In 2009, 3 million beef cows, 2.6 million dairy cows, and 525,000 bulls were slaughtered in the United States, representing 20.4 percent of all cattle slaughtered. Based upon inventory, this represents 9 percent of all beef cows, 28 percent of all dairy cows, and 25 percent of all bulls at that time. Since 67 percent of cattle evaluated during the 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit displayed a USDA back tag, it is evident that a majority of market cows and bulls are sold immediately before slaughter through livestock auction markets.
In a study published in 2000, it was estimated that 15 to 20 percent of cow/calf income and 4 percent of dairy income is derived from the sale of market cows and bulls. In a separate survey study, 95 percent of market dairy cows went directly to slaughter. Adding value to market cows and bulls is one thing. Minimizing or eliminating quality defects is another. The 2007 National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit documented that 31 percent of cattle evaluated in holding pens at markets had at least one visible quality defect that detracted from the market price.
Investigators from the University of Idaho, Oklahoma State University, and the California Beef Council recently published data regarding quality defects in market beef and dairy cows and bulls sold through livestock auction markets in the Western United States. This study was conducted during two seasons of 2008 and involved 18,949 lots (23,479 animals) of adult market cattle. Observations were made in three different States at 10 livestock auction markets. Nine personnel evaluated the lots for 23 different Beef Quality Assurance-related traits.
Mean body condition score for beef cows was 4.7 and for beef bulls, 5.3, using a nine-point system. Mean body condition score for dairy cows was 2.6 and for dairy bulls, 2.9, using a 5-point system.
Among beef cattle, 15.1 percent of cows and 15.4 percent of bulls were considered lame. Among dairy cattle, 44.7 percent of cows and 26.1 percent of bulls were lame. Cancer eye was observed in only 0.6 percent of beef cows, 0.3 percent of beef bulls, 0.3 percent of dairy cows, and none in dairy bulls.
Relative to impact on price received, premiums and discounts were based upon comparisons to the average body condition of five for beef cattle and three for dairy cattle. As expected, premiums were paid for cattle with more body condition and for those that weighed more for both dairy and beef animals. All lame cows and all cows with evidence of cancer eye were discounted.
Evidence of horns greater than 1-inch created discounts among beef cows. Beef bulls with horns received even larger discounts. In this study, 90 percent of beef cows, 86 percent of beef bulls, 95 percent of dairy cows, and 84 percent of dairy bulls were not horned.
Beef cows with a predominantly black hide as well as other hide colors received a premium over beef cows with a base red color. Prices received for beef bulls and dairy cattle were not affected by hide color.
In this study, beef cows and beef bulls sold during the spring received premiums as compared with selling during the fall. In contrast, dairy cows and bulls sold during the spring were discounted as compared to selling in the fall.
Conclusions from this study indicate that animals that are visibly sick or have a defect associated with a possible antibiotic risk will be discounted. Anything that can be done to increase body condition score and body weight prior to marketing will increase price. Animals with minor quality defects, however, should be sold in a timely manner before the defect advances and the discount increases.