Cull cows can account for 15-30% of an annual ranch income, so marketing them strategically is vital.
“That’s a good chunk of change that these cows can bring in,” Olivia Amundson, cow-calf specialist for South Dakota State University Extension, said during a recent Cattle HQ podcast.
The monthly podcast is hosted by Amundson along with fellow extension cow-calf specialist Kiernan Brandt.
Because cull cows have the potential to generate so much income, it’s important to not just think of them not as “something extra.”
Treat cull cows as their own distinct enterprise, Brandt said: “That’s how you make money.”
But there are several considerations to take into account when dealing with this distinct enterprise.
Amundson and Brandt spoke with Heather Gessner, SDSU Extension livestock business management specialist about these considerations and how to best manage an operation’s cull cows.
When it comes to selling them, Gessner said seasonality and variability is important. Historically, cull cow prices are higher in the summer months with fewer of them going through the sale ring. Prices tend to be lower from November to January due to the influx of cull cows as producers have determined which ones are open or unhealthy.
This year seems to be a bit of an outlier. While there is a high number of cull cattle being sold, prices had also been high, Gessner said.
During December, Amundson said she saw prices at Sioux Falls Regional Livestock as high as 96 cents per pound.
As of Jan. 16, the average slaughter cow-bull price was $78.74, with a range between 62 cents and $1.04.
Gessner said that’s a sign to her that that market is looking for cattle, even at a time when prices are normally dropping.
It’s not entirely surprising. South Dakota’s cattle on feed inventory is down 6% from last year, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
With all the cattle leaving Texas and Oklahoma due drought conditions, Gessner said the market will continue to demand cattle.
“Those cows are no longer part of the factory anymore, and they’re not making feeder calves for next year coming up because of the feed situation,” Gessner said, adding that there will be a demand for calves, cows, fats cattle, bred heifers, and others to replace some of those herds that were heavily culled.
The price of feed is another important consideration in cull cow management. With the cost of feed being so high presently, it’s crucial to determine whether or not it’s worth feeding that open cow through the winter with the hope that she’ll calve in the fall.
If a cow was dry all summer and open this fall, she’s already got two strikes against her, Gessner said.
“If she’s 1,400 pounds and pushing some condition, the marketplace is really paying for those right now,” Gessner said.
Feed may be better used for pregnant cows and heifers.
Adding gain may take a cow from a sale price of $950 to $1,000, but producers need to decide if that $50 is worth the time and labor it takes to pack on the pounds.
“You really want to think about what you’re feeding if you decide to feed that cull cow and not just feed her because you think the market’s going to drop or it’s traditionally the low time of the year for prices,” Gessner said.
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When it comes to culling a herd, she had a few suggestions.
First, she said, there is absolutely no reason to keep a mean cow around. They can rile up other cattle and are generally unsafe.
“If you get hit and you’re out of commission for a month or more because of a broken leg or worse, she’s just not worth it,” Gessner said.
Second, a producer should consider an animal’s health and ambulation.
Gessner suggested thinking about each cow as they’d be graded on a per-animal basis. Can they walk? Do they have a limp? How are their teeth? Are they fat or thin?
If a producer sends a cow through the ring when they’re old, thin and walk with a limp, they’re going to take a hit on the price.
With current market prices, Gessner suggests it might be better to get rid of them sooner rather than later, before spending hundreds of dollars on extra feed and medication that requires a withdrawal period.
“Take the loss on her now instead of putting another $300 worth of medication and $300 worth of feed into her that you’re never going to see coming back,” she said.
Ultimately, Gessner urged producers to try not to make decisions with their heart and instead focus on the strategic business plan when deciding which animals to keep and which to sell, especially for producers who run a small operation.
Some may want to keep an open cow for fall calving, and that may be alright for younger cattle, as producers can try to boost genetics.
Gessner admits this can be a tough decision, especially if she’s been a good show heifer.
“I have had those last show heifers that had to go to town and it hurt,” she said.
However, it’s important to look at her and determine if it’s worthwhile to keep an open cow through an expensive winter with no income coming from her, she said.
It’s especially important with feed costs and future pasture availability.
In driving around southeastern South Dakota Gessner said she is seeing a lot of pastures that she doesn’t think will be ready by May 1.
“We’re going to have to keep the cows out of those pastures as long as we can this spring,” she said.
Gessner also recommends utilizing feed probes and sending in feed samples.
“Knowing that you’re dealing with lower protein grass hay or alfalfa really is important to making sure that those cows actually gain and maintain weight like you thought they were going to,” she said.
The feed samples will then help producers create a balanced budget that is the most economical for their operations, she said.
It’s possible to borrow a feed or hay probe, Gessner said. The SDSU Extension office in Sioux Falls has one available and many county extension offices may as well. However, Gessner pointed out that the probes are a worthwhile investment.
“If you’re not overbuying protein or you’re not underfeeding protein or energy or whatever nutrient your herd really needs, you’re probably going to make that $200 up like Jiminy Cricket fast,” she said.
With so many considerations, Gessner acknowledged that there is no blanket system that is right for all producers.
Start with the basics, such as determining which cows are open or which ones are downright mean. From there, Gessner said there are many tools available on the SDSU Extension website that can help producers determine what the best course of action is for their operation.
Melisa Goss, Assistant Editor for the Tri-State Neighbor, is a South Dakota farm girl whose love of travel has allowed her to see ag’s vital impact around the world, from America’s heartland to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia and many places in between. She makes her home in Hartford with her husband, daughter and miniature schnauzer. You can reach her at email@example.com.