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Does it pay to put weight on cull cows?

To decide best time to sell, pencil out the cost of feeding for a couple of months

Does it pay to put weight on cull cows?

Most producers have walked through their cow herds after the weaning season and picked out candidates for a cull group. Many of these are first-calf heifers and cows that were preg-checked and found open, while a smaller group were culled due to poor feet, legs and other structure defects. Even a few cows destined for the packers were simply old cows with too many teeth missing or too mean to keep around.

As an advocate of continuous herd improvement, I believe picking out culls is just the first step. A flexible feed and management plan should then be put into place throughout the winter and spring in order to take advantage of the best revenue opportunities; whether cull cows are sold right-away or fed out in the upcoming months.

Two producers’ approach

To better illustrate my point, I recently asked two commercial producers what they did with their cull cows after segregating them from rest of the cow herd. Both cow-calf operators calve out their cows during the first week of May on pasture and run the bulls within a 60-day breeding season that encompasses both July and August. Their 600- to 650-lb. calves are weaned by the end of November. From this point forward, most similarities between these two operations ends.

In the first cow-calf operation, the producer runs 400 Angus-Simmental cows and keeps back about 40 replacement heifers and backgrounds the remaining calves to about 800 lbs. before they are sold. His group of cull cows are sold within a month after they are grouped together.

This producer told me his cull cows are either open (not pregnant) or in thin body condition. It has been his decision over the years, not to put more feed/money into them, because a cold Prairie winter often stalls precious weight gains. Even if they were given the chance to gain 200 lbs., he felt it would not offset the nominal selling price at the auction market.

The other producer runs a 300-head white-face Hereford cross-breed operation. He keeps back about 35 replacement heifers and finishes his cow herd’s weaned calves in a feedlot. He culls his cow herd twice a year. The first culls consist of about 30 open cows after the calves are weaned and the second group is 15-20 individuals, put together within weeks after the calving season ends — hard calvers and cows that were breeding season stragglers. All cull cows are put in their own pen during an 80-day feeding program to gain 250 lbs. and then sold at cull-cow prices.

I appreciate such tabletop information given me by both producers. Despite the different ways that each producer gathered, handled and eventually sold their culls, they return to one common goal; draw the best cull cow revenue.

A feeding scenario

I put together a spreadsheet to determine the current breakeven selling price of cull cows. It might help with the question whether to sell them immediately (producer No. 1) or keep them for two to three months, so more saleable weight is added (producer No. 2).

The parameters of my spreadsheet are based upon: (1) feed mature beef cows (1,350 lbs.) in order to gain 250 lbs., (2) feed them a typical beef cull-cow diet of barley silage, mixed hay, barley and a vitamin-mineral premix, (3) estimate cull feed efficiency targeting about nine pounds of dry matter diet/lb. gain or ADG equalling 3.23 lb./head/d (4) set yardage cost of $0.45/head/day and (5) breakeven cull cow selling price is based on live bodyweight.

Again, I set up this spreadsheet to calculate the break-even selling price on adding 250 lbs. of weight gain on cull cows sold on a live weight basis, only. (Based on these calculations it costs about 78 cents per pound to produce that 250 pounds of gain over about 2.5 months). Historically, cull cow prices have been the lowest in November, December and January and at their highest level in March, April and May. Prices for the summer months follow the average cull cow price for the year.

For those producers who forgo marketing cull cows in this way in favour of selling them directly to the packers on a rail-grade basis, it be should kept in mind that cull cows have significantly lower dressing percentage (45-50 per cent) compared to regular commercial beef steers and splayed heifers. This disparity is often due to a higher bone to lean/body fat body ratios and higher rates of unsaleable cut-outs (due to lesions and bruises) in cull cows. They also have a higher rate of condemnations due to high rates of morbidity (sickness) such as inspector-confirmed liver abscesses.

Despite these best auction or rail-grade opportunities, and whether they are sold immediately or fed for a couple of months, there are about 15 to 20 per cent of the cows in most herds for one reason or another should be culled. With a trend toward larger cow-calf operations, the absolute number of culled beef cows is significant on many farms. Therefore, producers should have a good beef cow cull plan in place that can improve their cull prospects for profit.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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