Timely Marketing of Cull Cows: Every Cattleman's/Dairyman's Responsibility

Short-term, gummer and smooth-mouth are all terms cattlemen use to describe their older bovines. They have produced well for the past 10-12 years. However, due to age, lack of teeth and an anticipated decline in production, they are forced to retire, writes Ron Torell - published in the Ohio State University Beef Team Newsletter.
calendar icon 21 November 2008
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Many cattlemen try to squeeze that last calf, or in the case of dairy cows, that last drop of milk before culling her. Humane treatment and timely marketing of these animals as a means of eliminating nonambulatory cows at sale barns and harvest facilities is every cattleman’s responsibility. Let’s rethink that last calf and that last drop of milk.

Prices for cull cows are based on their expected USDA carcass grade. The most common grades, in order of the least amount of marbling and dressing percentage to the greatest, are: canner (very thin, body condition scores of 2 and 3); cutter (thin body condition score of 4); utility (moderate body condition score of 5); and commercial (fleshy body condition score 6 and above).

Both price per pound and dressing percentage significantly increase with the higher body condition score animals. This economically favors marketing these cows in a timely manner prior to them losing body condition and falling into a lower grade. Most non-ambulatory animals are emaciated and would be classified in the canner, very thin body condition score category.

According to Dr. Dan Drake, Yreka, Calif., farm advisor: “A major reason these old cows decline in production and body condition is due to their reduced ability to breakdown feed stuffs. This is primarily due to loss of the teeth.

“The digestive system of the ruminant is dependent on small particle sizes for proper digestion. Because the particle size of the feed stuffs consumed by these old cows is increased, passage rate is slowed, thus consumption is reduced.

“Nutrient requirements of these old cows have not increased; rather her consumption and feed efficiency have both decreased. The combination of the two requires that these cows be placed on a more nutrient dense ration with smaller particle size and softer feed. We need to do more of the feed breakdown for the cow,” says Drake.

Glenn Nader, Yuba County, Calif., farm advisor, feels that many of these old cows have lost some of the villa in the lining of the digestive tract, which adds to the lowered feed efficiency and digestion. Additionally, Nader feels functionality of some internal organs such as the liver and kidney is compromised in many of these old cows. Nader feels that these old cows need to be pampered if they are kept for the last calf.

“They can no longer produce with the same feed and under the same conditions as the main cow herd,” he says. “Rations such as chopped hay with a concentrate work well on these old smooth mouth cows. This is a nutrient dense ration that is high in protein and energy. More importantly, because it is chopped, the particle size of the feed is small. This compensates for the old cows lack of ability to break that feed stuff down herself.”

“If you keep these old cows for one more year, you have to manage them differently than the main cow herd,” says Dan Gralian, manager of the TS Ranch of Battle Mountain, Nev., and current president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. “If you do not provide that extra feed and care, a dink calf and a shelly canner cow is the result. The shelly canner cow is what the industry is trying to avoid through timely and early marketing of these old cows. Shelly canners pose a humane treatment issue to the industry. Prevention is always the best cure.”

What once worked from a marketing standpoint for Rebel Creek Ranches of Orovada, Nev., may not work today with higher winter feed costs. Ron Cerri, owner/ manager of Rebel Creek Ranch and president-elect of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, would calve these old cows in March and run the pairs on irrigated pasture in the spring and early summer. The calves would be weaned at about 170-days of age in mid- to late summer with the cow being immediately sold while she still had good body condition.

“By timing the marketing of these old cows for late summer the better cull-cow market was hit, thereby adding value, which offset the added cost of better winter feed for these short-term cows,” says Cerri.

Henry Smith, of Brownsville, Calif., makes a living buying small bunches of bred, short-term cows.

“You have to be careful which cows you buy,” warns Smith. “We buy old, sound cows and are able to purchase them just over rail price. We have access to byproduct feeds here in central California. These old cows do well during the winter. We calve them out, place the pairs on grass until mid- to late summer, wean the calf and sell the open cow.”

A University of Nevada economic evaluation on heifer development shows that on average, most cows have paid for themselves by age 6, showing that the longer a cow stays in the herd, the more profitable she becomes. Her production may decline after 11 years of age, so producers need to recognize the impact of longevity on the total cost of production. Anything beyond those six years certainly has economic significance. This supports keeping a cow in the herd as long as she is productive and breeds back provided the added cost of winter feed for these aged cows is reasonable.

Jon Griggs, manager of Maggie Creek Ranch of Elko, Nev., sees a need for timely marketing of other classes of cattle. “Lump jaw, permanent lameness, bad eyes, poor bags — catching these ailments early and marketing these cows in a timely manner before these conditions pose a health or humane treatment issue is paramount to our industry’s survival,” concludes Griggs.

November 2008

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