Market Cow: Is She Fit For The Transport, Or Is It Time To Treat

Market Cow: Is She Fit For The Transport, Or Is It Time To Treat

Authored Caleb Brezina, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Candidate, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2023. Edited by Natalie Brown, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Candidate, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2023.

What is a “Market Cow”?

Market cows, also termed “cull cows”, are cattle that have reached the limit of their production potential, declining to an extent that is no longer profitable. These cattle are consigned to slaughter following their removal from the herd. For producers, culling practices represent a complex, unavoidable, and key component of herd management. The practice serves as a tool for maintaining or improving operational productivity and efficiency, and the decision to cull cattle involves many economic and non-economic considerations.

Cattle may be deemed cull cows following periods of declining milk production, recurrent or costly medical events, persistent infertility, or poor mothering ability. It may also involve strategic choices that aim to eliminate inferior genetics from the herd, improving individual animal conformation, reproductive potential, or disposition, amongst other features. The sale of cull cows may likewise provide a revenue source for producers as a standalone practice. Although these animals are typically sold at lower prices than those younger or more productive, cull cows represent an important commodity in the US, providing up to 20% of all beef consumed (1).

Apart from herd economics, there are important animal welfare implications associated with culling. Cattle are often removed from the herd due to age, behavior, lameness, poor overall health, or other conditions which would otherwise cause prolonged suffering. Culling may also function as a disease prevention or control tool, following an infectious threat to a herd.

Regardless of the motive behind culling, there are important considerations for all cull cows prior to slaughter. The departure of cattle from a herd typically involves transport to other facilities for processing. For cattle of all production purposes, transport is well-recognized as a stress-inducing event. For cull cows specifically, this can be exceptionally stressful due to the pre-existing conditions that have rendered them vulnerable and incited their removal from the herd. Cattle that are weak, diseased or injured, aged, or poorly conditioned may be incapable of handling the stress associated with transport, raising both welfare and economic concerns.

What Defines a Cow’s Fitness for Transport?

Fitness for transport refers to an animal’s ability to withstand transportation without compromising their welfare. This action ensures that any animal deemed unfit is simply not moved from one locality to another. Under the tenant that animals should be free from pain, suffering, stress, and disease, these regulations function to reduce injury, minimize disease transmission, prevent unnecessary death, and mitigate suffering that would otherwise be aggravated by the transportation process. Transport for medical care itself remains the sole exception, and cattle may be moved short distances to veterinary facilities when clinically necessary.

In determining the fitness for transport of an animal, several considerations inform the evaluator’s approach and final decision. These considerations center around the health status and mobility of the animal, however, assessment may vary and should be made within the context of the case itself. In general, any non-ambulatory cattle or cattle requiring assistance to rise or ambulate are considered unfit for transport. This includes cattle with limb fractures, lameness, or spinal injuries. Cattle poorly conditioned (i.e., thin or malnourished) are likewise poor candidates for transport. Regarding systemic health, specific clinical signs or medical conditions such as uterine prolapse have the potential to influence an animal’s ability to cope with transport-associated stress. The common reasons behind an unfit-for-transport designation are described in detail below.

What is a Body Condition Score (BCS)?

Body condition scoring is the most common method used to assess body fat in dairy and beef cattle.  It is a non-invasive procedure that can be performed quickly and easily, without the need for specialized equipment or training. Cattle are visually examined and palpated to quantify fat reserves at a number of specific sites, including over the spine, ribs, hooks, and pins. Based on what is collectively seen and felt, the animal is assigned a body condition score (BCS). BCS ranges from 1 to 5 for dairy (3) and 1 to 9 for beef cattle (4), with higher values reflecting a greater body fat. For example, a BCS of 1 represents severe under-conditioning (i.e., the animal is thin to the point of emaciation), while a BCS of 5 or 9 represents extreme over-conditioning (i.e., the animal is significantly overweight). A BCS in the median of each scale (BCS of 3 for dairy cattle; BCS of 4-5 for beef cattle) is considered optimal.

It is well documented that body condition closely influences the productivity, reproduction, and overall health of cattle. For this reason, body condition scoring serves as an important management tool for dairy and beef farmers. BCS is routinely used to inform decisions regarding nutrition, feeding, breeding, and culling, and may likewise serve as a tool for troubleshooting herd health problems. Although it can be performed at any time or cadence, body condition scoring may be particularly useful around late summer/early fall, at weaning, 45 days after weaning, 90 days before calving, at calving time, and at the beginning of the breeding season (5). Body condition scoring is also essential before any form of cattle movement, including evaluations of fitness for transport. Cattle with a BCS of 1 are considered too weak, or unfit, to be transported. The significant lack of body fat characterizing a BCS of 1 places cattle at a heightened risk for collapse, injury, and potential death during transport. Frequent body condition scoring and regular monitoring of health can prevent BCS from reaching this emaciation (2).

What is Ambulation/Locomotion?

Ambulation or locomotion refers to an animal’s ability to move from one location to another without assistance. In a healthy cow, normal ambulation is defined by smooth and balanced movement which includes, but is not limited to long strides, an even gait, equal use of all limbs, and normal posture (i.e., flat back while walking). Lameness, on the other hand, is any deviation from normal ambulation that is caused by pain, discomfort, or injury to the animal’s legs or feet. Conditions that cause cattle lameness may include fractures, arthritis, joint, or sole abscesses amongst others. Cases of untreated and progressive lameness, as well as numerous other insults or illnesses, may eventually advance to non-ambulation. A non-ambulatory disabled animal, or NAD, is defined by law as “livestock that cannot rise from a recumbent position or that cannot walk, including, but not limited to, those with broken appendages, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertebral column, or metabolic conditions” (7).

In general, non-ambulatory cattle are considered unfit for transport. Transporting animals with severe lameness is likewise not recommended, given their reduced ability to withstand the conditions associated with shipping. First and foremost, advanced lameness is a painful medical condition and transport raises major welfare concerns. Regarding logistics, cattle with reduced locomotive ability are often difficult to load and unload for transit. During the course of travel, lame cattle are predisposed to falling, potentially advancing lameness to full non-ambulation before reaching final destinations.  Any animal considered non-ambulatory will need to be humanely euthanized on arrival (2).

It is therefore extremely important to evaluate the ambulation of cull cows. A number of subjective scoring systems exist to quantify lameness in cattle and typically involve a visual assessment of cattle in motion. For further guidance on lameness assessment, please refer to the following link on grading locomotion scores (6).  If lameness is suspected, a veterinarian should be contacted to identify and treat the source of the insult. For some conditions, timely and proper treatment can prevent lameness from advancing or reduce lameness to an extent that no longer compromises fitness for transport.

What Other Clinical Signs Affect An Animal’s Fitness for Transport?

Although not discussed in detail, there are numerous other diseases and health conditions that affect an animal’s fitness for transport. Guidelines on the movement of cattle with non-infectious diseases are typically less defined than those presenting communicable risks. These often focus on the presenting clinical signs of the individual, and the degree of suffering that transport may incite. For example, although cattle with severe wounds may not necessarily be contagious to others, the transit process may be exceptionally painful depending on the site of the lesion, and thus, not recommended. Hernias, visual impairments, and abomasal disorders (i.e., displaced abomasum) also raise significant welfare concerns and may compromise an animal’s suitability for transport. For cattle with infectious diseases, certain regulations exist regarding transport or preventing transport altogether. These standards are generally more stringent and aim to reduce the risk of disease transmission to other cattle, animals, and people. Any clinical sign indicating a potentially infectious disease necessitates veterinary evaluation and treatment prior to transmit (2). This includes fever, external parasites, respiratory signs (coughing, nasal discharge, signs of pneumonia, etc.), and neurologic signs. Transporting cattle with these symptoms may subject them to unnecessary suffering, including injury or death, and likewise threaten the health of other cattle in transit.

What Options Exist for Cattle Considered Unfit for Transport?

BCS: Cattle considered unfit for transport due to a low BCS should be treated for their emaciation or humanely euthanized. The decision will depend on producer economics as well as the cause of poor conditioning (i.e., the cow has been mistakenly underfed versus the cow has an advanced systemic disease driving its weight loss). Treating emaciated cattle is often thought of as an unnecessary financial investment, and the animal is seen as an asset with low return potential. The slaughter of light or lean cows provides the lowest price per pound, and thus, treating cattle with a low BCS may be advantageous in some situations. For example, thin cattle may be dry-lotted [NB1]  and sold when body condition has improved to the point that cattle are fit for transport and when the market would pay a higher rate.

Lameness: Lameness can be due to a variety of underlying conditions, ranging from those minor in severity and easily repairable, to others more chronic, severe, and unresolvable in nature. Some common causes of lameness include foot or hoof injuries, white line disease, hoof abscesses, laminitis, fractures, arthritis, joint infections, hairy heel wart, foot rot, improper hoof growth, interdigital tumors, and spinal injuries. Many of the listed conditions carry a good prognosis when diagnosed and treated in a timely and proper manner. When lameness is recognized, it is important to contact a veterinarian to prevent progression and to determine the potential impact on an animal’s ability to withstand transport.

Conclusions and Takeaways

  • Market/cull cows represent an important commodity and means of herd management
  • A market/cull cow must be in adequate health to withstand the conditions associated with transit
  • Fitness for transport is the federally regulated term referring to an animal’s ability to withstand transportation without compromising welfare
  • Ensuring cattle are fit for transport protects i) cattle from injury, disease propagation, unnecessary suffering, and death, ii) the economic interests of the producer, iii) the safety of consumers
  • Cattle may be unfit for transport due to under conditioning (low BCS, emaciation), mobility impairments (lameness, non-ambulation), uterine prolapses, suggestions of or diagnosed infectious disease (fever, pneumonia or respiratory signs, neurologic symptoms, ectoparasites), and other pathologies that would compromise welfare during transit (hernia, visual impairment, displaced abomasum, severe wounds)
  • With timely recognition, veterinary care, and treatment, cattle with many of these conditions may regain their fitness for transport


  1. Betchtel, W. (n.d.). Know the USDA cull cow grades before you send them to market. KNOW THE USDA CULL COW GRADES BEFORE YOU SEND THEM TO MARKET. Retrieved February 2, 2023.
  2. USDA-APHIS National Veterinary Accreditation Program. (2018, January). Module 21: Livestock: Fitness to Travel. National Veterinary Accreditation Program. Retrieved February 2, 2023.
  3. Farney, J. K., Blasi, D. A., Johnson, S., Reinhardt, C., Tarpoff, A. J., Waggoner, J., & Weaber, R. (2016, December). Guide to Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows and Bulls. Retrieved February 2, 2023.
  4. Cornell University. (1997). Appendix A – Cornell University. Body Condition Scoring in Dairy Cattle. Retrieved February 2, 2023.
  5. Wilke, K., Mulliniks, T., & McCarthy, K. (n.d.). Body condition scoring your beef cow herd. Body Condition Scoring Your Beef Cow Herd. Retrieved February 2, 2023,.
  6. Locomotion scoring as a management tool. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2020, March 11). Retrieved February 2, 2023.
  7. Code of Federal Regulations. (2023). The Federal Register. § 309.2 Livestock suspected of being diseased or affected with certain conditions; identifying suspects; disposition on post-mortem inspection or otherwise. Retrieved February 2, 2023.
Antibiotic use in food animals table

Our amazing team is always hard at work

Food Armor Foundation Courses

The Food Armor Foundation is an upstanding organization with the mission of providing antimicrobial stewardship education and accreditation services to food animal veterinarians and farmers to safeguard animal, public, and environmental health and welfare. If you are interested in free online courses ($75 value) to improve antimicrobial use on your farm, please contact for a coupon code to any of their outstanding on-demand classes.