Dairy cows only produce milk. If only it were that simple. Truth is, dairy cattle make up a large portion of the beef consumed by Americans. And it’s not just hamburger. Dairy beef, even from cull dairy cows and not just from fed dairy steers, can wind up center-of-the-plate. But, the dairy-beef market lags behind the traditional beef-breeds beef market when it comes to beef quality assurance (BQA). BQA protocols involve injection sites, prudent product use, withdrawal times and other procedures  —  all areas veterinarians should be well-versed in.

“The beef and dairy industries have been making efforts to reduce the incidence of violative residues, and to improve the quality of beef in dairy cattle for a long time,” says Barbara Knust, DVM, Center for Animal Health & Food Safety, University of Minnesota. “In general, a large improvement has been seen since the 1970s. But we still can do better. Cull dairy cattle and bob veal continue to make up approximately 80% of all the condemnations due to violative residues at slaughter, and injection-site lesions cost the industry an estimated $70 per cull cow in trimming losses.” 

Traditionally, dairy cattle and beef cattle have been viewed separately in how they are treated and managed, especially when it has come to injection-site issues and residues. “It may be more appropriate to take a view that we are serving a single cattle industry, rather than the dairy industry and the beef industry,” notes Tim Goldsmith, DVM, MPH, Center for Animal Health & Food Safety, University of Minnesota. “As it is most likely that all cattle will enter the food chain as beef, it is time that BQA as well as appropriate drug use and withdrawal times be viewed as accepted management practices for all producers and veterinarians.”

“There are still plenty of dairy veterinarians who consider the milk quality issues and overlook dairy-beef quality issues,” adds Virginia Fajt DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, Texas A&M University. “I think dairy veterinarians can do more to serve the beef industry by considering themselves part of it.”

DBQA injection practices

To examine issues related to dairy-beef quality assurance (DBQA), a survey on general knowledge, behavior and communication was conducted by the University of Minnesota on dairy veterinarians. The research was supported by Beef Check Off funds. Responses were received from 287 veterinarians in 40 states.

“This survey was put together to better understand the different knowledge gaps that could contribute to what we’re finding at slaughter,” Knust explains. “These issues have gotten a lot of media attention, due in large part to the Westland/Hallmark beef recall and the Pew report on animal agriculture. The consumer is asking more questions about how antibiotics are used in food-producing animals, and is concerned about the health of dairy cattle going to slaughter.”

Participants were asked what injection sites they used most often when treating clients’ cows with antibiotics, vaccines and reproductive drugs. Two-thirds of responding veterinarians reported usually giving antibiotics in the neck, 53% reported using the neck for vaccinations, and 24% of respondents reported using the neck for injections of reproductive drugs.

Veterinarians as a group give injections in the neck more frequently than dairy producers. A concurrent questionnaire with similar questions about injection sites was administered to dairy producers in the upper Midwest. These dairy producers reported giving 21% of antibiotic injections, 28% of vaccinations, and only 5% of reproductive drug injections in the neck. Similar trends were also found in the 1996 National Animal Monitoring System Dairy study. It was concluded that the design of dairy cattle facilities was a likely explanation, as stock tend to be handled from the rear.

BQA guidelines indicate the neck should be used for all subcutaneous (SQ) or intramuscular (IM) injections to reduce the prevalence of injection site blemishes in whole muscle cuts of beef, such as the round, sirloin and chuck. The prevalence of injection site lesions in fed cattle in the United States decreased significantly through the 1990s. However, the prevalence of injection-site lesions in outside round muscles of market dairy cows was reported in one study as approximately 49%, resulting in producer losses of nearly $70 per cull cow due to product defects such as bruises, injection-site lesions and condemnations. Veterinarians can help reduce this loss by demonstrating safe injection techniques for different handling facilities, and adopting a policy to only use the neck for injections that are more likely to cause lesions, such as large volumes (>5 mL), or with drugs or vaccines known to cause inflammation.

“We should focus first on improving the rate that antimicrobials and vaccines are given in the neck,” Knust suggests. “These are the drugs that reliably cause persistent injection-site lesions. Less is known about the tissue damage from small-dose injections, such as oxytocin, rBST, or reproductive hormones.” 

The handling facilities where these injections are administered can be inconvenient or even dangerous to access the neck in some operations. Veterinarians can play a role by giving advice on safe handling and injecting techniques for farm personnel. Other practices that can be helpful in preventing injection-site lesions include specifying how many injections should be used for a large volume and providing appropriate needles and syringes to carry out a prescribed treatment, Knust recommends.

Extra-label drug use

Survey participants were asked about extra-label use of specific drugs in dairy cattle. Forty percent of veterinarians reported personally injecting the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug flunixin meglumine intramuscularly (IM), which differs from the labeled intravenous (IV) route of administration.  Sixty-six percent of respondents also reported dispensing flunixin meglumine to clients for IM administration in dairy cows. 

The Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD) holds the position that flunixin should not be given IM or SQ because of injection site lesions and prolonged tissue clearance. FARAD recommends a 30-day withdrawal for meat if a single injection has been given, but extends the time to 60 days if there were multiple IM flunixin injections. A conservative milk withdrawal of 72 hours is also recommended. A recent press release from the FDA-CVM discusses the occurrence of violative residues in dairy cattle that resulted from IM flunixin use for convenience purposes, and stresses this is not an allowed reason for extra-label use.

“FARAD recently published information on the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle, including their recommendation to avoid IM use altogether since accurate withdrawal times cannot be predicted with currently available pharmacokinetic data,” explains Fajt.

Flunixin is an example of a change in labeling that has been slowly adopted. “For years, flunixin was an extra-label drug in cattle, and veterinarians used their judgment to determine route and withdrawal times,” Knust explains. It only recently has become labeled for beef and even more recently for dairy, which specifies intravenous use. “Veterinarians and dairy producers have already adopted the more convenient practice of using flunixin IM. We need to make sure that our profession is aware of the incidence of violative flunixin residues in beef, and to adjust our own practices as well as our on-farm recommendations accordingly. It is the veterinarian’s responsibility to adhere to AMDUCA standards any time a drug is used in an extra-label fashion.”

“This demonstrates how important it is for a veterinarian to be up-to-date and involved with all the drug use decisions on the farm,” adds Goldsmith. “As this example demonstrates, approved products and routes of administration can change over time.”


Survey respondents were asked about the major reasons for non-compliance by clients in their practices. The most frequently chosen answers were client perceptions of low risk of being found in violation (55%) and lack of understanding of residue-avoidance practices (52%). Respondents also cited pressure to remove a sick cow from the farm (32%), lack of treatment records (26%), lack of time to carry out less convenient treatments (26%), and poor communication between veterinarian and producer (18%). Knust adds that a Pennsylvania risk assessment-based study identified a lack of adequate farm treatment records as being the highest area of risk for antibiotic residues, followed by lack of understanding how to judiciously use antibiotics, and suboptimal relationships between veterinarians and their clients.

Recordkeeping may be the best starting point for veterinarians to help their clients avoid residues. “Every farm is required by the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance to have some kind of a record of all medications administered to milking dairy cows, so if there is no system present or if it does not include all the required components (date, animal ID, drug, dose, route, withdrawal time) that would be an excellent opportunity to offer guidance and education,” Knust states.

Sixty-three percent of survey respondents reported they did not routinely advise clients to test cull cows for residues before marketing. A Canadian study found significantly more farms with milk residue violations were not routinely using an antibiotic testing kit than were farms that had no residue violations, indicating that more widespread use of such tests may be a valuable aid in determining when an animal has cleared meat withdrawal times.     

Sixty-two percent of responding veterinarians asked their clients to keep written treatment records. However, 45% said they never looked at clients’ written treatment records. In a recent nationwide study of farms with more than 200 cows, 42% of farms did not keep complete written treatment records. A study which included large and small dairy farms in Pennsylvania found 50% of dairy producers did not consistently keep written treatment records. Keeping adequate treatment records is required by law in order to ship milk and market beef. Veterinary involvement in overseeing treatment records, particularly when a prescription or extra-label drug is used, is a crucial step.

Communication with clients

Participants were asked about communication with clients about the use of animal health products. The majority used in-person communication (96%), written instructions (74%), and telephone calls (64%). Veterinarians also used a practice newsletter (29%), practice meetings (28%), email (8%), fax (5%) or websites (3%).

“We all have clients who can be difficult to communicate with, and this can be particularly frustrating when a poor relationship puts the farm at risk of residues,” Knust says. A veterinarian can improve the control they have by creating a policy of requiring routine visits to the farm before prescriptions can be written for drugs, and making sure that all labeled instructions for these drugs are complete with adequate withdrawal times. “There certainly are instances where over-the-counter drugs are used in an inappropriate manner, and the veterinarian has no direct involvement — that is why penicillin is the most commonly detected violative residue. We must continue to share our knowledge with clients so that we can improve herd health and food safety.”

In addition, the veterinary community needs to communicate a consistent message to clients. “If producers are getting mixed messages from different veterinarians about pharmaceutical use standards, it reduces the perceived importance of this issue,” Goldsmith adds.

Veterinarians are continually reminded of and presented with opportunities for furthering their scientific education, but the softer skills required to be successful in practice are equally important. “In veterinary education, we are starting to realize this, and veterinary CE organizers should consider adding these types of skills training to their meetings,” Fajt says.

One means to improve compliance is to increase use of written diagnostic and treatment protocols on farms. Developing such protocols creates an opportunity for veterinarians to discuss proper drug use and educate dairy producers about withdrawal times, antibiotic resistance and disease prevention practices.   

If a farm isn’t already using one, providing a recommended protocol for treatments can be very helpful to promote judicious antimicrobial use. Protocols ensure consistency of drug use on the farm  —  which will work to improve treatment effectiveness, compliance with withdrawal times and adherence to labeled instructions. Knust suggests that farms that are using a protocol already should undergo periodic review with the herd veterinarian to make sure that it is still appropriate and legal  —  especially when the regulations regarding particular drugs change.

Fajt agrees and believes it’s important to emphasize that farms with protocols (whether written or oral) should review those protocols on a regular basis. “A written protocol that is five years old is probably not going to protect you from liability.”

Education on residue avoidance

Very small farms where the same person milking the cows is also administering medications and making culling decisions will have different learning needs than a large operation that has different employees handling tasks. “Whatever the size of farm, it is always good to take advantage of learning opportunities when they arise during farm visits,” Knust says. A herd health call is a good time to ask about treatment protocols, withdrawal times and violative residues. “This all leads to having accurate treatment records. When examining and treating a sick cow, proper injection sites can be actively demonstrated, and the treatment recorded into the farm’s system.”

Knust encourages veterinarians to contact their state beef council for any educational materials and certification programs that focus on dairy beef. “An important component of residue avoidance and beef quality is getting producers to become more concerned about the issues and potential consequences. Client meetings and mailings are an effective way to raise awareness, and there are some great online DBQA training materials.”

Where veterinarians get information

Veterinarians indicated they received product information most frequently from pharmaceutical company representatives (74%), educational seminars (70%) and product labels (51%). They were asked how they most often determined withholding times for antibiotics used in an extra-label manner. Forty-five percent reported they consulted FARAD, while 23% said they calculated a withholding time based on published data, 13% consulted other veterinarians in their practice, 4% consulted university or Extension veterinarians, and 10% used other methods.

Almost 90% of respondents said they were either “very familiar” or “somewhat familiar” with BQA or DBQA practices. Considering the predominant injection practices and on-farm recommendations that respondents reported, the results of this survey suggest there may be a disconnect between knowledge about BQA and on-farm practices.

Over 70% of respondents were interested in learning more about BQA/DBQA recommendations. The types of programs most likely to get good participation were home study with printed materials (33%), local/regional meeting sponsored by pharmaceutical company (30%), computer CD (30%), online program (27%), televised recording (26%), program during American Association of Bovine Practitioners’ annual meeting (22%), and program during state veterinary association meeting (20%).

This study demonstrated the commitment that the cattle industry has to the quality and safety of the products it produces, Goldsmith states. “We have gained some answers to the practices and mind sets that influence what is occurring on the farm. With this information educational efforts can be directed where they have the most impact.” 

Knowledge of dairy-cow beef marketing

Survey respondents were asked about price factors, beef markets and drug residue testing to asses their knowledge about dairy-cow beef marketing. They were asked to select factors they believed affected the price producers received for culled dairy cows. Eighty-nine percent chose health of animal, and 84% selected weight as relevant factors, while foot and leg problems were selected by 57%, quality of meat selected by 52%, and approximately 40% of respondents chose age, breed, and hide blemishes as price-determining factors. A single study primarily describing beef-type cull cows found cattle health and visible knots or lumps had large negative affects on price received.

When asked to select from a list of potential food products made from cull dairy cattle beef, the most commonly selected uses were processed meat (88%), grocery store (88%), fast food restaurants (83%), and pet food (67%). Although the mean quality grade for cull dairy cattle is cutter/canner, dairy cow beef is also used for higher-quality food markets such as chain restaurant steak houses and mail order steaks.

Fifty-one percent of respondents believed penicillin was routinely tested for in beef, while fewer than half of respondents believed tetracycline (36%), sulfadimethoxine (35%) or gentamicin (42%) were routinely tested. Forty-four percent of respondents indicated they didn’t know what drug residues were tested. With the current FAST protocol in use to detect bacterial growth inhibition, violative levels of all antimicrobials can be detected. Suspect samples are also tested for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Virginia Fajt, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVCP was surprised at the lack of knowledge about residue testing on dairy beef. “I was also a bit surprised that more dairy veterinarians were not aware of what happens to the dairy cow at processing and that they don’t all become hamburger,” she notes. “This is an educational issue, and should be included in all discussions about injection practices.”

Barbara Knust, DVM, agrees that veterinarians and producers may not have much information after a cow leaves the farm. “There hasn’t been much published information about the methods used to test for drug residues,” Knust says. “I think that veterinarians and dairy producers would greatly benefit from more education about what happens to a dairy cow once she gets on the truck.”

FAST facts: Animals that appear “suspicious” of having a violative residue are flagged during the antemortem inspection at the slaughter plant. The inspectors look for tell-tale signs that a cow has been treated recently: injection-site lesions, a surgical incision, or mastitic quarter. During slaughter, the carcass is inspected again, and all “suspects” are set aside for residue testing with the FAST (Fast Antimicrobial Screening Test). Samples of tissue fluid from the muscle, kidney, and liver are introduced onto a plate that has been inoculated with Bacillus megaterium, and the plate is observed for inhibition of bacterial growth. With this technique, the exact anti-microbial causing the residue is not pinpointed until further testing is performed, but it gives a rapid result.


Resources for beef quality assurance and dairy-beef quality assurance information: