Simple Math: Open or Problem Cows + Annual Costs Don’t Add Up!

John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

Harvest season is full swing in Ohio these days. This is true for both grain producers and beef producers alike. Markets around the state are busy receiving calves from this past spring’s calf crop and producers are reaping the benefits of a very strong market.

The fall is an excellent time to evaluate your cow herd and decide which cows get to remain your “employees” and which ones need to find a new career. Notice that I referred to the cow as an employee. After all, they work for you. Yes, you have to provide them with the infrastructure to do their job including proper nutrition, health care, facilities, etc. However, if they are not being productive for you, they need to be replaced.

Cows and heifers leave operations for a variety of reasons. The U.S.D.A.’s 2007-08 National Animal Health Monitoring System’s (NAHMS) Beef Study surveyed producers and determined the primary reasons for culling breeding females from the herd. Across all sizes of operations, the top reasons given for culling females from the herd were as follows: 1. Age or bad teeth; 55.7%; 2. Pregnancy status (open or aborted): 41.8%; 3. Temperament: 16.6%; 4. Other reproductive problem: 13.4%; 5. Economics (drought, herd reduction, market conditions): 10.9%; 6. Producing poor calves: 10.7%; 7. Physical unsoundness: 9.6%; 8. Udder problem: 9.2%; and 8. Bad eyes; 7.1%.

Determining the pregnancy status of beef cattle continues to be one of the most underutilized yet relatively easy to implement management practices available to beef producers. Results from the 2007-08 NAHMS Beef Study indicated that approximately 18% of cow-calf operations utilized palpation as a tool for diagnosing pregnancy status. The relatively inexpensive cost of a pregnancy check of $5-$10 per head can lead to major savings for the cow-calf producer. Today, there are three basic technologies available to the producer for pregnancy checking: traditional palpation, ultrasound, and blood testing. These technologies are addressed in a video covering the topic of “Determining Pregnancy Status of Beef Cattle” that has been posted at the OSU Extension Beef Team’s web site.

In today’s phenomenal cattle market, I don’t believe there is adequate justification to keep open or problem females. Let’s do the math. Based on local markets in my geographical vicinity last week, a typical sale price for a cull market cow was around $1.15/lb. That means a 1,200 lb. cow would gross $1,380 and a 1,400 lb. cow would gross $1,610. Now let’s take a quick look at 2014 Spring Calving Cow-Calf Budget from the OSU Extension Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics Department. According to the budget, the variable costs (feed, health, marketing, supplies, interest, etc.) for a spring calving cow-calf pair are $525.89. This doesn’t include fixed costs such as labor, land, animal replacement, building, etc. which pushes total expenses to $1,149.92!

Add the salvage value of the open or problem cow with the annual expenses from our cow-calf budget and the results are a significant impact on the bottom line of any cow-calf producer. Given the fact that we are experiencing record low cow numbers in the country, I understand the temptation to keep the open cow around to attempt to produce another calf from her. However, there is a reason that the female is open and reproductive issues are usually not cured by the passing of time. By keeping the open female and trying to rebreed her, you will be going two years between calves produced and paychecks received. Keep in mind that the sale of the cull cow and the annual cow costs added together can go a long way towards the purchase of a replacement bred female.

Over the years, I have heard some producers lament that they simply can’t find quality replacement females. Granted, the supply of bred females is tighter than it has been in many years but there are still several opportunities in Ohio this fall to add quality replacement females from seedstock producer or breed association sales as well as traditional auction markets. I also want to remind you about the second annual Ohio Cattlemen’s Association Replacement Female Sale scheduled for Friday, November 28. The sale will be held at the Muskingum Livestock facility in Zanesville and will begin at 7:00 p.m. More details will be forthcoming about the bred heifers, bred cows, and cow-calf pairs selling in the sale.

The decision to keep an open or problem female is a risky proposition at best. Some simple math will show you that the lost potential income from a cull female and extra accumulated cow costs do not add up to a positive number for the cow-calf producer.