We looked at the factors that affected the value of market dairy cows. The most obvious discounts over which a farmer can control in healthy cows is body condition score (BCS), sale weight and mobility. Increase in any of these conditions will result in a reduction in discounts but will it be profitable and if so, what is the best feeding/management regimen?

Research on feeding market dairy cows is limited, but I will report on two studies. While there is some difference in conclusions reported, there are some general lessons to be learned.

The first study was conducted at Cornell University and evaluated cows that were purchased through a livestock sales facility. Buyers were instructed to procure relatively healthy, young Holstein cows. All cows were checked for pregnancy and only non-pregnant cows were included in the study. One group of cows went directly to slaughter (non-fed) and a second group was sent to the Cornell University Beef Unit to be fed for 70 days. The diet was corn silage, corn, feed refusals, soybean meal, dry hay, a mineral pack with Rumensin and MGA (to suppress heat), contained 12.3 percent CP and a NEg of 0.48 Mcal/lb. The cows gained an average of 3.5 pounds per day.

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Feeding increased carcass quality of Holstein cows (Table 1). The carcasses from the fed cows were heavier, contained more external and intramuscular fat, the fat color was whiter, and a higher percentage were of the desired quality grade of boning utility and white cow. Mobility was also increased by feeding. In addition all the primal cuts measured were heavier and represented a higher proportion of the HCW in fed versus non-fed cows (data not shown).

It should also be noted that of the 66 cows that started the feeding program, 24 were culled prior to the conclusion and 1 died. Cows were culled due to poor performance, mastitis, and confirmed Johne’s disease. Farmers considering feeding cows to increase value need to have a critical eye as to whether she is a good candidate relative to health and has the potential to improve with feeding.

Within the group of cows on feed, the effect of growth promoting implants and feeding a beta agonist was evaluated. The combination of implants and a beta agonist did increase ribeye area and some of the primal round cuts. No other animal performance or carcass traits were affected.

Increasing sale weight and receipts in this case was basically a break-even proposition (Table 2), primarily because the cows were purchased at the market high (August) and sold at the market low (November). Producers need to understand seasonal price variation along with production economics to determine when this enterprise is most profitable.

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One unseen effect of feeding was the reduction in antibiotic residues. Of the cows brought to the Cornell beef unit for feeding, 9.4 percent were positive for antibiotics; at slaughter, no cows were positive.

A second study was conducted at the University of Idaho. Researchers looked at length of feeding (zero, 70 and 105 days) with and without supplementation of a beta agonist. In addition to traditional measures of performance and carcass quality, they evaluated meat quality using a trained sensory panel. The ration consisted of corn, barley and hay, 10.6 percent CP and 0.48 Mcal/lb NEg. Cows gained an average of 2.3 lb/day for 90 days.

Similar to the Cornell study, feeding increased mobility, fat color, slaughter weight, body condition score, and carcass quality. Sensory traits of tenderness, juiciness, flavor intensity and overall acceptability of steaks from market cows was improved by feeding. Feeding a beta agonist, as in the Cornell study, did not have an effect on any of the traits measured.

The authors echoed those at Cornell, saying that selecting the right cows to feed is critical to the economics: University of Idaho researchers stated that “Rates for mortality (3.1 percent), animal removal due to extreme morbidity (1.3 percent) and carcass condemnation (1.9 percent) were much higher than anticipated.”

Economics were not reported, however, the increase in carcass weight was the same (200 pounds) as Cornell, but took 20 days longer due to a lower average daily gain. The impact of additional overhead costs need to be reconciled with the cost of a lower energy diet to determine the best strategy for your farm.

Both studies indicated that mobility, market weight and carcass quality could be improved by feeding cows before marketing. Profitability will depend primarily on seasonality of price and feed and overhead cost. Table 3 lists the expected return based on variation cost of feed and price spread between canner/cutter (lean) and commercial/utility (good) cows.

From this table you can approximate potential profit of feeding prior to market. The additional revenue will be from added market weight and an increase in market price. If there is no difference in price between the two grades, then the risk in feeding is higher than warranted. As the price differential increases, so does the profit potential. Conversely as the cost of feed and yardage goes down, profit potential increases.


Mobility, market weight, carcass and meat quality can be improved by feeding market dairy cows. Selling more weight at a higher price seems like a winning proposition. However, a profitable feeding program depends on selecting healthy cows, having access to low cost feeds and understanding the seasonality of market price. Improving carcass quality provides a more desirable product for the consumer and potentially an additional income stream for some dairy farms.

Read more: Increasing Market Cow Value Part 1