When Dairy Cows Become Beef Cows

Across the globe, spent milk cows make up an important proportion of beef supply and it is in producer interests to maximise cull value.
calendar icon 3 June 2014
clock icon 7 minute read

First on the list is dealing with unwanted residues, writes Lisa Pederson North Dakota State University beef quality assurance specialist.

Most dairy cows reach a point in their life when they transition from being a milk producer to being a beef producer. The contribution of beef from culled dairy cows and dairy steers is very important to the beef industry.

Due to historically low numbers of beef cows in the US, dairy cows are producing a larger per cent age of beef than ever before. As well, dairy steers are well known for their ability to produce the highest quality grades of beef (Prime and High Choice).

Yet with all the benefits from dairy beef come some challenges. These challenges can be resolved easily by improvements in management at dairy farms. Currently, the most critical of these challenges are animal health product residues and thin, nonambulatory cows in auction markets and on trucks and trailers.

Challenges Related to Culled Dairy Cows and Their Carcasses

Animal Health Product Residues in Carcasses

Dairy cows are as important to the beef industry as ever before. Photo Courtesy of North Dakota State University

In 2011, about 3 million culled dairy cows were harvested through slaughter plants. In that same time frame, about 1 million more beef cows were marketed and harvested in the U.S. The startling and disappointing fact is that dairy cows had a residue violation rate nine times higher than beef cows (.01507 per cent dairy cow violative residue rate vs .00165 per cent beef cow violative residue rate).

About 20 per cent of the violating dairy carcasses were positive for more than one product residue. This begs these questions: “Why are carcasses chosen for testing?” “Are carcasses from culled dairy cows being targeted for testing?” and “What management strategies can dairy producers implement to decrease residues?” To understand why carcasses are chosen for testing, you have to understand the residue testing rules.

The U.S. has two types of residue testing programs.

The first is random testing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) has identifi ed the per cent age of carcasses it wants to test in the random testing program. For example, if the per cent age is 10 per cent , every 10th carcass will be tested. The second type of residue testing is inspector-generated testing. Inspector-generated testing is when an FSIS inspector identifies carcasses for testing based on qualifying characteristics.

Characteristics of live cattle and/or carcasses that will target inspector-generated testing include: presence of carcass defects ( injection site blemishes in areas other than the neck) and cattle that are marketed with diseases and defects such as mastitis, metritis, pneumonia, peritonitis, evidence of recent surgeries, advanced lameness and active injection site lesions. As well, cows with identification showing they were treated recently generally will be targeted for testing.

I have more than once witnessed cull dairy cows in slaughter plants that have red leg bands. To me, that denoted the cow was a “treated cow.” It had the same meaning to the plant FSIS inspector. In each case, the cow’s carcass was part of the “inspector-generated” residue testing programme.

Generally speaking, dairy cows are more likely to be culled for one of the noted reasons than beef cattle. Typically, a beef cow is culled because of one (or more) of the three O’s: she is open, ornery or old, or because of environment reasons (drought). This risk-based strategy of testing often is more effective than random testing. I believe this answers the question, “Are carcasses from culled dairy cows being targeted for testing?” Management Strategies for Improvement All cattle must be residue-free at marketing time. Procedures to assure residue free cattle include:

• Having a valid client/patient relationship (VCPR) with a herd veterinarian, not just a consultant who works for an animal health supply company. This means the veterinarian knows you, your operation and animal health challenges your operation faces. This relationship should include all management and employees making animal health decisions.

• Written treatment protocols in English and Spanish (if you have Spanish-speaking employees) must be kept and updated annually, at a minimum. Develop these protocols as a team and be sure to include your veterinarian and herdsman.

• Only use products in an “extra label” manner when prescribed by a veterinarian who has a VCPR with you and your herd. What does “extra label” mean? Extra label drug use (ELDU) is defined as using a product in any manner not described on the label (higher dosage, different route of administration, in a different species than labeled, shortening the withdrawal time and for a different indication).

By law, all ELDU must be prescribed by a veterinarian working under a VCPR. As well, all products (over-the-counter and prescription) used in an extra label manner must have a written prescription from the prescribing veterinarian (this also applies to over-the-counter medications used in an extra label manner). The two most common residue-violating drugs in dairy cattle are penicillin and Flunixin meglumine(common trade name Banamine).

While both can be useful products, the commonality of the residue issues of both products is that they typically are used in an ELDU manner without an ELDU prescription from a veterinarian. Often penicillin is used at a higher than labeled dose and Flunixin meglumine often is used in a different route of administration than labeled. Both of these extra label uses signifi cantly increase the withdrawal times of both products.

• Maintain accurate written (by hand or computerized) treatment records. Information that should be included in treatment records: animal treated, indication (reason) for treatment, person who prescribed treatment, date treated, product used, route of administration, withdrawal time, earliest date animal will have cleared withdrawal time, person who treated the animal. Regulations require that animals not be sold for consumption until the withdrawal period has been met. Generally, the original owner at the time of treatment is liable for the residue.

• Don’t forget that these strategies apply to your marketed baby bull calves. Once these calves leave your operation, you do not know what their use will be. Will they be fed out as a dairy steer? Will they be marketed as a bob veal calf and harvested in the next couple of days, or will they be marketed as milk-fed veal? Veal calves are the class of residue-positive livestock.

• All records should be maintained for a minimum of two years.

• All records should be checked prior to the marketing of an animal.

• Maintain accurate herd and sale records. Include in these records production records, record of calving, lameness and body condition scoring, when an animal is purchased, when an animal is sold and the reason the animal is being marketed.

• Encourage all team members to have a strong working relationship with your herd’s veterinarian. Last fall, I was asked to speak to a group of Spanishspeaking dairy herdsmen and workers. As part of the program discussion, the participants were asked how often they work directly with the dairy’s veterinarian.

Greater than 75 per cent of the participants indicated they rarely worked with the herd veterinarian, and around a quarter said they never had seen the herd veterinarian. The health of the dairy cows and the operation would benefit greatly if those who are working directly with the dairy cattle have a strong relationship with the herd veterinarian.

• When appropriate, use on-the-farm residue testing.

Please visit with your herd veterinarian regarding on-the-farm tests, when they should be used and the animal health products for which they should be used for testing.

Double- and triple-check records. Before any animal (culled cow or bull, or calf) is marketed, double and triple-check treatment records to verify that they have met all withdrawal times. This is crucial to the safety of our food supply and critical to the future of your dairy operation.

• Encourage open communication among all members of your team. Be a catalyst to improve the welfare and health of your dairy operation by encouraging communication and relationships among your dairy herdsman, workers and outside consultants such as your herd veterinarian and nutritionist.

This will improve employee morale, herd health and herd production while maintaining a healthy and wholesome milk and beef supply.Healthy milk and beef come from healthy cattle. Do your part to maintain a positive image for the cattle industry and improving the wholesome food supply by pledging only to market animals that have met withdrawal times and by maintaining a valid veterinary client/patient relationship. This will maintain your “steak” in the food industry.

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