Cull dairy cows, particularly in the western and southeast states, can travel long distances before they reach their “final” destination.
These long transport times can cause undo stress, particularly if cows are culled involuntarily due to an ailment or lameness. That’s why it’s critically important, for the welfare of the animal, that cows be in good physical condition to withstand these long travel times.
A summary of studies of cull cow movement was published this winter in the Frontiers of Veterinary Science. The summary was co-authored by Lily Edwards-Callaway, an assistant professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State University, Jennifer Walker, a veterinarian and quality and food safety specialist with Danone North America, and Cassandra Tucker, a professor specializing in animal welfare at the University of California-Davis.
According to USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) study done in 2014, only 37% of cull cows are sent directly to slaughter. As a result, travel times can be extended even more if cull cows are marketed through a livestock market or auction and then sent to a slaughter facility.
According to the study, when cows are sent directly to slaughter, half travel less than 50 miles to slaughter and just 11% travel more than 240 miles. But if they go to market or auction, more than three-fourths travel less than 50 miles on the first leg of their journey to the auction market, and then are reloaded for transport to the slaughter plants. Some 22% went from 50 to 240 miles just to the auction market.
However, there is little national industry data on the length of the entire journey, from farm to auction market to final slaughter.
“At each point of sale and during each leg of the route, dairy cattle can be exposed to stressors such as comingling with unfamiliar animals, feed and water deprivation, engorged udders, handling by various people through multiple facilities and various transport and environmental conditions,” write the animal welfare specialists.
More importantly, these cattle stand for most of the journey. The 2016 National Beef Quality Audit showed the average transport time of 154 loads was 6.7 hours, with a few loads in route for more than 28 hours. (Federal rules prohibit transporting cattle for more than 28 continuous hours without at least 5 hours of rest.)
Standing this long puts additional stress on animals, say the specialists. Remember, they say, most cows seldom spend more than three hours away from freestall beds during their lactations.
While transport of healthy cattle is stressful enough, compromised or lame cattle face even greater challenges. The 2016 National Beef Quality Audit showed that 9% of culled dairy cows were extremely thin, 43% had some defect such as a swollen joint or foot abnormality and 23% were mobility-challenged. Last year, in a study in which Edwards-Callaway participated in, 9% of cattle had one or more welfare problems.
“Many of the problems identified in the aforementioned studies are ones that likely did not occur during the transport process, but were evident at the time the animals were shipped from the dairy,” say the specialists.
The National FARM (Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) does provide guidelines on whether involuntary cull dairy cows should be sent to slaughter. Candidates for non-shipment are ambulatory status, low body condition scores, imminent calving, dehydration or exhaustion, injuries or disease. But there is no verification for adherence to these requirements to be a certified FARM participant, note the specialists.
Another USDA study, done in 2014, showed that more than a third dairy cows with cancer eye, a fifth of the cows that had DAs or had been down for at least 24 hours, and 15% of lame cows were marketed.
“It is clear that the current system does not satisfactorily discourage the shipment of dairy cows that are unfit for transport,” say the specialists.
“Although [culling] decisions begin on the dairy, all stakeholders in the livestock market, transport and slaughter process have the responsibility to protect the welfare of dairy cattle,” they say.
Culling recommendations under the FARM program can be found here. Scroll down to “featured resources.”