By Lyssa Seefeldt
Is your herd on the natural culling cycle (i.e. animals dying of old age)? Is that old beef cow a "hard keeper" over winter and you just cannot keep weight on her? What do you do with those cows still open after breeding season?
Now is a good time to consider thinning the herd down before winter, especially if you have open cows. With choice steer prices averaging $140 to $159 per hundredweight in August, you might be tempted to keep that old open cow around to try for another round of breeding next year. This could be a mistake that ends up hindering your herd in the coming years as you do not have a guarantee of what steer prices will be doing next year. The space you had allotted to that open old cow could be used by a younger, more productive heifer or cow that will be calving on time and keeping money in your pocket by providing you with good replacement heifers or calves/steers to sell.
Looking back a few years to 2009, prices for cattle were a lot less than they are today, both steer and cow prices. Those prices combined with increasing feed prices were not encouraging for growth of a cow herd or increasing animal numbers for beef production. Note that cull cow prices tend to follow the trends of steer prices, allowing you to predict, to a degree, when cow prices will be up. High beef prices this year give you the potential to capture some extra income, even with cull cows.
In Wisconsin, for example, cull cow prices range from $91 to $130 per hundredweight. That means a small framed, lower-priced cow could bring in $728 or $1,690 for a larger framed, top dollar cow. That is not bad for an open cow that you might normally be feeding all winter without the benefit of getting a calf in the spring. Add in the feed savings and you probably have enough money to invest in some bred heifer replacements, even at current prices.
While there is opportunity to recapture some value on older cows that aren't as productive as they used to be, do not expect to receive top dollar for a poor-condition, unthrifty animal. There are thresholds of quality expected, even in cull cattle, and if your animals do not fit the bill you will be compensated in accordance with how close of a match, or lack of a match, they are.
That being said, at this point animals in the herd are likely at the best condition they will be for the rest of the calendar year and now is an optimum time to thin herd numbers. Some thin animals might need to be fed up a bit to capture a higher price. If you wouldn't pay top dollar for her in the sale barn, the buyers probably won't either, but if the cow in question looks to be in pretty decent shape, you will likely get a fair price for her.
Seefeldt is the Marquette County, WI Extension agriculture agent.