When is the Best Time to Market Cull Cows?

Mr. Dusty Sonnenberg, OSU Extension Educator, Henry Count, and Dr. Michael Looper, USDA-ARS

Ask five dairy producers when they think it is the best time to market cull cows and you will most likely get five different responses. Some may say it is in the fall so they don't use any unnecessary feed, bedding, or barn space needed for the rest of the herd during the winter months. Others will say it is once the cow drops below a specific production point in terms of daily milk production. Still others may say it is while the cow can still get-up and walk on the trailer. Based on the operation's goals, all these responses are correct to a varying degree.

Another response, however, may be that the best time to market a cull cow is when the cull cow market is at its high point. In the cattle market, like all markets, there are highs and lows throughout the year, and numerous factors exist which impact that market price. There are also product quality factors that impact the price received. Among other things, the body condition score of the cull cow has some bearing on the final price received by the producer.

Simply taking these two components into further consideration can enable a dairy producer to realize a greater return from the market for the same animal.

Seasonality is an important aspect of increasing profitability of market cull cows. Data from the USDA over the past 10 years suggest that the best time to market cull cows is not in the fall of the year. Prices are generally lowest during the months of November and December, while the highest prices are received during the months of March, April, and May. The reduced prices in the fall months are attributed to the sale of culled beef cows after weaning calves. Maintaining and feeding market dairy cows until the spring months should increase profit from the sale of market dairy cows.

Research has also indicated that additional feeding of market cull cows can increase the body condition score, carcass value, and carcass characteristics. A 1997 study at Colorado State University revealed that average daily gain in market cows was less efficient for the first 14 days on feed; however, average daily gains increased consistently from 28 to 56 days in market dairy and beef cows. In addition, fat color whitened within 28 days of feeding. This fat whitening was greatest in dairy breeds in the study. White fat has been associated with increased consumer acceptance of palatable steaks. Market cull cows with moderate body condition yield higher quality carcasses that can be further processed into boneless primal cuts. It is a common misconception that cull cows are used solely for ground beef. Considering the fact that approximately 33% of beef production in the U.S. is from market dairy cows, beef from these animals is often used as entrée items in family steakhouses, on airlines meals, and in sliced beef sandwiches in fast food restaurants.

In addition to realizing a potentially greater market price due to seasonality of the market and improved body condition score, feeding cull cows has benefits in terms of product quality and reduced potential for drug residue in the meat products entering the U.S. food system. The economics to consider in the additional feeding of cull cows and antibiotic residue withdrawal time from meat tissues will be discussed in a future article in Buckeye Dairy News.