Timely marketing of cull cows important to bottom line

Feb 13, 2009
by WLJ
Timely marketing of cull cows important to bottom line

Short-term, gummer, and smooth-mouth are all terms cattlemen use to describe their older bovine employees. They have produced well for the past 10-12 years. These cows are the experienced veterans of the herd. However, due to age, lack of teeth, and an anticipated decline in production, they are forced to retire. Before issuing her “pink slip,” many try to squeeze that last calf, or in the case of dairy cows, that last drop of milk out of her. Humane treatment of animals and timely marketing of these veteran employees as a means of eliminating non-ambulatory cows at sale barns and harvest facilities is every cattleman’s responsibility.

In this issue of Back to Basics, let’s address and 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 increases 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 California farm advisor Dr. Dan Drake, “A major reason these old cows decline in production and body condition is due to their reduced ability to break down feed stuffs. Of course, this is primarily due to the loss of the mechanical tools, 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,” concludes Drake.

Glenn Nader, Yuba County, CA, farm advisor, agrees with Drake. He also 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. Rations such as chopped hay with a concentrate work well on these old smooth-mouth cows. This is a nutrient dense ration which 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 cow’s 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,” agrees Dan Gralian, manager of the TS Ranch of Battle Mountain, NV, and current president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association (NCA). “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 will dress less than 38 percent and 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, NV, may not work today with higher winter feed costs. Ron Cerri, owner/ manager of Rebel Creek Ranch and president-elect of NCA would calve these old cows in March and run the pairs inside 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, adding value. This added value offset the added cost of better winter feed for these shortterm cows,” states Cerri. 

Henry Smith, of Brownsville, CA, makes a living from buying small bunches of bred, short-term cows. “You have to be careful which cows you buy,” warns Smith. “Some cows are worn out. They will not produce under any circumstances.

We tried the younger cull cows, paying as much as $75 per head premium over rail price. Only 50 percent of them worked out. We were always purchasing someone else’s problem cows. We now 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. We do not run bulls with these old cows and we do not vaccinate for any of the reproductive diseases.

We do vaccinate with 7-way and for the respiratory diseases. Our costs are reduced,” concludes Smith. A University of Nevada economic evaluation on heifer development shows that on average, most cows have paid for themselves by age six, 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 we 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, which is currently not the case. Jon Griggs, manager of Maggie Creek Ranch of Elko, NV, and second vice president of NCA, also sees a need for timely marketing of other age and 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.

Gralian, Cerri and Griggs, speaking on behalf of NCA, urge cattlemen and dairymen to practice timely marketing of cull cows. It is every cattleman’s responsibility and it is the right thing to do. In light of all the publicity concerning weak and downer cows, we need to be especially vigilant of the condition of the cull cows we send to the sale barn or packing plant. The cull cows we ship to market are a reflection on all of us in the industry.

If you are unwilling to harvest these cows for home consumption by family and friends, do not send them to market! The take home message of this article is timely and smart marketing of all cull cows. The days are over of hauling canner spent cows to the sale yard and hoping to retrieve enough cash for gas. Prevent the canner cow; it is the right thing to do. — Ron Torell, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Livestock Specialist