Marketing Cull Cows

The benefits of culling cows from a beef herd include higher calf crop percentages and lower health related problems. This report, by the Government of Alberta, outlines some market strategies that will help maximise returns when marketing cull cows.
calendar icon 30 November 2009
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Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development

Why and When to Cull Cows

The most common reason for culling a cow is that it has either lost its calf or been diagnosed open (not pregnant) at weaning. Cows who have experienced calving difficulty, whose calves do poorly, or who have a bad disposition could also be culled. Other factors would include physical weaknesses such as cancer eye, lump jaw, saggy broken udders, large ballooning teats, and problems with their hooves or legs. Weaning is a logical time to cull unproductive cows since it is the end of a production cycle. Other appropriate culling times for cows failing to calve or losing their calf would be in the spring for spring calving herds or in late summer for fall calving herds. At culling time, a decision is made either to sell cull cows immediately, leave them with the herd in anticipation of increased cow prices, or separate and feed them a high grain diet before sale. The decision is based on such factors as expected price changes, the potential for a weight increase and improvement in grade, sickness and death losses, interest costs, availability and cost of feed, labour and facilities.

Seasonal Volume

Cow prices display seasonal patterns based on demand and the number of slaughter cows for sale. November and December cull cow marketings, as illustrated in Figure 1, are nearly double the number marketed in July and August. Marketings continue to be high in January and February as many producers wait until the new year to defer taxes, or sell cows that have been fed in the feedlot. Marketings typically remain stable from March through June as producers sell open cows or cows that have lost a calf.

Figure 1. Seasonality of Monthly Cow Slaughter, Alberta - 1992 to 1999. Source: Canfax; Canada Livestock Market Review.

Marketing Alternatives

Cull cows are not necessarily old cows. It is estimated that between 40 and 55 per cent of all cull cows marketed are less than 5 years old. Since animals in this age group can grade A, an opportunity exists to place them in a feedlot to improve their finish. This strategy can often improve the grade on these animals when they are slaughtered. Given the seasonal pattern of cow prices, and the relationship between cow age and expected feedlot performance, the following marketing options can be considered.

November marketing

Avoid marketing cull cows in November and December. Cull cow prices are usually higher from March through September when cull cow numbers are lower and demand for hamburger, the primary usage of slaughter cow meat, is higher.

Late summer marketing

Since late summer cow prices tend to be higher than November prices, consider selling cull cows no later than September for cow herds that calved between January and March. An experienced veterinarian can pregnancy check cows accurately and safely in late summer if the cows are more than 45 days pregnant. Calves from culled cows should not need extra care if the main cow herd is weaned in October or earlier of if calves are creep fed. Other advantages to marketing in September are:

  • Cows are usually about 25 pounds heavier in September than November.
  • September culling would lower pasture stocking rates, thus benefiting the pasture and the remaining cow herd.
  • The producer would be paid two months earlier than if he marketed in November, or seven months earlier than sales the following March.
  • There is no grain feeding or feedlot facilities required.
Late summer marketings are less risky and have the equivalent or better profit potential as an eight to ten week grain feeding period for cull cows.

Wintering with the main cow herd

Cull cows could stay with the main cow herd in expectations that cow prices will improve. In this strategy, cull cows are placed on a wintering diet of roughage and very little grain. This option has merit if feed supplies are abundant and inexpensive, if cull cows are generally older than five years of age, and if no facilities exist for feeding cull cows separately.

Cull cows could be expected to gain from 0.5 to 1.25 pounds per day or up to 150 pounds over a four month period. This option is less advantageous for cows less than 3 years of age because these cows can potentially grade A on a feedlot ration with more grain. Also, on this winter diet, youthful cows would have yellow fat and lack both fat cover and muscling to ensure an A grade.

Feedlot finishing

Healthy cows could be fed grain for an eight to ten week period to add weight, improve carcase grade and yield, and more closely match peak market demand for cows. Thin cows have a tremendous appetite ranging from 2.5 to four per cent of body weight. Over an eight to 10 week grain feeding period, thin cull cows will gain from 175 to 220 pounds with an overall feed efficiency of 7.5 to 10 pounds of dry matter per pound of gain. Dressing percentages are typically increased two to three per cent with an eight to ten week grain feeding period.

Since grade is based on age, finish, conformation and colour of fat and muscle, a grain feeding programme can change the carcase grade of cull cows. Cows greater than three years of age usually grade D (mature). But when muscling and fat cover are increased, youthful cull cows less than three years of age can potentially grade A. Age of a carcase is determined by the degree of calcium deposition in the bone (ossification) and the presence of blood within the bone. This is physiological age as opposed to chronological age. The current grading system has only two age categories, youthful and mature. Some cows over three years of age may still qualify for grade A if their bones do not show signs of aging and they meet the other quality parameters of the grade.

The cost per pound of gain for cows is frequently greater than the sale price per pound because cows are likely to be heavier than steers and hence less efficient at gaining weight. Cost of gain for cows can be 30 per cent higher than the cost per pound of gain for feedlot steers. The seasonal price fluctuation of cull cows by itself is not always sufficient to justify high energy diets. The greatest returns occur when carcase grade is improved. Young cows can double in value by improved carcase grade. Since young cows have a greater potential for an improved carcase grade and there is less danger of young cows becoming over fat, it is more profitable to feed younger cows than older ones.

Youthful cows can be difficult to identify on a live weight basis. Experienced cattle buyers are more likely to assume the cow is mature and pay accordingly. Since the advantages of placing cull cows in a feedlot are primarily dependent on grade improvement, not being able to accurately identify youthful cows adds further risk when they are sold live.

Method of Sale

The preferred method of sale will vary depending upon time of year and whether the cows have had a grain feeding period. Selling at a local auction may be preferred for cows sold directly off pasture in late summer, or after failing to produce a calf in the spring or fall for fall calving herds. Returns from cows fed high levels of grain for several weeks may be higher if sold on a rail grade basis. Rail grading of grain fed cull cows and fleshy cows off pasture will allow the producer to capture the full benefit of an improved carcass grade. However, it is necessary to compare markets before deciding on the method of sale.


A number of points should be considered when evaluating the various methods of marketing cull cows:

  • The seasonal nature of the cow market indicates that historically cow prices are lowest in November and December. Any marketings before or after this time can be expected to yield a higher price and possibly a higher return per animal.
  • Late summer marketing (i.e., September) is less risky and has an equivalent or better profit potential as an eight to ten week grain feeding period.
  • Cows less than three years of age are less risky to feed than older cows because young cows are less susceptible to becoming over fat and young cows have the potential to grade A, or B while older cows can only grade D.
  • Feeding for rapid gain is not necessarily the most profitable option when feeding cull cows older than five years of age.
  • Rising cow market prices from November to March is the biggest factor affecting the profitability of feeding older cows. Rations designed for low winter gains can be profitable providing the cow market is rising.
December 2009

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