The public image of dairy cows represents one of the greatest anomalies in modern-day agriculture. On one end of the spectrum are bucolic, pastoral images of cows on the farm, gentle animals that produce the milk, cheese and ice cream we love to eat. Who can forget all those commercials featuring those happy, mischievous California cows?

At the other end of the spectrum are the stark images from the Hallmark Westland video of 2008. The image of emaciated, mobility challenged cows with pendulous udders being mishandled by a forklift has been burned into the national consciousness.

Most processors handling cull cows for slaughter do so responsibly, using humane techniques. There is still a dilemma, as renowned animal-welfare expert and Meat&Poultry contributing editor Dr. Temple Grandin notes: “Plants have become really good at handling dairy cows, but the problem now is the condition of the animal arriving at the plant.”

Grandin believes the metabolism that makes the cow a super-milking machine may be detrimental to the animal’s health later on. “The biology has been pushed to a point where the animal starts coming apart,” she explains. “I think it’s a biological system overload.”

The condition of cull-dairy cows arriving at slaughter today doesn’t differ greatly from five years ago. Against the backdrop of a complicated supply chain, however, the welfare world of the cull-dairy cow is about to get a lot better.

Improve culling decisions

Veterans of the cull cow supply chain say changes in two critical areas are needed to improve cow conditions at slaughter: better culling decisions and a greater understanding of the journey cows undergo from dairy to slaughter.

Jennifer Woods, owner of J Woods Livestock Services, has worked with dairy cattle and transportation for more than 25 years. She says: “The biggest problem with dairy cows is that the decision to ship them is made later than it should be.”

Culling decisions can be grouped into two categories: planned and unplanned. Planned culls are advance decisions to slaughter based on such things as declining milk production or the inability to breed back, balanced against economic factors at the time, which could include the price of grain, milk and beef.

Unplanned culls are quick decisions based on abrupt changes in the health or mobility of the animal. These decisions are not so predictable. Shelly Mayer, dairy farmer and executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW), says “Metabolically, the cow changes very fast. Monday, she’s milking 130 lbs. a day; Tuesday, during the night she didn’t eat very well, and for some reason doesn’t have much milk. Wednesday, you have to make a decision to treat her or ship her. That’s how fast an involuntary cull will go.”

The unplanned culls make up a significant part of the cull population. A 2007 USDA report showed that 41.3 percent of cows are unplanned culls for lameness or udder problems.

An uncertain journey

Life on the dairy is very structuredwith care, nurture and schedule providing a stable framework for the animals. When a dairy cow is sent to slaughter, she moves quickly from a conditioned environment to a journey fraught with continual change, uncertainty and stress.

Woods says understanding the journey will help producers make better decisions. “How long is the trip going to be? If she has a minor condition, is it a condition that transport will worsen? When a weakened animal is transported, they are more likely to go down,” she adds.

And that trip is not well defined. Kurt Vogel, assistant professor of animal science at the Univ. of Wisconsin-River Falls, explains: “Over 80 percent of the cows sold for slaughter go through auction barns.” Though these markets play an important role in the supply chain, information on how the cow fares through the marketing system is lost. “There needs to be a concerted effort to get the message back to the producer.”

In another wrinkle, the cow purchased at auction may not go straight to slaughter. Speculators buy cows at one auction and resell them at another, a cycle that can be repeated several times until the animal is finally slaughtered. Woods recounts tracking a cow that changed hands five times plus traveled thousands of miles before ending up on a kill floor. Such a journey can last up to two weeks, taking a toll on an already weakened animal.

The uncertain journey creates an unintended consequence: a lactating cow sent to slaughter is still producing milk, continuing to fill her udder. What was minor lameness when she was shipped has now been exacerbated by an engorged udder carrying a large quantity of milk. The weight and size of the distended udder makes the cow extremely uncomfortable and movement difficult.

If the excess weight causes one of the ligaments that support the udder to tear, every step becomes not only uncomfortable but painful for the animal. A cow culled for minor lameness or mastitis can end up with severe mobility problems and in severe pain if the trip from the dairy lasts more than two days, which it frequently can. There are no rules or guidelines that govern how lactating cows move through the marketing system, and no feedback to the dairy about how the cow fares. It’s a black hole of information, which is anathema to producers who are used to tracking every detail of their cows health.

Mayer says the information gap in the supply chain is frustrating: “The dairy industry and the beef industry talk two separate languages. The dairy farmer only sees the cow he puts on the truck, and the beef industry only sees what comes off the truck. There are things being lost in the middle that neither end is really tracking,” Mayer adds.

Tearing down silos

Mayer’s comment about the different languages spoken in the beef and dairy worlds resonates with Jennifer Walker, director of Dairy Stewardship at Dean Foods:

“My sense is that everyone is functioning in their own little silo, dairy is over here, beef is over here, sale barns over there,” Mayer says. “I think success will mean bridging those gaps so that a common language, common goals and expectations are better understood. Then we need to hold people accountable for it. That’s the big first step and a challenge.”

Dean Foods, one of the largest processors in the country of fluid milk, is developing dairy guidelines for milk production that will impact dairy cow welfare.

The biggest bang, however, is likely to come from fast-food giant McDonalds (See Sidebar“Taking the bull by the horns”). The world’s largest restaurant chain has quietly put together a task force of respected subject matter experts from all segments of the supply chain. While previous attempts to solve this broad issue have fallen victim to inertia, the world’s largest restaurant chain is intent on driving expectations and developing verifiable guidelines that will give consumers confidence that their cows are treated well throughout their lives.

Slowly but surely, the silos are starting to come down. Aurora, Ill.-based meat, milk and cheese supplier OSI Industries is working with Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin to better understand the other side of the production process.

Mayer and her board of directors are visiting a Cargill slaughter plant in Milwaukee, Wis., so they can see what cows look like at the other end. Patty Bikowsky, a Central New York dairy farmer, is visiting Cargill’s Wyalusing, Pa., slaughter plant with a group for the same reason.

To Mayer, the solution lies in being cow-centric. “We need to take care of the cow all the way through the system. Dairymen who are cow-centric produce a lot of high-quality milk,” she explains. “I’m convinced that if we have that same mentality, we educate one another and do right by the cow, we will have a beautiful end-product. It doesn’t mean life doesn’t have discomfort, but it doesn’t have to be inhumane. We can’t forget the cow.”

A 30-year veteran of processing-plant operations and former GM of Cargill’s Taylor Packing, Jerry Karczewski is a contributing editor based in Oconomowoc, Wis. He also is the owner of Karczewski Consulting (, which provides humane handling and plant operations consulting services.