Autumn is a key culling decision time for cow-calf operations

As an extension economist in a feeder state, I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “This calf market needs green grass!” Nothing fuels calf prices like spring grazing and the reverse usually happens in the fall. As pasture growth comes to an end, the full effect of feed prices is felt and calf prices almost always fall. With spring feeder cattle futures in the $190s at the end of the summer, I was optimistic that calf prices could hold up heading into the fall. But those spring futures prices were down about $15 a hundredweight, and the veal market fell a bit more than that. This can be easily seen in the pricing table below. Seasonal lows in calf markets typically occur in October or November, so we are likely approaching that point as I write this.

In addition to approaching the time when most spring born calves are sold, we are also approaching the time when most producers are making culling decisions for their cow-calf operations. Drought in much of the country has already forced significant fellings this year. A quick look at the drought monitor below shows continued drought in the western and southern plains. But, in recent weeks, conditions have deteriorated in the northern plains and south-east. This has impacted fall pasture growth and hay supply and will also be on producers’ minds when deciding how many cows to transport through 2023.

I don’t know when I first heard someone mention the elimination of 3 O’s, but I often mention it in expansion presentations. This refers to producers who are considering culling open, old, unpleasant cows. As a general rule, I cannot object to considering these three categories of cows as candidates for culling. But, I also like to mention two other categories of cows to consider when looking at potential cows to cull.

First, I encourage producers to watch their late calving cows. Producers who record weaning weights will likely notice these cows because they tend to wean smaller calves, simply because the calves are younger at weaning. But, the lost value is really even greater because there will generally be fewer of these late born, lighter calves. This means that when the calves of these cows are sold, they will be sold in smaller groups and will receive an additional discount for this reason. The number of calves sold in a group (often referred to as lot size) has a huge impact on price. The combination of weaning a smaller calf and selling that calf to a smaller group can have a huge impact on the revenue associated with a late calving cow.

Second, I like that producers consider cow size when looking at their weaning weight. Again, the records are key to being able to do this, but the concept is what’s most important. Most costs will be higher for larger cows, meaning they must wean larger calves to offset these additional costs. Sometimes comparing cows based on the weaning weight of their calves, as a percentage of their body weight, can provide a bit more perspective on which cows might be candidates for culling.

Source: University of Kentucky

Edward N. Arrington