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Marketing cull cows, not if, but when

published: August 7th 2020
by: Lyda Garcia and Steve Boyles
source: The Ohio Beef Leader

The marketing time on cull cattle depends on factors of health, body condition, season and cost of retention and feeding.  Cattle that have immediate health issues should be marketed immediately.  Health problems can lead to more muscle loss or damage.  The body condition is an important aspect to consider because live value is usually based on condition.  Those cattle with a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 5 to 7 are the most valuable.  Those cattle above BCS of 7 should be marketed if prices are good.  Those with a BCS lower than 5 are good candidates for further feeding.  Seasonal price patterns are present because of supply and demand.  The prices are usually lowest in the fall between September and December when the supply is high.  Most cull cows are sold at fall weaning when forages are less available.  Prices are generally highest in the spring between February and April when supply is lower.  Prices usually slowly drop off throughout the summer months and into the fall.

Cull cows sold immediately after calves are weaned may not eat much because they are stressed over losing their calves. Ideally, cull cows should be held for several weeks after their calves are weaned in order to recover from the stress of weaning, to resume normal dry matter intake and to transition the udder to nonlactating status. While udder status does not affect shrink, it can be a factor in cow price because of actual (or anticipated) carcass trim losses due to milk leakage onto the carcass during the harvest process.


Retention and further feeding of cull cows can add value.  The profit comes from taking healthy, thin cows that have lower current salvage values (BCS < 3) and the potential to gain efficiently on cheap grain or forages.  These cattle can increase their BCS and their carcass grade.  It is extremely important that the cost of gain is low.  An adequate supply of forages, cheap grain, or grain by-products are needed to feed culls.  Feeding culls over the winter will also allow those cattle to be marketed during the higher price period in the spring.  The holding and feeding of culls is a risk; therefore, only producers that are willing to accept the risk and have cheap feed resources should feed culls.

A common question when feeding cull cows is how long should they be fed. One of the primary concerns associated with time on feed is fat color. It is more desirable for white fat as opposed to a more yellow fat color. Yellow fat is a result of the cows consuming high amounts of carotene, which is high in forages. High-grain diets, which are inherently low in carotene, will help convert yellow fat to white fat. Some research suggests that feeding a high-grain diet for as few as 56 days will result in a significant change from yellow to white fat. However, other research has not documented a change in the amount of yellow fat in cows on feed for as long as 105 days. Beyond the conversion of yellow fat to white fat, the decision on how long to feed cows should be based upon the condition of the cows, expected feedlot performance, feed cost, and market timing. As mentioned previously, cows that are over fed can be subject to price discounts. To avoid discounts cows that begin the feeding period in moderate (body condition score of 5) or better body condition should be fed for shorter durations. Cows that are thinner can be fed for longer periods of time; however, it is important to remember that as the duration of the feeding period increases, it is possible that feed efficiency may decrease.

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