Dairy cattle represent a significant source of the United States beef supply. Twenty percent of all beef comes from dairy cattle, including cull cows and dairy steers. This equates to 1.5 billion pounds of meat every year. In the western states alone, more than 800,000 head, worth $500 million, go to slaughter every year.

One of the most common misconceptions in the dairy industry is that all market cows become hamburger. "This is a misnomer," says Ryan Ruppert, director of quality-assurance programs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Only a small percentage goes to ground beef, while the majority goes to whole-muscle cuts that are purchased by restaurants and casinos across the country. Whole-muscle cuts include rib eyes, New York strips, and tenderloins. In addition, 90 to 95 percent of the jerky marketed in the United States comes from cow rounds.

Beef from dairy cattle plays an important role in the food chain. Approximately one out of three cows currently in your milking string could be on a consumer's plate in the next 12 months.

Could impact demand

Arguably, dairy producers are in the business of milk production, not beef production. The milk check constitutes 96 percent of a dairy's income, and the sale of market cows contributes around 4 percent.

However, the day comes for every cow when she makes a career change from a milk producer to a beef producer. And, that 4 percent income from market cows can be raised to 15 percent with proper care and marketing. Most dairy producers underestimate the value that this secondary profit center could bring them.

"We need to start thinking of ourselves as food manufacturers specializing in the production of both milk and beef," says Keith Carlson, executive director of the Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center in Stratford, Iowa.

The safety and quality of beef produced is critical not only to the consumption of beef, but also milk.

A perfect example of this is the incident at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif., earlier this year that led to the recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef. Video footage showed non-ambulatory dairy cattle being abused prior to slaughter. Hallmark/Westland, now shut down, was the USDA's second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school-lunch program.
More recently, the Humane Society of the United States released video footage of market dairy cows at auction yards in Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Texas. Cows filmed were in very poor condition, mishandled, and in some cases died during filming.

"You have to understand we are not guaranteed market access for milk or meat. Consumer perception is reality, and the privilege to sell both can be taken away," Ruppert says.

These incidents took credibility away from the dairy and beef industries. "How did consumers feel drinking milk from those animals? How many consumers will leave or stop eating meat as a result? How many people are on the verge of becoming a vegetarian and stop drinking milk?" questions Ruppert.

"You might be doing a good job with market cows, but if your neighbors are doing a bad job, you need to let them know the potential they have to put themselves - and you - out of business," he adds.

Economic incentives

A substantial economic incentive exists for dairy producers to care about beef quality. A premium of $5 to $10 per hundredweight can be realized if dairy cattle qualify for the "white-cow market." Some beef packers offer incentives for cows that fit this market. The name "white cow" is derived from the practice of transitioning an animal's fat color from yellow to white to produce a higher-quality carcass.

"If the return check from shipping animals is not what you expected, there is a reason for it," says Holly Foster, director of public relations at the California Beef Council. Foster also serves as the dairy-beef quality-assurance coordinator for California. According to Foster, auction markets may "no sale" an animal that is in questionable condition. Additionally, once an animal reaches a slaughter facility, carcasses are inspected by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service for disease and residues. If a violation is discovered, those carcasses can be condemned and become essentially worthless. If a carcass is severely bruised, it may be trimmed and those quality defects can reduce total carcass weight and money paid. Other quality issues include injection-site lesions that must be trimmed from a carcass.

Quality defects rob dairy producers of almost $70 per head, according to the 1997 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit. This adds up; consider if you market 300 head a year, this is a $21,000 loss in income. Most of these problems could be resolved through better management practices, monitoring of health and condition, and timing of marketing.

Making these adjustments will increase revenues in two ways: by weight in pounds and by value per pound. The double benefit makes a difference of $144 between an early voluntary cull decision and a forced decision 30 days later. Think of this related to milk sales. That $144 in beef value on condition alone is equivalent to 1,100 pounds of $13 milk. Add the cost to keep her milking, and she would have to produce 60 pounds of milk a day for those 30 days to offset her declining beef value.

"Timely marketing is the goal - it's not complicated," states Foster. "If an animal regresses too much, she becomes a liability and we already have a lack of rendering facilities, so why not market her in a timely fashion to a slaughterhouse."

"We're in the beef business"

"After you're done producing milk, you don't sell chicken do you?" questions Gary Sharp, president of a fifth-generation dairy in Bath, S.D. "All dairy animals are beef animals and all dairymen are beef producers. It doesn't matter what color the hide is, we're all in the beef business." Recognizing this, Sharp, his wife Donna and their two sons all became certified through the dairy-beef quality-assurance program.

The biggest change they made in their operation involved injection sites. Now, every shot is given in the neck or subcutaneously.

"Now, I can certify that I am managing and sending my cows to market in the highest-quality manner possible," notes Sharp. In addition, a premium is paid by the slaughterhouse in his area because they recognize the Dairy Beef Quality Assurance certificate.

"My total income from beef is only 5 percent of my gross income, but it's critical that we keep the consumer coming back to the beef case," says Jim Docheff, owner of Diamond D Dairy, a 600-cow operation in Mead, Colo. "When an animal leaves here, it is a reflection of the quality job we have done on our farm the past few years, and I am committed to providing both the highest-quality milk and meat to consumers."

Docheff went through the dairy-beef quality-certification program more than five years ago. "Every dairy producer needs to get educated, get on board and implement the program. We can't afford a black eye over our product."

Beef producers are not completely guiltless either, notes Ruppert. "We all need to become quality-certified and educated. We can't have anymore of these situations. We need to restore consumer confidence in our industries."

Both industries need to improve. Great strides have been made since the first dairy-beef quality audit in 1994, but there is still a long road ahead. The 2007 Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit showed the highest incidence of lame dairy cows ever. More visible defects were seen and cows were in leaner condition - 63 percent with a body condition score of 2.5 or lower.

"It is very important for us to understand that market cows are only a few steps away from a consumer's plate," says the California Beef Council's Holly Foster.  "Dairy producers need to start paying close attention to the quality of market cows that leave their farms."

Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Program

The Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Program assists dairy producers in identifying opportunities for improving the value of market cows and bulls from their operations through management, monitoring and marketing.

"A lot of things can happen as a result of how you market your dairy cattle to slaughter," says Ryan Ruppert, director of quality-assurance programs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "With a good dairy-beef quality-assurance program, you can ensure food safety and quality, increase your income, protect your freedom to farm and the market for your cull dairy cattle."

To become certified or to learn more about dairy-beef quality-assurance programs available in your state, contact your state coordinator by logging onto: www.bqa.org/StateBQAContacts.aspx.  A course can also be taken online at: http://dairybeef.ucdavis.edu/home.htm.

Antibiotic withdrawal times

Antibiotic residues are one of the biggest problems at the packer. The antibiotics most often detected are penicillin, gentamicin, streptomycin and oxytetracycline.

It is very important for dairy producers to take milk and meat withdrawal times into consideration when culling dairy cattle. The withdrawal times are very different. For example, penicillin has a milk-withholding time of 72 hours and a withholding period of 14 days for meat.

Remember, dry cow treatments may contain up to 10 times more antibiotics and will require an extended withholding period. Treated milk replacers and calves drinking waste milk from treated cows will also have withholding times.

A significant portion of the population is allergic to penicillin. Any meat that makes it through the system containing antibiotics becomes a liability. A major concern in human medicine is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bills have been introduced that, if passed, would prevent antibiotics from being used on-farm.

Residue prevention protocols are available from the Milk & Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Program and can be obtained by contacting them at 800-553-2479 or logging onto: www.dqacenter.org.