Patience doesn't come naturally to most of us, but learning self-discipline can pay dividends when it comes time to cull cows that are too old, too broke down or just too open.

"Let's look at a typical operation culling 15% of their cow herd each year. Depending on how you look at it (annual cash flow vs. investment and re-investment), cull cow receipts may be equal or greater than heifer calf receipts if they're keeping back replacements," says Dillon Feuz, agricultural economist with the University of Nebraska.

"Most producers give little thought to the marketing of their culls. When it's convenient, or at preg-checking time, they take them to market. They're probably missing an opportunity for more revenue," he says.

Bill Roden, who runs cows and stockers at his Antelope Ranch near Cholame, CA, says potential returns from culls increases when you consider the non-replacements.

"Just culling cows to clean up the herd, you'll cull another 10%," Roden says. "Then, if you cull cows at a constant age, not really selling her as a cull, but as a replacement for someone else, you can get into a 40% cull rate."

Roden capitalizes on those numbers by keeping his culls long enough to get them dried up after preg-checking and weaning.

"So many people cull their open cows at preg-checking time when they wean, and that's when they're pulled down the furthest and the least saleable," he explains. "If you weigh your cows at weaning time, in a 30-day period, they'll put on 90-100 pounds. That will pay a few bills."

When feed is available - not something needed for keeper cows - Roden may hold culls over to the next spring, adding weight and hitting higher markets. He says, "You have to put a pencil to that, though. That cow is taking the place of three, 4-weight stockers at $8/head each month."

Should You Ship Or Feed? According to Feuz, figuring the ship-or-feed economics of cull cows revolves around seasonal prices, price differentials between slaughter cow carcass grades and the cost of feeding cull cows.

In a nutshell, Feuz points out cull cow prices are typically lowest November through January and highest March through May. Compounding that, Feuz says there is typically more price differential between grades the closer cows are to the actual market.

As an example, over a 10-year period, Feuz found Canner (least marbling) prices running 24% below Commercial (most marbling). So, there can be advantage to boosting culls up a grade. But, Feuz says research trials indicate a single grade is the most producers can expect with 60-100 days of high concentrate. Conversely, he says it's doubtful 60-90 days of a high-roughage ration would budge females higher.

Finally, cost of feed drives the profitability. Feuz offers potential returns based on feed costs and prices of Canner grade culls (see Tables 1 and 2). Obviously, the cheaper the feed, the greater the opportunity. As well, Feuz says, "Typically, the higher cull cow prices are in relative terms (cyclical), the better off you are feeding them."

Putting a sharp pencil to all of this means figuring out the breakeven and return on investment. Feuz says the breakeven is simply: {(lost revenue 1 what you could have sold the cow for ~ total additional costs) 3 (the final weight of the cow) 2 100}. He suggests creating a partial budget of cost that includes feed, yardage, death loss and interest.

Next, return on investment is: {(net revenue ~ interest cost 1 labor and management) 3 (initial cow value) 2 (365 3 days fed 2 100)}. So the breakeven can be profitable and still represent a negative return on investment, depending on the spread and labor.

Moreover, Roden points out there are some cull cows that won't do anything but cost you money. He's seen that with cows derailed by specific problems such as anaplasmosis, lump jaw and just poor performance. "If you're culling a cow because she's a poor doer, why keep her, trying to put weight on her?" he asks.

As always, current markets and resources determine cull marketing opportunity. "Given where we're headed in the cycle, I think we'll see more value on the culls, which should make them more profitable to feed," says Feuz. "The correct management decision on one place will be different at the next based on availability of feed, seasonality of prices and proximity to a cull cow market."