When it comes to trading calves, too many producers could still use a sharp knife to carve out extra returns.

In fact, according to the '97 National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) Beef Study, 25.5% of all beef operations didn't bother to castrate bull calves before selling them. And, almost 40% of non-polled calves changed hands with their horns still waving at the buyer.

On both counts, Todd Thrift, Extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M University, explains these basic practices left undone add up to major dollars lost.

As an example, Thrift points to the selling of bulls instead of steers. Traditionally, he says, bulls are discounted $3-7/cwt. behind steers. In some U.S. regions, however, the number of intact males that sell through consignors greatly outnumber steer calves.

As a result, sellers of bull calves in these areas think their animals bring as much as the limited number of steer calves. In reality, it's the other way around — the price paid for the steer calves is the price being paid for bull calves, which is a discounted price.

“They (sellers) don't think there's a discount (for intact males), but it's applied up front when the order is made, as much as $10/cwt. in some cases,” Thrift says. “Producers look at the price differential and think it's a freight issue, but it's not. It's a management issue.”

The non-castrate discount — Thrift uses the rule of thumb of a 1¢/lb./cwt. (i.e., $5/cwt. discount on a 5-weight calf) — has to do with everything from the increased morbidity and mortality to the reduced performance associated with castrating bulls past 500 lbs.

“People buying these cutter bulls know they're starting out fresh, that they're really starting in the hole,” says Thrift.

Likewise, at seven different Kansas auction barns, one study from Kansas State University indicates that compared to load lots of dehorned cattle, the horned ones brought $2.30/cwt. less.

“In general, studies have shown that dehorning is just as stressful or is more stressful than castration,” explains Thrift. “And, I don't know how additive those things are if you do both at the same time. In general, the sooner they are done in a calf's life the better it is.”

Specific discounts for neglecting these management practices, of course, depends on the region and the season, as well as the weight and quality of the cattle. But, Thrift points out that when buyers see bull calves and horns they assume other basic practices have been ignored as well, so the perceived value of the animal drops even lower.

Certainly, other calf characteristics like weight, condition and breed type continue to have dynamic degrees of relative value in the dollar equation, depending on supply, demand and other vagaries of the market. But, there are a couple of other factors that do seem to have stable buyer appeal.

Specifically, Paul Branch, business manager for Superior Livestock, points out one of the attractions of Superior's video sales — also enjoyed at some live auctions as well — is that all the cattle are source-verified and traded in load-sized lots. For the record, no bull calves trade in Superior's feeder sales, and amid the volume of their trade — 1.3 million head last year — Branch says there isn't really any discount for the odd horned critter.

Even with those advantages, however, Branch believes some consignors could put more jingle in their pockets just by consolidating the genes in their bull battery.

“I still say the one thing a beef producer can do to add more value to his calves, besides preconditioning, is just using the same breed of bulls on all his cows. And, we don't care what breed it is,” says Branch. “Order buyers are looking for as much uniformity as they can get.”

While he hasn't done any formal number crunching on the subject, Branch believes sets of cattle sired by a single breed have to be worth at least $1/cwt. more than the rainbow variety.

As for preconditioning — VAC 34 is the most popular health program for a growing number of calves wending their way through Superior, he says.

“It's not so much the premiums these preconditioned calves bring as it is the discounts we're seeing for the non-vaccinated calves,” he adds.