Prevent bruising in cull cows

When a dairy cow's milk-producing career is over, she switches careers and becomes a beef cow, but too often bruising from a variety of sources significantly drops her "earning potential" at that point.

A slaughterhouse study done by Kurt Vogel, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in conjunction with Cargill-Taylor Beef-Milwaukee, showed that in the bruised cows of this study, there was an average 34.3 lbs. of trim loss. In the study, a projected 16,086 lbs. of total trim were lost in the group. At the 90% lean beef price at that time in 2004, $23,969 was lost in the sample period. "If you calculate a 260-day work year with a 500,000-lb. trim loss, we estimated that this facility alone could lose $800,000 per year to bruising," says Vogel.

So why is there so much bruising in cull dairy cows? Attitudes may play a role. "I think the producer's attitude is one of ‘she's of no more value to me as a productive unit of the dairy; I am salvaging her by sending her on to slaughter,"" explains Jan Shearer, DVM, University of Florida. "Unfortunately, dairymen don't always value their role as beef producers, and they forget the dairy cow is a dual-purpose animal. Sending a dairy cow to beef is the default option for the dairy producer. It does matter to producers what a cull cow is worth at slaughter. But, many producers don't seem to manage or market this resource for maximum profit. If they did, welfare and handling would be a higher priority and less of a potential problem."

Veterinarians play a significant role in this area. "The veterinarian has an opportunity to assist clients in seeing the potential of proper cull cow management," states Shearer. "I think it is his/her responsibility to exhibit proper care and handling, and provide advice and training as needed to ensure that dairies optimize the welfare and market potential of cull cows." (See "Whose responsibility is it?" sidebar.)

The bruising study
According to Vogel, Cargill-Taylor Beef-Milwaukee decided to implement this project with the purpose of learning as much as they could about significant bruising and trim loss in their plant. Goals of the study were to look at percentage of bruised cattle at harvest, bruise location frequency and meat loss, and geographic origin of bruised cattle. Significant bruising was defined by trim loss that renders at least one primal cut (round, loin, rib or chuck) unfit for wholesale and was generally more than 10 lbs. of trim loss. "Bruising has always been present in cow slaughter plants, but there was a reduction in trim loss to bruising with the implementation of the ban on the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle in December of 2003," notes Vogel.


Kurt Vogel's research found bruising of cull cows can be costly to the producer and the industry.

Out of a total sample of 10,227 head, 469 (4.3%) in this study were deemed significantly bruised. Bruise location frequency showed that 53% of the bruising occurred in the round, 23% in the loin, 16% in the rib and 6% in the chuck. Because most of the bruising occurred in the back part of the animal, it indicates handling issues, such as prodding, hitting, slamming gates on cows, etc., as well as injuries due to poor facilities.

Of the 15 states where cattle were purchased, four states -- South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio -- had more than 5% significantly bruised cows. "I can speculate that bruising was highest in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio due to higher numbers of dairy cattle in these states compared to other supply states," says Vogel.

There are obvious causes of bruising in dairy cattle, such as handling, poor facilities and hazardous environments. "Training employees on animal handling would have a very beneficial impact on the reduction of bruising in cull animals," says Vogel. "The abuse of handling aids, such as electric prods, whips and canes, can cause cattle to rush and injure themselves or other animals. Additionally, handlers need to be trained to stay calm and quiet around animals. These two points will eliminate the majority of handling-related bruising."


Jan Shearer, DVM, says all employees could use some information and training on basic cattle behavior and proper handling.

Many of today's dairy employees are Hispanic and have had little to no prior experience working with dairy cattle. "All could use some information and training on basic cattle behavior and proper handling," adds Shearer. "TempleGrandin"s information should be required reading or viewing on tape for all of those who work with cattle. People need to understand flight zones, the point of balance and characteristics of vision and hearing in cattle. They need to understand cow psychology as it relates to human interactions. This would definitely reduce injuries due to mishandling and, in the long run, make their work with cattle far more enjoyable."

Upper-leg lameness commonly occurs from injuries due to falling or slipping. Conditions such as hip injuries often occur as a consequence of cows being forced through tight areas that cause fracture of the tuber coxae of the hip, says Shearer. Other causes of upper-leg injury include fracture and damage to tendons and ligaments from crowd gates, injuries by bulls or other cows during estrus or bouts of cow fighting.

Cattle are large, tough animals, but Shearer says people working around cattle may think cows are more or less indestructible. "Cows don't usually vocalize discomfort unless the event is extremely painful," he explains. "This makes people believe incorrectly that they feel no pain."

Vogel notes that it appears most bruise-causing injuries are occurring due to facilities issues, such as protruding objects, slippery floors and inadequate stall size. "Producers should walk through their facilities on a regular basis and look for things that can cause bruising," he suggests. "A telltale sign of regular cattle contact with an object is a shiny surface from regular rubbing and/or the presence of hair. These objects should be repaired, replaced or removed immediately."


Poorly designed stalls that don't adequately fit the size of today's cows can contribute to bruising.

The use of industrial-grade floor coatings, such as those used on slaughter plant floors, is a good remedy for slick concrete. Vogel says this would work especially well in a parlor holding area.

Facility design can also be problematic in older barns or newer operations. "There are many newer facilities that have not designed their stalls properly," says Shearer. "I think our industry is continuing to do better, but it has only been in the past few years that we are paying more attention to these cow comfort issues."

Who gets bruised?
While any cow can get bruised by poor handling or facilities, some cows are more susceptible to injury than others. For example, sickness will generally weaken an animal. "With this in mind, we are more apt to observe bruising in sick cows because they are more likely to be pushed around by other animals in the herd while entering or leaving the barn, while at the bunk, etc.," explains Vogel.

It may be beneficial to look at the reasons for non-productivity of cows that are in line to be culled. "For example, if it is due to her inability to conceive, what is her body condition?" asks Vogel. "Thin cows are more likely to show significant bruising than cows with higher body condition scores, and they don't conceive well in some cases. On the whole, I feel sickness contributes to a higher bruise frequency than non-productivity, but we must look at the reason for non-productivity.

Transportation is a segment that often gets overlooked in livestock issues as they relate to injury and beef quality. "Some of the people transporting livestock don't understand the importance of driving carefully when transporting animals," says Shearer. "People who own cattle or horses and transport them know how easily slipping and falling injuries during transport may occur." Overcrowded or undercrowded trucks, lack of bedding, rough roads and poor driving skills can contribute to injury and bruising.

Information from the Kansas Transport Initiative developed by KansasStateUniversity indicates that careless handling during loading and unloading is the cause of two-thirds of bruising. Bruised meat cannot be used for human consumption, so on average the value of a carcass is reduced by $4.03. Stressed cattle also may produce dark cutting meat with a lower sale value. Cattle stressed from poor handling are more susceptible and more likely to spread disease-causing pathogens that can threaten the health of the food supply and the public.

The Kansas Transport Initiative has available Cattle Handling and Health Guidelines to educate truck drivers on cattle welfare before, during and after transport. These fact sheets can be found at

Shearer suggests that drivers be taught how to drive when hauling livestock, including avoiding, when possible, roads that have numerous curves and bends, roads that course over hills and mountains, and sudden stops, fast starts and sharp turns that predispose to falling and injury. They also need to keep in mind the number of animals being transported, footing within the trailer, number of hours in transport and the presence of bedding. "These are all factors that influence the amount of problems one is likely to observe once animals arrive at their destination. Anyone who has spent even a little time in a packing plant knows that livestock hauling is a critical component in quality assurance and animal welfare."

Whose responsibility is it?

Good animal welfare practices pay for themselves through increased cow longevity, increased efficiency in movement, decreased veterinary bills and higher salvage value at the end of the animal's productive life. Good animal welfare practices cover facility design, management and maintenance, not just handling procedures. Kurt Vogel, student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers actions that different segments of the industry can take to prevent bruising in cull dairy cattle and help increase their beef value.

Take a proactive approach on bruise prevention by walking through facilities on a regular basis and eliminating potential bruise-causing situations, such as protruding objects, slippery floors or stalls that are too small. Train employees how to handle cattle in a safe, humane manner.

Help producers identify problems in the facility that can cause bruising. Encourage them to keep track of cull rates and reasons for culling. Look for underlying issues that may cause bruising or lameness, such as dietary problems or facility inadequacies. 

Livestock haulers
Use good animal welfare practices, don't rush cattle, don't overcrowd,

sort weak cows from strong cows and don't abuse handling aids. Drive defensively and avoid rough starts or stops. The use of bedding will help to reduce the incidence of bruising, as well as non-ambulatory cattle on the truck. Keep truck and trailer in good maintenance and watch for any bruise-causing situations.

Sale barns
Perform regular facility walk-throughs to look for bruise-causing situations. Observe how cattle move through the facility. Watch for slipping and remedy it with floor coatings or grooving. Train employees how to handle cattle in a safe, humane manner. Cattle should not be rushed, and open access to water is a must for all livestock to prevent weakness during the marketing process.

Packing plants
Keep a record of trim loss in the plant and notify suppliers if they are supplying cattle with too much trim loss. Train employees to handle cattle in a safe, humane manner. Abuse of handling aids is unacceptable. Observe how cattle move through the facility; remedy any bruise-causing situations, especially slick floors and protruding objects. Purchase good cattle. Give the producer a financial incentive to supply non-bruised animals. Promote the use of bedding on trucks.