To sell or not to sell? When is the best time to market cull cows? That’s the question on everyone’s minds this time of year as they wean calves, pregnancy-check cows and compile a list of cows that need to go.
The sale of cull cows each year is a significant source of cash flow for ranchers, says Mark Landefeld, Ohio State University (OSU) Extension educator, in a recent article for the OSU Beef Team Newsletter. In fact, it accounts for approximately 15-25% of returns for cow-calf operators, with most opting to sell in the fall just after weaning.
However, is this really the best time of year to market culls, or would it benefit producers to hold these cows a while longer?
On one hand, moving cull cows to town this time of year is relatively easy. For many, ranchers have just moved pairs home,and cows are often close to a corral or load-out after being sorted following weaning. At this time, it’s fresh on a producer’s mind which cows were cantankerous when they calved in the spring.
Plus, it’s simple to sort the late, open, old or wild cows when working them through the chute for pregnancy testing. Sometimes space is limited to keep these cull cows separate, so the next best place for these cattle is to get them onto a trailer and get them to town and out of your hair ASAP.
But are we leaving money on the table by doing this?
Looking at the other side of the discussion, holding cull cows until later in the year has major benefits with the opportunity for producers to add weight, improve the quality of the cows and capture a stronger early spring market. This sounds great, but there are certain considerations to keep in mind before letting those cows stick around for several additional months.
In the article, Glen Selk, Oklahoma State University Extension cattle specialist, said, “It is important to understand the values placed on cull cows intended for slaughter.”
Landefeld adds, “October-November slaughter cow prices are typically the lowest of the year. Based on long term average information, late March to early April provides some of the highest sale prices of the year for cull cows, but producers should not plan to feed cull animals that long, waiting for prices to peak.”
However, if producers have excess forage stockpiled, it may be a good idea to sell cull cows at a later date.
Landefeld says, “A producer should take two or three items into consideration and understand factors that affect the value of cull cow livestock markets. Cull cow value is determined by supply/demand, carcass quality, and percentage of lean meat yield per carcass.”
Keeping these three factors in mind — supply/demand, carcass quality and lean meat yield — Landefeld says producers should carefully calculate the potential profitability of keeping cull cows for a longer period.
He writes, “First, are the cows healthy? Thin, yet healthy cows provide the best opportunity to add muscling and fat and take advantage of compensatory gain after weaning a calf. Grain-based diets can put weight on cull cows more rapidly (2.5 – 3.0 pounds per day) than a total roughage diet, but cost per pound of gain may be higher. A cash outlay to purchase grain would also be necessary for many producers.
“Slower gains over a longer period of time may be a better fit, and more profitable for farm managers, if he/she can provide low cost, high quality fall pasture or stockpiled forage that meets nutritional needs for these animals. Studies have shown these type cows can gain 1.5 pounds per day on forage-only diets. Grazing stockpiled grass generally cost between $0.40-$0.50 per head per day, so it would only cost about $40 for a three-month feeding period to put more meat on those thin cows’ bones.
“Let’s make some dollar estimations: for example, if a cow sells for $0.10 – 0.15 per pound less because of excess supply and another $0.10 – 0.15 per pound less because of less meat on her carcass (a very thin cow), a cow that weighs 1,175 pounds may sell for $0.50 per pound or less, totaling about $585.
“If that cow was kept until after the first of the year (say 80-90 days) and gained 1.5 pounds per day on good fall grass and stockpiled forage, she would weigh ±1,310 pounds. If prices rebound a little after the first of the year, and they generally do, plus the cow should gain weight, making the carcass yield more desirable for buyers, the cow may then sell for $917. Even subtracting about $40 for the stockpiled forage the cow would eat, a producer would still net nearly $300 per head.”
Landefeld suggests keeping cull cows is a balance of body condition score and health of the animal combined with available forages.
“Maybe cull cows that need a little more meat on their bones, and your young cows that need better nutrition, could be grouped together and separated from the rest of the cow herd,” he says. “Making use of high quality fall forage growth and stockpiled forage for the young cows and cull cows may be very cost-effective for producers. Evaluate carefully what options you have with your cull cows. Following tradition and selling cull cows in the fall, immediately after weaning, may not be your most profitable option!”