With the sale of cull breeding stock accounting for around 20% of a cow-calf operation's annual income, producers need to squeeze every last dollar from their open cows. That's why the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity Cooperative and the Iowa Beef Center teamed up for a cull-cow feeding and marketing demonstration.

Last winter, 48 beef cows and 12 Holsteins were fed 70 to 90 days in southwest Iowa feedlots, then harvested at the American Foods Group (AFG) plant in Green Bay, WI.

“I was real satisfied,” says Malvern, IA, producer Nathan Mass. “I sent five purebred Angus that were open or were going to breed really late and wouldn't fit into my calving program. They averaged $55 to $60/head profit after feeding them 70 days.”

Mass's experience was no fluke. Average profit on the three groups of cows ranged from $52.71 to $89.72.

The secret to the healthy profits is the market. Over the last two years, AFG has been hustling to develop its line of premium fed-cow meat. Feeding the cows on a high-concentrate ration turns their yellow fat to white. That allows AFG to move the meat to markets ranging from small, independent grocers to large, upscale family restaurant chains.

“We also have some foreign business,” says John Larsen, AFT's head of procurement. “Japan and Korea want high-quality meat with a lot of marbling.”

Beginning Requirements

Not just any cull-cow will do for AFG's premium fed-cow market. Number one, the cow has to be sound.

In fact, two cows had to be removed from the Tri-County demonstration because of structural problems. One was apparently injured in the feedlot. The other was a 12-year-old cow that was stifled, says Darrell Busby, Iowa State University (ISU) livestock specialist.

“When she got up to 1,400 lbs., it was harder for her to get around,” he says.

Healthy cows are a must, too. One cow was removed from the demonstration after she had to be treated with an antibiotic with a 28-day withdrawal period.

Thinner isn't necessarily better, either. “A cow in a body condition score (BCS) of 1, 2 or 3 may not work,” Busby says. “They may be that thin for a reason.”

One Holstein was removed from the project because she actually lost weight.

“We think cows in a BCS 4 or 5 work best,” he continues. “We had some cows in BCS 6 that still gained extremely well. They went from 1,500 to 1,700 lbs. That was our biggest surprise — how well they gained.”

Don't forget disposition problems, either. “One load we fed averaged 1,700 lbs.,” says Macedonia, IA, feeder Bruce Bentley. “If a cow that size is wild, she doesn't leave much behind that isn't bent or broken.”

As for type, Larsen recommends, “We want a cow with some Angus influence. It doesn't have to be 100% Angus, but she does need to have Angus influence. They seem to mature better and gain weight real well.”

AFG also has a market for meat from well-marbled Holstein cows. Busby says one-third of the Holsteins qualified for AFG's Holstein Gold Program.

“Their marbling was slightly abundant,” he remarks. “If they had been younger, they would have been in the Prime category.”

Feedlot Recommendations

When cows get to the feedlot, Busby recommends a thorough vaccination and implant program. The cows in the demo received modified-live vaccines for the viral diseases of infectious bovine rhinotraecheitis, bovine viral diarrhea and bovine respiratory syncitial virus, as well as a C and D toxoid for enterotoxemia. They were also implanted with Revalor H implants and treated for external parasites.

With the rations, Bentley recommends starting cows slow. “We started them on a low concentrate ration, 53%, and moved them up even slower than a steer. At four weeks, we moved them up to a higher level,” he says.

By harvest, the cows were on a 61 NEg M cal./cwt. finishing ration, equivalent to 83-85% concentrate. Feedlot steers typically get a 63 to 64 M cal./cwt. ration by harvest. Since the cows were open, they also received MGA in the feed.

The feeding program worked. ISU animal scientist Daryl Strohbehn says, “We turned 80 to 90% of them into premium, white-fat cows.”

While the process went smoothly, Busby says there are challenges to feeding cull cows.

“There are only a couple of markets in the country for white-fat cows — AFG and a plant in western Nebraska,” he says, adding that marketing opportunities for cull cows appear to be growing. “There's a weekly live auction in Tama, IA, and they do have buyers for premium, white-fat cows,” he says.

Strohbehn adds that AFG and the Iowa Quality Supply Network — a co-op made up of cow-calf producers and feeders — is opening a harvest plant in Tama in late spring or early summer. The plan calls for the harvest of 150-250 cows/day at the start and, hopefully, increasing over time.

Disease Transmission Risks

There are also disease transmission risks with cull cows. “People need to be cautious,” Busby warns. “Check with your local or state veterinarian on the movement regulations for these cows.”

He also says, “If you're a cow-calf producer or are developing replacement heifers, you have no business buying and feeding cull cows. The risk is too great. It's not worth it.”

In addition, Busby cautions against spreading manure from cull cows on pastures.

“Because of the risk of Johnes Disease, their manure should only be applied to crop fields, not fields used for grazing by livestock,” Busby says.

On the subject of manure, Bentley suggests that a waste disposal plan be in place before feeding cows. “Our cows ate over 50 lbs./day,” he says. “That makes a lot of manure.”

Bentley says cows also take up a lot of bunk space, too. “You can't put as many cows in a pen as you do steers,” he says.

Still, the Iowa feeder, who partnered on part of the cows, says he'll probably give cow feeding another go.

“If you can buy a cow in the low to mid-$30s and corn is in the $2.30 to $2.40 range, you can probably make a little money,” Bentley says.

Mass, who normally culls five to 10 cows/year, says, “I was definitely pleased. I'll try it again.”

AFG's Larsen comments, “It has potential and opens up a new market. We think it is a win-win-win situation for the producer, feeder, and the company.”

Becky Mills is a freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.