Because a majority of producers wean calves in the fall, most cull cows are sold in late fall or early winter when prices are low. Cows do not have to be culled during these periods if you have ample winter pasture. Consider culling in the spring when prices are at their peak.
“Cull cow marketing typically receives little attention from a producer, despite the fact that cull animals represent 10 to 20 percent of the total revenue for most operations,” says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Livestock Marketing Specialist. “Many producers simply choose to dispose of cull cows as quickly and easily as possible with little thought about the potential to optimize their salvage value. It is possible to increase the value of cull cows by 25 to 45 percent or more by improving their management and marketing.”
“Opportunities to increase value come through adding weight, improving the quality classification and taking advantage of seasonal price patterns,” continues Peel. “Improved cull cow marketing offers some of the most reliable returns for producers in the uncertain world of cow-calf production. Both the cost and risk of holding cows for a longer period must be weighed against the potential for improving value.”
Sell When Prices Are High
The above chart, developed by CattleFax, shows the average utility cow prices over a ten-year span and demonstrates price seasonality. The lowest prices of the year are generally in November while prices are at their highest in May.
“Considering this seasonal pattern may help increase profitability,” explains Brenda Boetel, Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist, University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “For example, it may be profitable to feed cows during the winter that are typically culled in the late fall or early winter. In this manner, one can take advantage of the better spring and summer prices. Cows culled during calving season or early summer may be most profitable if sold at the time of culling. Cull cow grades and feed costs need to be considered in your decision.”
Sell Heavier Cows
“At weaning, cow body weight is typically at a low for the production cycle,” says Peel. “Rapid weight gains can occur on either grass, feed or some combination of the two. Feeding may be an alternative when it is cheap, but is not a viable option in a high price environment.”
“Cull cows may provide a way to enhance the value of underutilized or poorly utilized forage,” continues Peel. “Cull cows are flexible in their diets and can utilize a wide variety of feeds over a wide range of feed qualities; so they may provide a way to use leftover or lower quality forage. On the flip side, cull cows may use feed resources that could be utilized by other animals such as brood cows or stockers.”
Considerations in deciding whether to feed cull cows include labor constraints, management skills and risk, in addition to potential costs and returns. These factors are probably unique to each operation, and will likely change from year to year. There is no single recipe or plan for marketing cull cows that will always be the most appropriate.
“The overall economic viability depends on the cost of feeding the cows relative to the increased value,” Peel says. “Mature cows are flexible in using feed, but are not very efficient at doing it. Cows will typically have a feed conversion of 10 or 12 pounds of dry matter per pound of gain. The feeding program must be designed and evaluated carefully. Cows fed a low quality diet in the winter may gain little or no weight due to weather, or they may gain one to three pounds per day. Objectives of the feeding program, timing, ration costs and alternatives must all be carefully weighed to maximize returns from cull cow feeding.”
Improve the Market Class
“Improving the market classification of cull cows increases the price received,” explains Peel. “If a cow has a BCS of 5 when her calf is weaned, her market classification would be Lean. A gain of 80 pounds could move her up one market class to Boner. More than 160 pounds gain would move the cow up two market classes to Breaker.”
The relationships between body condition scores, marketing classes and approximate carcass quality grades are demonstrated below in Table 1. Cows with a body condition score of 1 to 3 will have a marketing class of Light and a carcass quality grade of Canner or Cutter, depending on the dressing percentage. The Lean marketing class consists of cows with body condition score of 3 to 5.5 and will grade Cutter or Utility. Boners range in body condition score from 5.5 to 7 and grade Utility. Cows with body condition score of 7 to 9 will be Breakers with a Utility or Commercial carcass quality grade.
Although market forecasts should be used to estimate sales prices of cows fed through the winter, the market report shown below in Table 2 can be used to show the concept of gaining a better price by moving the culls to a higher market classification through weight gain. For example, let’s assume we have a cull cow weighing 1300 pounds with a body condition score of 5, which places her in a Lean market classification. On good winter pasture, the cow gains 150 pounds, which moves her to the Boner market classification. She has a low dressing percentage and sells for $83.50 per hundredweight or a total price of $1,210.75. If she had been sold as Lean, her value would have been approximately $73.25 per hundredweight or $952.25 total. In this example, the cow is sold for an additional $258.50 by feeding her through the winter.
Before determining when to sell cull cows, it is important to look at the benefits of seasonal prices, added weight gain and moving the animals to a higher market classification. The cost of retaining culls needs to be compared with the benefits in order to calculate effects on profits.