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Considerations for Cull Cows

Updated June 10, 2020
Headshot of Olivia Amundson

Olivia Amundson

SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist

The last year was difficult to say the least, from a wet, muddy spring and late planting to an early, wet fall and difficult harvest. Unfortunately, for cow calf producers, the repercussions were seen during pregnancy detection this year, as the number of slaughter cows within the state were abundant due to open cows. The question then becomes, what should be done with open cows and is there opportunity to add value and capture some additional revenue. Unfortunately, market prices are not providing any incentive to cull at the present time. Nonetheless, hay and pasture are in short demand and difficult decisions need to be made.

Management decisions differ depending on producer operation, labor, resources available, and other geographic and environmental factors. A purebred producer will likely be able to recover costs of retaining an open cow through the sale of the next calf. However, it is unlikely that a commercial producer will be able to do this. With this in mind, there are some possibilities to consider prior to moving ahead.

Find Those Open Cows

First, it’s important to consider pregnancy detection as early as possible. Pregnancy detection can be completed as early as 30-40 days post breeding through ultrasound. Most pregnancy detection occurs around time of weaning (October/November) when the cow is anywhere 3-5 months gestation. At this point, the female has already cost an additional 90-150 days on feed.

Once an animal is confirmed open, it is time to consider culling her. This allows you to recover any of those costs associated with feeding and maintaining that open animal for the next 3-4 months. This may be a way to reduce forage use as well as stretch limited forage supplies. However, this cow most likely has a calf at side during this time, therefore, this may be a time to add additional weight to thinner, poor conditioned cows. When considering selling, the cull cow market is typically highest in late-spring, early-summer and lowest around November-December, so determining and marketing those open cows earlier in the year may help financially.

Opportunities to Add Value

Next, understanding some simple math to decipher the cost of retaining the female versus selling as a cull as well as when to sell as a cull becomes important in management strategies. Under a well-managed, low-cost wintering method, keeping that open cow and adding some weight to increase body condition score (BCS) may be beneficial and add value. Table 1 gives three different options to this scenario. Option A represents selling a lightweight cull following pregnancy detection in November. Option B and C represent retaining these cull females until February 1 using two different feeding protocols. Option B is simply corn stocks with no supplement and C is corn stocks with supplement. Through adding condition to cull animals and waiting to sell in February allows opportunity to sell in a more favorable market.

Another potential avenue is to rebreed and sell as a pregnant cow to calve the following fall. Ultimately, the best candidates for this approach would be young, healthy cows with productive life potential. Depending on the year and allocated resources, rebreeding an open female may be an alternative option to add value. According to Steve Lira and Jon Biermacher their recent publication entitled, “You Can Retain, Feed and Rebreed Cows Profitably – Sometimes,” they show the potential to retain and manage cull females to their greatest potential. Lira and Biermacher showed that from 2016-2018 producers who rebred their open cows saw an increase of $120/head in cow value for bred cows compared to open cows the following spring.

Finally, consider replacing that female with a bred heifer or cow. The national 2019 average cull cow prices averaged $0.50/lb with the average weight of a cull cow being 1,200 to 1,300 lbs. Therefore, the salvage amount of a 1,250 lb cull female is approximately $625. Incorporating a bred heifer or cow will cost roughly $1250 with the ultimate goal of having a calf to sell at weaning. This leaves a $625 expense to replace the open cow. Additional feed and labor costs need to be reflected when considering this option, however, the revenue from a live calf in the fall may potentially recuperate expenses of replacing the open cow.

Options to retain cull cows through the winter have potential for added value. Determining what works on your operation and considering feed availability and resources becomes key to adding that value. During herd expansion or high bred cow prices, producers with rested bulls available and access to conduct pregnancy tests, may find it valuable to rebreed those open cows. However, in many cases, it is encouraged to sell the heavy, older open cows while improving condition and adding weight to thinner or poor condition cows through low-cost pasture or hay.

Table 1. Feed Cost Options for Cull Cow Rations

Cost Details
Option A
1200 pound cow sold at pregnancy check - November
Option B
On corn stalks with supplement
November 15, 2018 to February 1, 2019
Option C
Ration and Yardage: corn, silage, MDGS, cornstalks
November 15, 2018 to February 1, 2019
70 days at 2#/day ROG
70 days at 3#/day ROG
Cost of Gain
$1.00/hd/day feed and labor ($70.00)
$2.30/hd/day feed and labor ($161.00)
Sale Assumption
1200 pounds
1300 pounds
1400 pounds
Income minus feed costs

Source: SDSU Extension


Lira, Steven, and Jon Biermacher. You Can Retain, Feed and Rebreed Open Cows Profitably – Sometimes. Noble Research Institute, 4 Sept. 2019.