As cattle producers we often look at ways to improve our bottom line. Where can we profit the most from our production? Is it from sales of feeder calves, breeding stock, finished cattle, freezer beef or some combination? This decision may change from year to year based on economic conditions, feed availability, and facilities.
One type of sale that sometimes gets overlooked is the sale of cull animals. National studies estimate the value of these sales amounts to 15 – 30% of the revenue for beef farms. These culls make up 20% of the beef consumed. Considering the value and importance of these animals to the supply chain we should look at ways that we can manage them to increase our profits.
There are many reasons for culling animals. Physical problems, poor performance, age, reproduction, and falling outside of a calving window are all common reasons. These reasons can have a big impact on how and when we cull these individuals with the goal of receiving the highest income.
Research out of the University of Tennessee demonstrated that while a cow may be 4 or 5 years old when it reaches its breakeven point, missing 1 calf can increase that by 2-3 years and if they miss 2 calves they may not break even in their lifetime. Culling those cows that miss a calf often is your best decision.
There are 2 important factors that go into the price you receive for those cull animals. The first is the time of year when the animal is being sold and the second is the body condition of the animal.
Many years of market price evaluations have revealed rather consistent trends. Typically cull cow prices begin to rise in January, peak in March and remain relatively constant until August. From August until October they drop, and then remain steady until January when they begin to rise again. Of course, these are averages and any individual animal can fall outside of this pattern. Following these trends we would usually like to market culls between February and August. While this fits the schedule for fall calving herds it is not such a good fit for most people with spring calving herds.
The second factor affecting price is body condition score (BCS). Cull cows are divided into 3 categories of marketing classes. Breakers are those with a BCS above 7. Boners fall into the 5-7 BCS range, while leans and lights have a BCS of 1-4. The lights are the very small, light muscled individuals. The dressing percentage and carcass quality grade also factor into the price. Several years of observations have shown that breakers do not bring more than boners so feeding culls beyond a 7 BCS will probably not improve profits. Breakers and boners typically earn 4-5% over leans while lights bring 16% less than leans.
Given this information, in an ideal world we would like to sell all our cull animals during the season high and have them at a body condition score above 5. With spring calving herds, the problem is that we are weaning calves when the cows are both at their lowest BCS and at the seasonal low in price. The positive is this can play into your favor if you can find a way to put those cows on feed for a little while. Thin healthy cows can have good feed conversion and compensatory gain. On top of the increased price from weight gain, you will likely receive a higher price due to seasonal variation. Research in South Dakota showed that keeping thin cull animals on corn stalks and a supplement for 70 days, from November 15th to February 1st, resulted in an extra income over expenses of $125 per head in 2019. This capitalized on both increased value from weight gain and improvement in price by seasonal variation.
Not all culls should be put on feed. Cows with chronic physical conditions may get worse with time. Those animals should be marketed as soon as possible. Cows with a high BCS will probably cost more to feed than any price increase that may come from seasonal variations. There likely is not an advantage of additional gain on these animals. Finally, if you are in a seasonal high for the market, such as in July, additional feed costs of keeping culls for another 70-90 days and selling at a seasonal low probably would not make sense.
A final consideration for increasing the value of cull cows is to breed and market good young cows that fall outside of your calving window. These bred cattle that may fall into someone else’s calving window. The value of good quality, young, bred cows would also provide a premium over normal slaughter prices. Finding individuals that have a use for these cows could be worth the effort when they would otherwise have become routine culls.