Dairy Beef Quality

Concentration on the quality of beef from cull dairy cattle has been a long neglected management issue on dairy farms.

Most dairy farmers consider themselves the producer of a single product: milk. However, all dairy producers, whether they focus on it or not, are also beef producers. Every farm has cows that need to be culled. Concentration on the quality of beef from cull dairy cattle has been a long neglected management issue. Due to recent disease outbreaks in production animals (i.e. Foot and Mouth disease, BSE), there has been a trend towards declining consumer confidence in meat products. This, in addition to the fact that large economic losses could be avoided, make focusing on producing high quality dairy beef even more important these days.

Why is dairy beef quality important?

Often when the decision is made to remove a cow from the herd, the main focus is on the loss of her milk production, not what grade she will make at the slaughter plant. Based on research performed in Canada, the average loss from decreased quality of beef from dairy cattle is approximately $70/head . That decrease in beef quality is seen in various areas such as tissue scarring, poor quality grading and hide bruising. The common perception is that cull dairy cows are used primarily for hamburger production. In that case, trimming around defects in the meat cuts is possible. However, the choice steak cuts from dairy beef are often marketed to restaurants and fast food chains. Dairy beef has the potential to be used as high quality cuts since dairy cows are fed a high concentrate diet.

How can dairy beef quality be increased?

What steps can be taken to increase the quality of dairy beef?

- Injection Sites

First of all, the majority of quality defects found in dairy carcasses are a result of injection site scarring. Taking care to use proper techniques when giving inter-muscular shots can go a long way in reducing the amount of damaged tissue. Toughness from injection lesions can radiate up to 3” into the surrounding muscle tissue. There is work being done to develop needle free techniques for vaccinations to address this issue. Early work with these procedures, such as nasal sprays or skin patch injections, show promise, but are still quite a ways from being available on a commercial scale. Until they are practical, some general recommendations for proper needle injection techniques include:

  1. Giving injections subcutaneously (under the skin) instead of in the muscle, if this is an option with the particular injection that is being administered.
  2. Only give injections forward of the shoulder; the neck muscle is the best choice. It is the cheapest cut of meat and the easiest to trim if lesions do occur.
  3. Read and follow instructions of medication that is being administered.
  4. Use only clean, sharp needles.
  5. Use a needle a maximum of 8-10 times, then discard it in a sharps container for proper disposal.
  6. Use the appropriate needle size for the medication that is being administered. Generally this ranges from 16-18 gauge and 1” – 12” long depending on the material to be injected. Determine the smallest size that will work and use that.
  7. Don’t give more than 10-15 cc (mL) in one site.
  8. Make sure animals are properly restrained before beginning injections.


Perhaps most importantly, a preventative herd health program should be in place to minimize the use of medications that require injections.

- Facilities

Carcass defects, such as bruising can also be caused by improper handling and deficiencies in facilities. A review of cow facilities should be made to ensure that stall, feedbunk and pen dimensions are adequate. Avoid overcrowding in freestalls. Efforts should be made to minimize stress during handling and shipping. Extremely agitated or excited animals can have increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can decrease meat quality. Good non-slip footing should be provided. See the cattle handling article for detailed tips on how to handle cattle safely and calmly. Some further tips for minimizing stress during transportation include:

  1. Minimize transport time, as much as possible.
  2. Avoid traveling in extreme temperatures
  3. Ensure adequate ventilation. Exhaust fumes from the vehicle should not enter the trailer.
  4. Practice smooth careful driving to avoid falling and colliding animals.
  5. Allow for adequate feed and water consumption on long trips. Water should be offered at least every four hours.

- Parasite Control

Implementing a good parasite control program can also help minimize hide and tissue damage. This should be part of the herd heath program mentioned above. Attention should also be focused on the condition the animal is in before she is shipped. Debilitated cows are more susceptible to disease both before and during shipping. Ideally, the decision to cull can be made before the animal has reached a debilitated state. Research conducted in NYS has found that the highest valued carcasses came from animals that were in a body condition of 2.5 to 3 (1-5 scale). So, there may be an economic benefit to conditioning thin cows before shipping them as well.

- Drug Residues

Another area that can cause carcasses to be rejected for quality defects is the presence of drug residues in the muscle tissues. This is another management area where a clear protocol can drastically reduce the possibility of this occurrence. The USDA outlines a list of 10 “critical control points” in their Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Program. Based on the HACCP (hazard analysis of critical control points) concept, these are vulnerable areas in the management flow from which drug residues could stem. These ten points are:

  1. Practice healthy herd management.
  2. Establish a valid vet/client/patient relationship, which is needed to use drugs in an extra-label manner.
  3. Use only FDA approved over the counter drugs or prescription drugs with a veterinarian’s guidance.
  4. All drugs should have labels that are compliant
  5. All drugs should be stored properly, according to instructions.
  6. All drugs should be administered properly according to instructions and all treated animals should be clearly identified. It can be helpful to use two different forms of ID.
  7. Use and maintain treatment records
  8. Use drug residue screening tests
  9. Make sure all employees on the farm, whether hired or family, are trained and aware of the herd heath protocols.
  10. Implement a yearly Farm Plan of Action

Related Links:

Beef Friendly Guide: Safe and effective vaccine administration
Pfizer Animal Health Livestock-Dairy-Quality assurance


Jordana Calaman Suttmeier

Jordana Calaman Suttmeier
8 articles

Nutrition Support Specialist, F.A.R.M.E Institute, Inc., Homer, NY, USA

Ms. Suttmeier has been employed as a Nutrition Support Specialist at FARME Institute with primarily responsibility for conducting and reporting digestibility evaluations of farm forages, feedstuffs and forage hybrid tests.

Her Graduate Research Emphasis at the University of Vermont has been in the area of ruminant nutrition.

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F.A.R.M.E. Institute

F.A.R.M.E. Institute

FARME Institute's goal is to provide top quality, client-oriented, independent and confidential research and product development in ruminant nutrition.

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