Fall is generally the time we perform the “yearly physical exam” on our beef cows. Most cows in the U.S. calve in the spring and their calves are weaned in the fall. This is the time of year we ask ourselves, “Does she stay, or does she go?”

While some cows fall into culling's gray zones, others are considered absolute culls. These include:

  • Cows with very poor disposition

  • Open cows more than 8 years old

  • Open heifers

  • Cows with cancer eye

  • Cows with physical defects

Culling cows with extremely poor disposition is really a “no-brainer.” We just can't risk having aggressive cows.

Points To Ponder

  • The early fall of 2002 should provide adequate prices for cull cows, and all open cows should be marketed. It appears we're at or very near the top of the cattle cycle, and keeping an open cow through the winter of 2002-2003 looks to be a very poor business decision. Open yearling heifers should be placed on a finishing ration and fed for finished beef.

  • Most cows with cancer eye need to be surgically treated and then marketed as soon as they are healed. These lesions can metastasize to other parts of the body. Lesions on the eyelids are most likely to spread while lesions on the cornea (clear part of eyeball) are the least likely to spread. Consult your herd health veterinarian on treatment and marketing options for cows with cancer eye.

  • Cows with physical defects (stifled, severe injury, very poor udder, etc.) should be marketed for obvious reasons.

Records Are Important

Having good financial and production records programs allows further culling of cows that aren't profitable to the operation. Often, after the cows on our absolute cull list (disposition, opens, cancer eyes, physical defects) are sold, we've culled so many that we're forced to keep all the remaining bred cows so we will have enough cows and calves for the following year. This allows us little opportunity to improve the herd.

Table 1. When to sell cull cows
Calving season March 10-May 15
Breeding season June 1-Aug. 5
Palpate cows Sept. 15-Oct. 1
Sell cull cows Sept. 15-Oct. 1

Real progress in a herd is possible when the unit cost of production (UCOP) per cwt. of calf is known. This information allows us to cull cows that are not profitable to the herd.

For more information on UCOP, see Harlan Hughes' “Market Advisor” columns in the March 2001, May 2001 and May 2002 issues of BEEF. You can also find these stories in BEEF's online archives at www.beef-mag.com.

Since we're near the cattle cycle high (some analysts, in fact, now say last year was the high for this cycle), most cows that are bred for 2003 have a high probability of being profitable. If we follow a typical cattle cycle, this won't be the case in five to six years. Keep your eye on the cycle because price movement may change due to drought-related liquidation and fluctuating beef demand.

This year's goal should be to add financial and production records to your beef business to assist in planning for market changes. Contact your herd health veterinarian, Extension specialist or state cattlemen's association for details.

The timing in selling market cows can make a large difference on overall profitability to your herd. There's a fairly typical pattern to the seasonality of cull cow prices. Our recommendation is to avoid selling cull cows in the months of October, November and December (Figure 1).

The price of cull cows tends to fall sharply from September to October, and then it falls further in November. While the December price tends to rebound somewhat, it is still generally lower than the price three months earlier. If you pregnancy-check cows early, you can market cows in average or better condition in September before the price slide occurs.

If you have cows in thin condition and an abundance of cheap winter feed (cornstalks, stockpiled grass, very low-cost hay), your best option is to winter those cows on the low-cost feed and then feed a high-grain ration for 50-60 days starting about Jan. 1. This allows you to market cull cows at the seasonal high that generally occurs in March (Figure 1).

Cull cows can account for 15-25% of annual returns to a cow-calf operation. Planning ahead and marketing cows instead of just selling cows can improve overall herd profitability.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor of beef production medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.