I recently had the opportunity to visit the Cargill Regional Beef Plant in Pennsylvania along with a group of dairy producers. This facility harvests about 1,600 head of cattle per day, with about 70 percent of the total being market (cull) dairy cattle. It may be considered small as compared to others in the United States, but with 1,200 employees processing about 220 head per hour, the facility is quite an operation.

While there, we spoke with a number of individuals responsible for different aspects of the operation. It became evident during our discussions that, although we are doing a good job as an industry, there is room for improvement. 

Here are a few of the important points we came away with after our visit.

1. Residue avoidance 

The most common residue issues are still due to penicillin and flunixin. It is imperative that you keep detailed treatment records and adhere to on-farm treatment protocols. Whenever a residue-creating drug is administered, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires a record of the following: animal ID, drug, dosage and duration, route of administration (intravenous, intramuscular, subcutaneous), and the name of the person administering treatment. Remember that some drugs have zero-tolerance levels in certain classes of animals — as with flunixin in veal calves and most sulfas in adult cattle.

2. Market cow condition 

For both welfare and economic reasons, it makes sense to remove animals from your herd in a timely manner before there is a significant loss of body condition and cattle become more debilitated. The procurement specialists at this plant recommend that you “don’t hang on to her a few more days.”  Think through all of your options before treating a cow. Don’t treat cows that have no realistic chance of improving. Often, the cows that are kept around a bit longer to “get the drugs out” should not enter our food supply anyway.  Cows in poor condition have little value and just become someone else’s problem. These cows should be euthanized on the farm. Think of market cows as a profit center for your dairy. Good-conditioned dairy cattle can move up a grade into the “white beef” category and gain a higher price for you.

3. Condemnations 

These generally occur from lesions that can’t be seen from the outside in the live cow.  The carcass and organs of every animal are evaluated by a USDA inspector and all animals with suspect findings are also tested for drug residues. Common causes of condemnation are lymphosarcoma (cancer) and septicemia following a severe infection such as toxic mastitis, metritis or pneumonia. Lymphosarcoma secondary to bovine leucosis virus (BLV) is still the most common cause of condemnations, lending support to the need for increased control programs in our herds.

Overall, I think we have come a long way as an industry. 

I was impressed to see the level of husbandry in the pens and as cattle moved to the harvest floor. In this facility, there is a full-time inspector and continuous, third-party video oversight of all unloading and handling of the cattle. Any cattle that are ambulatory but have difficulty moving through the pens are sorted out and processed in a separate area. Use of prods is not permitted except to defend oneself from an aggressive animal. 

As you know on your operation, comfortable cows are more productive. The experts at this plant also know that calm handling of cattle prior to harvest produces superior meat quality by decreasing the incidence of “dark cutter” (dark, firm and dry) beef.

Remember, though, these issues will not disappear and regulations and residue violations will only be under more scrutiny. Do your part to be proactive and support a positive image for an industry that provides safe and wholesome milk and meat to consumers.

Mark J. Thomas is a veterinarian and partner in Countryside Veterinary Clinic LLP in Lowville, N.Y.