Out of sight is out of mind, especially when it comes to bruises on market dairy cows.

But it is impossible to hide from the fact that too many of these animals are bruised. The 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit indicates that just over 63 percent of market cows, including dairy market cows, show evidence of bruising.

The good news is that bruising has dropped nearly 25 percentage points in the eight years since the last audit was completed in 1999. "We're doing a better job of handling cattle," says Ryan Ruppert, director of Beef Quality Assurance programs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Prior audits highlighted the issue and the industry responded.

However, there's more to do. This carcass defect still presents a significant financial loss. And it's a serious welfare issue for everyone. As a dairy producer, you don't just market milk - you provide a key portion of the country's beef supply, too.

Here's why you must address the issue of bruising on your operation.

Bruising origins

It may be impossible to completely eliminate cattle bruises. But there's plenty of room for improvement, especially when you look at where most bruises occur, and it becomes obvious that improved cattle management and handling can bring about positive results.

A 2004 University of Wisconsin study and the 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit both found that the majority of bruises occur in the round, followed by bruises in the loin area, ribs and chuck.

"Inadequate stall size in older facilities is a major issue in my opinion," says Kurt Vogel, interim manager of the University of Wisconsin's Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy. That's why it's so important to examine your facilities and retrofit or correct problem areas promptly.

Cattle handling also has a huge impact on bruising. Rough handling, forcing cows through tight areas, along with slips and falls, greatly increase injury odds and subsequent bruising. Also remember that skinny cows tend to bruise more easily due to reduced cushion.

Bruises don't heal overnight. Plenty of new and old bruises are evident when animals reach the harvest floor. This indicates bruising does not occur at a single point, but happens throughout the system. Every point in the food chain has a responsibility to do what's right, says Dan Hale, extension meat specialist at Texas A&M University. Correct action begins on-farm and carries through to the marketing channel.

"You'll see some loads of cattle with more bruises than others, and that tells me something happened before these animals reached the packing plant," explains Hale. Healthy dairy cattle are the easiest cows to move, he adds. 

Low-stress handling techniques make a big difference.

Financial focus

Bruising also has an impact on your wallet.

A 2004 University of Wisconsin study conducted at a Milwaukee, Wis., processing plant found that an average of 34.3 pounds of trim was removed from each bruised dairy market cow processed. The facility predominantly processes dairy animals, and all animals examined for the study were retired dairy cows.

During the study, 4.3 percent of the animals had significant bruising - at least 15 pounds had to be trimmed and the carcass was substantially altered. From these animals, a total of 16,086 pounds of meat had to be discarded because the bruised beef was not fit for human consumption.
Using the current 90 percent lean beef price of $1.49 per pound, that equals $23,969.18 in lost revenue for processors and producers. If calculated for a 260-day processing year, the total lost revenue jumps to $778,998.45.

And that's just one facility.

The losses are actually even higher, because the plant had to cycle the meat into a different part of the facility to deal with these defects, which takes time and additional labor, explains study author Vogel.

A matter of market access

It may seem like the above figures only cost the plant. But that's not the case. You may incur direct losses if you sell market cows off the rail and not through an auction. Then, carcass defects, like bruises, come out of your check. It immediately becomes worth your while to increase market-cow quality.

The losses may be subtle initially, but come with a larger penalty - the loss of market access.

The food chain is under more scrutiny than ever before. Some packing plants have instituted fines for problem market cows or those dead on arrival. Look for those fines to increase in size and scope. Producers consistently fined may find their market cows are no longer accepted for harvest.

Some retailers are setting up their own quality standards, says Ruppert. "Animals may pass USDA inspection, but retailers may decline to accept an animal due to concerns or perceptions about an animal's condition," he says. "Retailers want to tell their customers that they only accept the best-quality meat."

More than 95 percent of dairies do a good job with their animals. But many dairy producers don't see themselves as beef producers. For most dairies, market-cow receipts only make up 4 to 5 percent of income. However, dairy beef is about 20 percent of the total beef supply. That makes dairy an important player in the beef industry.

Making sure your market dairy cows are not bruised is just one critical step in the process. "Ask yourself, what am I doing in my management that may make this cow no longer marketable?" suggests Ruppert.

If the chain breaks, it doesn't matter where it breaks, the point is that it's broken, says Hale. "Everyone has to do his share." 

Helpful resources

Decreasing cattle bruises should be your goal as a dairy producer.
Owners, caregivers, engineers and contractors are responsible for providing a comfortable and safe workplace for dairy cows, says Neil Anderson, veterinarian for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. "If the barn harms the cows, remove the cause without delay." For example:

  • Correct inadequate stall sizes.
  • Remove protruding objects in cow pens and walkways.
  • Calmly move animals to loading facilities, then calmly load and unload them.

In addition, a short list of resources has been compiled to help you improve animal-husbandry skills and decrease cattle bruises. To access the list, go to: www.dairyherd.com/management.

Injection sites leave a lasting impact

the 2007 national market cow and bull beef quality audit shows the entire industry is making progress on injection-site blemishes. But the dairy industry still lags behind the beef industry. Eleven percent of market dairy cows showed lesions versus only 2 percent of beef animals.

Three percent of dairy cows exhibited minor lesions and 4 percent showed medium-sized injection site blemishes - between the size of a golf ball and a softball. Another 3 percent had major lesions - those larger than a softball that required significant trim. Finally, 2 percent of dairy cows had extreme lesions resulting in a trim area nearly the size of an entire primal cut.

Just like bruising, injection-site lesions leave a lasting impression. Improperly administered injections to calves may still appear at 15 months or even later. Train employees to give injections in a proper manner. Attention to detail goes a long way. Carcass defects, including bruising and injection-site lesions, cost you about $70 per market animal.