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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Beef Quality Corner - Cull Cows

Livestock Update, September 1997

Bill McKinnon, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

As calf weaning time is here, so not far behind is cow culling time. The impact of cull cows upon our operations as well as the nation's beef supply can sometimes be discounted. The normal sale of cull cows can make up 15 to 20% of gross sales from a cow/calf operation. Cull cows make up 49.5% of the 6.4 billion pounds of non-fed beef consumed in the U.S. Not all the beef derived from cull cows is sold just as ground beef. Ribeye rolls can be shaved and used to make "Philly Steak" sandwiches. Outside rounds are often pressed and/or cooked and marketed as deli items. Ribeyes, strip loins, and tenderloins can also be sold to "family" or economy steak houses. The above facts point to importance of taking cull cow marketing and their impact upon beef quality assurance seriously.

The 1994 Non-Fed Beef Quality Audit provided the industry insight into many of the quality problems associated with cow slaughter. A significant point illuminated by the study was that some producers do not cull cows soon enough from either a production efficiency, beef quality or marketability standpoint. When cows go down the chute this fall, they need to be given a careful evaluation. In addition to determining whether the cow is bred, she needs to be checked out for problems that hamper her future performance and will only lower her salvage value over time. Eyes, mouths, udders, feet and legs all need some attention.

Eyes need to be checked for the early stages of ocular neoplasia (cancer eye). Cows with small growths on the eyeball or third eyelid need to be identified and evaluated for early treatment by the veterinarian. If treatment is not an option or the growth is more advanced, that cow needs to be sold before the condition becomes more advanced. Waiting too long usually results in the situation in which next spring there is this same cow with an advanced eye problem with a small calf by her side. In this situation, the owner is caught in "no man's land." Waiting until the tumor becomes pronounced or even later when a necrotic condition (you can smell them)develops results in little or no salvage value since the carcass will likely be condemned. The advanced cases with the accompanying smell present a tremendous public perception risk to the whole beef industry and those cows should be humanely euthanised on the farm and not transported in public view.

The older cow with worn teeth which has difficulty in maintaining her flesh condition needs to go to town this year and not be a candidate for "one more year." The producer should ask himself if that old gal will be in any better shape next fall and the answer will probably be no. Extremely thin or shelly cows simply do not offer enough salvageable beef to command a very high price.

The lame cow needs the same kind of evaluation as the above old cow. Is the limp from some temporary condition or is the problem a long term condition such as arthritis? "Will the lameness be any better next fall and will she perform with the rest of the herd?" If the answer is "no," she needs to be put on this year's cull list. The more pronounced the limp, more pronounced one could expect the price discount at sale time. Lame cattle pose more difficulties during transport and often required more trim at the packing plant due to increased bruising and the removal of affected joints.

Depending upon the available feed supply, producers may want to delay cull marketing to avoid the typical October to November cow runs. This period usually results in the lowest slaughter cow prices of the year as supplies overwhelm demand. If cows can be inexpensively carried until a later time period, the producer may be rewarded in three ways. As the winter progresses the price of slaughter cows typically rebounds as the supply dwindles. With at least moderate quality feed, cows should gain weight, increasing the price per head. Additionally, thin cows in October will improve their condition on moderate feed quality, improving red meat yield and the relative live price per pound.

When cows go to market, everyone in the marketing process needs to remember that the cull cow is quickly going to be converted into a beef product. The 1994 Non-Fed Audit demonstrated that roughly 80% of cow carcasses had significant bruising that required trimming. Over 30% of those cow carcasses had major bruises that required an average trim of 3.19 pounds per carcass. The predominance of the bruising was located on the rounds and loins (including the rump). It does not take a great of imagination to figure how much of that bruising was inflicted.

Producers also need to remember that many of the animal health products applied to cattle have a withdrawal period before slaughter. Carcasses with violative residues can be traced back to the seller with a potential liability. Some common products and their withdrawal periods are listed below. It should be obvious that whether a cow is open should be determined before she is treated for parasites.

Ivomec injectable
Ivomec pour-on
L A 200
               35 days
48 days
28 days
21 days
45 days
35 days
35 days

The defects in cow carcasses reflect losses to packer. To cover these losses, many of them unseen in the live animal, the average price paid on all slaughter cows must be lowered. Remember today's cull cow is next week's beef product on someone's plate. Will the product you sell represent the beef industry well and would you stand behind it?

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