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When is the best time to market cull cows?
By Steve Bartels
Ohio Farm News

Seasonality is an important aspect of increasing profitability of market cull cows. Data from the USDA over the past 10 years suggest that the best time to market cull cows is not in the fall of the year. Prices are generally lowest during the months of November and December, while the highest prices are received during the months of March, April and May.

The reduced prices in the fall months are attributed to the sale of culled beef cows after weaning calves. Maintaining and feeding market dairy cows until the spring months should increase profit from the sale of market dairy cows.

Stephen Bayes, OSU Extension Beef Specialist, said in a beef information fact sheet that knowing when to quit feeding cull beef cows is important because of the dramatic changes occurring in the economy of gains. Outlets for excessively fat cow carcasses are, and have always been, very limited.

Based on research out of Kansas, most beef cows are fat enough for slaughter once they attain a body weight of 22 pounds per inch height at the cow’s withers.

While this simple formula may not precisely describe the most optimum end point for feeding and slaughter for every type of genetic combination of cow, it is reasonably appropriate for the great majority of cull beef cows being fed to slaughter. Monitoring the weight-to-height ratio of a random sample of cows during the feeding period and periodically body condition scoring the group will prevent excessively fat cows from becoming a problem.

Sometimes the cattle feeder that has not seen the market rise sufficiently, by the time the cows are ready to sell will hold onto the cows, awaiting a market improvement. Rarely, however, is such an upswing adequate to recover the extremely high cost of gain for the over-finished cows.

Feeding cull cows grain-based diets for only 30 days will result in the most rapid and efficient gains. However, the producer is subject to very short-term price changes. If the price situation is unfavorable, thin cull cows can be fed for a longer period of time. Feeding for approximately two months should also reduce the number of Cutter grade carcasses and increase the number of Utility grade carcasses. Increasing the gain within this two month time period will further improve carcass quality and reduce cost of gain. Longer feeding of grain-based diets should further reduce the incidence of yellow fat. There is a hypothesis that feeding barley (lower carotene content) instead of corn (higher carotene content) will further “whiten” the carcass fat.

Feeding cull cows grain-based diets much longer than two months will significantly increase feed cost per pound of gain. Also, marbling score and quality grade may not significantly improve after two months on feed. However, this must be balanced against the historical increase in cow prices that occurs over the period from October-November to March-April. The length of time that cull cows can be efficiently fed grain-based diets at an economical cost of gain will vary depending upon their initial body condition. Based upon previous research, it would appear that this time period may range from two to four months.

Published in the January 11, 2006 issue of Farm World.