Muscling and body condition of cull cows arriving at slaughter plants

Anecdotal information and findings of the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) indicate that a significant number of cull cows from the dairy industry are arriving at slaughter plants in less than satisfactory condition. As an example, the recent NBQA scored cattle for muscling as follows: score 1 = extremely light muscled to 5 = extremely heavy muscled. Statistics indicate that 93.8% of dairy cows were extremely light muscled or light muscled (score of 1 or 2); only 4.2% scored 3,1.9% scored 4 and none scored 5. By comparison, only 34.7% of beef cows had extremely light or light muscling scores. Cattle with the greatest frequency of a muscle score of 3 were beef cows, beef bulls and dairy bulls (Harris et al., 2017).

Similar observations were madefor body condition. Body condition scoring (BCS) is a useful management tool for determining nutritional needs and body reserves in cows. A 9-point scoring system is used for beef cows and beef bulls, whereas dairy cows and dairy bulls are scored using a 5-point scoring system with half scores. For perspective, a beef cow with a score of 5 or 6 is considered to be in ideal condition. A BCS of 1 is considered to be extremely thin and score of 9 would be considered a very obese cow. Using the 5-point scale with half scores for dairy cows and bulls provides a 9-point system similar to that for beef cattle. A cow with a BCS of 1 is considered a very thin cow and one with a BCS of 5 is considered very obese. Regardless of the stage of lactation, a cow with a BCS of 2 would be on the edge of being too thin and one with a BCS of 4 would be too fat. Lactating dairy cows scoring between 2.5 and 3.5 are considered to be within the ideal range.

The mean BCS recorded in the 2016 NBQA for beef cows (n = 1 911) and beef bulls (n = 406) was 4.7, whereas the mean BCS for dairy cows (n = 2 878) and dairy bulls (n = 121) was 2.6 and 3.3, respectively. Compared with data collected from 2007 (Nicholson, 2008) body condition of cows (both beef and dairy) improved from 2007 to 2016. Nonetheless, 9.3% of dairy cows and 0.8% of dairy bulls had BCS characterized as 'too low' (i.e. from 1.0 to 1.5). For the sake of comparison, 7.6% of beef cows and 5.7% of beef bulls had BCS considered too low (Harris et al., 2017).

The message to beef producers and dairy farmers is that when or if economically feasible, producers should strive to improve body condition and muscling in cattle determined to be light prior to marketing and/or slaughter. In some cases, marketing cattle while still in good condition, or increasing feed for light-muscled cattle and those with lower BCS has been shown to increase muscle and fat in thin under-conditioned animals (Matulis et al., 1987; Schnell et al., 1997). Improvements in body condition and muscling are also key determinants in market readiness, fitness fortravel and welfare of cattle.

5.1 Physical defects observed in beef

and dairy culls at slaughter

Based upon observations from the 2016 NBQA, the majority of cattle observed at slaughter facilities had no obvious injuries or physical defects. This suggests that most cattle were culled for reasons such as reproductive failure, undesirable behavioral characteristics or other non-physically obvious reasons. Physical defects that were observed in beef cows (n= 1 912), beef bulls (n = 402), dairy cows (n = 2 855) and dairy bulls (n = 120) included the following: bottle teats, broken penis, failed suspensory ligament, foot abnormality, full bag, lumpy jaw, mastitis, multiple udder problems, retained placenta, swollen joints and warts. At least one of these visible defects was present in 44.1%, 32.1%, 27.9% and 24.1% of dairy cows, beef bulls, beef cows and dairy bulls, respectively. Foot abnormalities (12.7%), swollen joints (4.7%) and the presence of an abscess (2.7%) were observed with the greatest frequency in beef bulls. The percentage of foot abnormalities in beef cows was 3.4% followed by 2.5% in dairy cows (Harris et al., 2017).

Chilean researchers recently reported on the pre- and post-transport effects on the welfare of 237 cull cows shipped directly from farms with an average journey length of 5 h 22 min. The shortest journey was 45 min and the longest was a maritime-terrestrial transport from a farm in the Magallanes Region that lasted 46 h 55 min. Cattle on the longest journey received neither water nor food at any time during the trip (Sanchez-Hidalgo et al., 2019). All cattle had at least one visible health problem. Fifty-two percent (124/237) of cattle had low body condition, 50% (119/237) mammary gland disorders and 24% (n = 57) were lame (Sanchez-Hidalgo et al., 2019).

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