muscle products entering the beef trade. Monitor herd health and market cull cattle in a timely manner.

Producers should closely monitor their herds for serious conditions, as early detection and diagnosis can help prevent market losses. Producers need to work with their veterinarian to identify cows that may need additional care or feeding before being sold for slaughter.

Euthanasia should be considered for disposing of “downers” or cattle with advanced or terminal disease conditions.

In some cases, euthanasia may be the only responsible and humane method of dealing with an afflicted animal. Use appropriate management and handling practices to prevent quality defects.

Producers should implement a quality assurance program and use best management and handling practices to reduce the incidence of such quality defects. State beef councils, university extension specialists, cattle organizations and pharmaceutical companies sponsor Beef Quality Assurance training programs. Recognize and optimize the value of your market cows and bulls.

Producers must view their market cows and bulls as valuable contributors to the beef supply. Beef from market cows and bulls is widely used in the retail and food service sectors in a wide variety of product forms – not just as ground beef.

Dairymen can add value to their market cows and bulls by feeding cows for a short period prior to marketing to increase weight and improve body condition and carcass characteristics. If producers fail to adopt a proactive position concerning product quality and integrity, the results could be far-reaching.

By sharing the results of checkoff-funded studies such as the National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit, the industry hopes to assist dairymen and beef producers in “getting their money’s worth” for cull cows. PD

Ronald F. Eustice is executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. Dan Hale is a professor and extension meat specialist in the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. John Maas is an extension veterinarian at the University of California – Davis with research interests in nutrition, internal medicine and beef quality assurance issues.

Ronald F. Eustice
Minnesota Beef Council