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Timely Cull-Cow Marketing Is Everyone’s Responsibility

“Short-term,” “gummer” and “smooth mouth” are all terms cattlemen use to describe older cows. These animals have produced well for the past decade or so and are the experienced veterans of the herd. However, due to age, lack of teeth, and an anticipated decline in production, they’re forced to retire.

Before doing so, however, many producers try to squeeze a last calf, or in the case of dairy cows, that last drop of milk, out of her. Humane treatment and the timely marketing of these animals as a means of eliminating non-ambulatory cows at sale barns and harvest facilities is every cattleman’s responsibility.

Prices for cull cows are based on their expected USDA carcass grade. The most common grades, in order of the least amount of marbling and dressing percentage to the greatest, are: canner (very thin body condition scores of 2 and 3); cutter (thin body condition score of 4); utility (moderate body condition score of 5); and commercial (fleshy body condition score 6 and above).

Both price per pound and dressing percentage significantly increase with the higher body condition scores. This economically favors marketing these cows in a timely manner prior to them losing body condition and falling into a lower grade. Most non-ambulatory animals are emaciated and would be classified in the canner, very thin body condition score category.

Dan Drake, Yreka, CA farm advisor, says a major reason these old cows decline in production and body condition is a reduced ability to breakdown feedstuffs, mostly due to tooth loss.

“A ruminant’s digestive system is dependent on small particle sizes for proper digestion. Because the particle size of the feedstuffs consumed by these old cows is increased, passage rate is slowed, thus reducing consumption. These old cows’ nutrient requirements haven’t increased, but her consumption and feed efficiency have decreased. These cows need a more nutrient-dense ration with smaller particle size and softer feed. We need to do more of the feed breakdown for the cow,” Drake says.

Glenn Nader, Yuba County, CA farm advisor, agrees. He also feels many of these old cows have lost some of the villa in the lining of the digestive tract, which also lowers feed efficiency and digestion. Additionally, Nader feels functionality of some internal organs such as the liver and kidney is compromised in many old cows. He says these old cows need to be pampered if kept for the last calf.

“They can no longer produce with the same feed and under the same conditions as the main cow herd. Rations such as chopped hay with a concentrate work well on these old, smooth-mouth cows. This is a nutrient-dense ration that’s high in protein and energy. More importantly, because it’s chopped, the particle size of the feed is small. This compensates for her reduced ability to break that feed stuff down herself,” Nader says.

“If you keep these old cows for one more year, you have to manage them differently than the main cow herd,” agrees Dan Gralian, manager of the TS Ranch of Battle Mountain, NV. “If you don’t provide the extra feed and care, a dink calf and a shelly canner cow is the result. Shelly canners will dress less than 38% and pose a humane treatment issue to the industry. Prevention is always the best cure,” he says.

What once worked from a marketing standpoint for Rebel Creek Ranches of Orovada, NE may not work today with higher winter feed costs. Owner/manager Ron Cerri would calve these old cows in March and run the pairs inside on irrigated pasture in the spring and early summer. The calves would be weaned at about 170 days of age in mid to late summer with the cow being immediately sold while she still had good body condition.

“By timing the marketing of these old cows for late summer, the better cull-cow market was hit, adding value. This added value offset the added cost of better winter feed for these short-term cows,” Cerri says.

A University of Nevada economic evaluation on heifer development shows that, on average, most cows pay for themselves by age six. Thus, the longer a cow stays in the herd, the more profitable she becomes. Her production may decline after 11 years of age, so the impact of longevity on the total cost of production must be recognized. But anything beyond those six years certainly has economic significance. This supports keeping a cow in the herd as long as she is productive and breeds back provided the added cost of winter feed for these aged cows is reasonable, which is currently not the case.

Jon Griggs, manager of Maggie Creek Ranch, Elko, NE, also sees a need for timely marketing of other age and classes of cattle. “Lump jaw, permanent lameness, bad eyes, poor bags – catching these ailments early and marketing these cows in a timely manner before these conditions pose a health or humane treatment issue is paramount to our industry’s survival,” Griggs says.

Gralian, Cerri and Griggs urge cattlemen and dairymen to practice timely marketing of cull cows. It is every cattleman’s responsibility and the right thing to do. The cull cows we ship to market are a reflection on all of us in the industry.

If you are unwilling to harvest these cows for home consumption by family and friends, don’t send them to market! Timely and smart marketing of all cull cows is the take-home message. Prevent the canner cow; it is the right thing to do.
-- Ron Torell, University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist (