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Get the most bang for your cull cows

Erin M. Laborie for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2017

Poor reproductive performance, disposition and structural soundness are common reasons for culling beef cows from the herd. The most convenient time to cull cows is following weaning or pregnancy checking in the fall, which can help reduce winter feed costs.

However, the cull cow market is at its lowest during late fall and early winter. Implementing management strategies to market cull cows during late spring and early summer provides opportunity for producers to add value to culls and increase revenue.

Marketing cull cows contributes to nearly 20 percent of income in a cow-calf operation. Bred cow prices have increased by more than 50 percent since 2012. Breeding open cows gives the owner the option to sell them as culls or breds if market conditions continue to improve.

When selling open females, consider pregnancy checking cows a second time to confirm they are open before hauling to the sale barn. In 1993, researchers purchased 306 cows from sale barns in South Dakota at an average price of $500. Seventy of the cows were more than five months pregnant and were resold as bred cows for an average price of $700. This incident resulted in significant profit loss for the producer.

Slaughter cows typically fall into the Commercial, Utility-Breaker, Utility-Boner, Cutter and Canner grades (listed in order of decreasing quality). Older, mature slaughter cows tend to grade Utility-Boner, Cutter and Canner, while younger cows often grade Commercial and Utility-Breaker.

Based on the price spread between cull cow grades, there is opportunity to profit by feeding healthy, thin cows to gain condition and improve grade. Body condition is an important factor to consider when determining how to feed and manage cull cows to hit the target market.

Grazing winter range or crop residues with appropriate protein supplementation is a feasible option for feeding cull cows. Another alternative is to feed a high-concentrate diet. Cows fed forage-based diets tend to have more yellow fat due to the high carotene levels in the forage.

Feeding cows a high-concentrate diet for at least 50 days will help convert the yellow fat to white fat, which is more desirable. A diet containing 58 to 63 Mcal NEg per hundredweight and 10 to 11 percent crude protein is sufficient.

When switching from a forage-based diet to a high-concentrate diet, cows will need to be properly adapted to the new diet to avoid digestive upsets. This can be done by using a series of step-up diets of decreasing roughage or by simply limit-feeding the final high-concentrate diet.

Considering cows are significantly larger than most feedlot cattle, it is recommended to provide 20 to 24 inches of bunk space per cow.

Cows can gain a significant amount of weight in a relatively short period when fed a high-concentrate diet. However, the combination of high intakes and poor feed conversion results in increased cost of gain. Healthy cows in thin to moderate condition provide the opportunity to add weight efficiently through compensatory gain.

Feeding an ionophore at recommended levels can help improve feed conversion and prevent digestive upsets. The inclusion of melengesterol acetate in cull cow diets prevents cows from cycling and results in improved feed efficiency.

Additionally, administering cows with an implant is an option for enhancing gains and feed efficiency. Implants that provide a combination of estrogenic and androgenic activity have been reported to increase gains, live and carcass weight, ribeye area and yield grade of cull cows.


By feeding cull cows through the winter, producers have the opportunity to hit the market during the seasonal high, increase pounds sold and improve body condition score, which can potentially result in higher quality grades.

Considering feed costs contribute to nearly 70 percent of production expenses, it is essential to estimate the costs involved in feeding cull cows and whether the benefits outweigh the input costs.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Erin M. Laborie
  • Erin M. Laborie

  • Beef Systems Extension Educator
  • University of Nebraska Beef Team
  • Email Erin M. Laborie

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