Cull cows represent a significant source of income for beef cattle producers. In fact, cull animals account for about 15 to 20% of the gross income in a beef cattle operation. Cull cow slaughter is down significantly this spring as producers across the country react to increased cattle prices and begin to plan for expansion, especially in areas not adversely affected by drought. Even with the higher prices, cull cow marketing is an often overlooked management strategy on many ranches. Prices for cull cows follow seasonal price patterns (Figure 1). Prices for cull cows in the southern plains are typically lowest in November and highest in March and April. This shouldn’t surprise anyone given the fact that cows are pregnancy tested and most culling decisions on ranches with spring calving cow herds are usually made at this time. There is an opportunity to add value to cull cows by evaluating marketing plans and taking advantage of seasonal changes in prices.
Most cull cows gain weight rapidly when placed on a high concentrate diet. Data collected at NDSU indicates that corn- or barley-based high concentrate diets produced similar average daily gains (Burgwald et al., 1993; Table 1). As cows were on feed longer and gained condition, feed conversions were poorer and weight gains decreased. Cows were slaughtered at 0, 42, and 87 days on feed. As you might expect, the cows slaughtered earlier had lower live and carcass weights, lower quality grades, less back fat, and less carcass value per head (Table 2).
Research conducted at South Dakota State University showed similar trends (Pritchard and Berg, 1993). Cows fed for longer periods of time had increased live and carcass weights, increased dressing percentages, and increased rib eye areas. Another interesting finding of the SDSU research was the number of cull cows purchased for the study that were actually in advanced stages of pregnancy. About 23 percent were in advanced stages of pregnancy (more than 5 months pregnant). Pregnant cows typically have lower dressing percentages than non-pregnant cows due to the increased weight associated with the gravid uterus. The SDSU researchers sold the pregnant cows and made about $200 per head on the transaction.
Montana State University research (Funston et al., 2003) indicated implanting cull cows with Synovex Plus increased final weight by approximately 40 pounds and average daily gain by 0.48 pounds per day. Their research also indicated very little correlation between initial weight or initial body condition score and average daily gain during the feeding period, indicating thin cows did not gain any faster than cows in better condition. Research conducted at New Mexico State University (Sawyer et al., 2004) also noted that feed efficiency declined as cows were on feed longer and, as one would expect, age of cow also impacted performance (younger cows gained weight faster).
Seasonal lows in cow prices and/or low priced feed can make feeding culls an attractive and lucrative opportunity. As you approach pregnancy testing and culling decisions this fall, be prepared to take advantage of opportunities to add value to cull cows. Feeding cull cows high concentrate diets can improve returns by selling more pounds and selling cows into a market that is seasonally higher than late fall and early winter markets. Given the price for all cattle classes, it makes sense to evaluate your options carefully.
It will pay dividends. ❖