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Make the most of market cows

Chuck Schwartau

cattle on feedlot

Feedlot time before marketing cows may pay off for many dairy operators

Dairy cows at the end of their productive lives in the milking string have been long considered and called “cull cows”. Considering them in that manner and not thinking about the value they can still add to the dairy business may be giving away too many dollars, and hurting the image of the industry besides. In actuality, these cows play a valuable role in the whole beef system and can contribute one last time to the bottom line of a dairy farm.

Several aspects of marketing these cows were revealed by the National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit (NCBA/CSU, 1999) and a similar audit conducted by the Alberta Cattle Commission in Canada (1996). Although the dollar values varied a bit between the two audits due to market differences, their conclusions were quite similar.

The NCBA audit found that from 29–33% of the nation’s dairy herd and 9–11% of the nation’s beef cow herd is sent to market each year. These marketed cows and bulls contribute 18–20% of the total U.S. beef harvested each year. These market cows are a major source of lean ground beef that is sought by much of the food service industry and the general consuming public.

In both audits, all factors reducing the carcass quality or yield due to defects cost approximately $70 per animal. Some of the factors are more manageable than others, but all need to be considered if producers want to optimize return from these animals.

Injection lesions that need to be trimmed out of muscles account for $10.00 or more of the loss. This emphasizes the need to take care where and how injections are administered to animals, as well as considering what products are being used. Injections into higher value muscles result in the most trim and the greatest value loss. This only counts the lesions detected in the packing plant, however. Lesions not found there but are later found by meat cutters or consumers result in a potentially greater loss as customers shy away from beef they find undesirable in their meat counters or on their plates. That is a cost to the whole industry, not just the individual producer.

The best way to prevent lesion losses is to follow a good beef quality assurance program (BQA). BQA programs teach management systems to minimize drug use and emphasize proper administration when use is necessary. These programs usually recommend injections into low value neck muscles or by “tent” methods for placement beneath the skin. They also teach needle selection and emphasize sanitary handling to prevent further infection. For more information about a BQA program, check with your local market since many of them have trained personnel to provide the training for their customers.

Bruising is another source of carcass value loss. Both the NCBA and Canadian audits found an average value loss of $4.00 per head due to bruising. Bruises can be minimized by proper livestock facilities and avoiding rough handling while loading stock for the market.

General carcass quality and grade are factors that probably cost dairy operators more than anything else when marketing cows. The NCBA audit calculated the following value losses due to carcass characteristics:

Characteristic Value lost per animal
Yellow external fat $6.48
Dark cutting $1.41
Inadequate muscle $18.70
Over fat $10.17
Light weight $1.28
Total $38.04
Source: NCBA/CSU, 1999

How can producers recapture some of this lost value? Here are a few steps to help put more value in market cows:

The bottom line is that following these procedures, along with preventing lesion losses and minimizing bruising, can help dairy farmers recapture more of the value from these market cows, help put a better product on the consumer's plate, and help keep the cow market a viable option for the future.

Published in Dairy Star October 22, 2005

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