Cull cows are a source of revenue some producers may be ignoring, says Cody Wright beef extension specialist at South Dakota State University.

"Cull cows are often viewed as an afterthought. We don't necessarily think about them as a way to add value," Wright says.

He encourages cattle producers to look into ways that they can take advantage of the revenue opportunity cull cows provide.

"When you start factoring the percent of your operation's annual revenue that they account for, some producers should focus more attention on adding value to their cull animals," said Wright, explaining that if a producer operates a 300-cow herd, and culls 15 percent each year, their operation is selling 30 to 40 cull cows each year - enough to fill a semi.

Timing is key when it comes to adding value to cull cows. The time of year that producers take their cull cows to market makes all the difference says Lonnie Dunn, feedyard manager for Fall River Feedyard LLC., Hot Springs, S.D. He says the best time to sell is anytime from May to August or the week between Christmas and New Years. Dunn, 69, feeds about 45,000 to 50,000 white cows each year. "White cows" is the term given to cull cows fed a high energy grain diet long enough - between 70 and 100 days - that their fat loses the yellowish-tint it gets from beta carotene, a fat-soluble compound, found in grass and other forages.

"May to August is the best time to sell because most cows are out on grass. The worst time to sell is the fall of the year when everyone is weaning their calves and preg checking - that's when there's the big supply and the market goes down," says Dunn, who has been involved in the industry 45 years.

Fall River Feedyards LLC feeds out white cows for American Foods Group; the fifth largest packer in the U.S. Dunn says the white cow market is steady year round.

"The packer kills year round. He's not seasonal like the rancher, he has to have a supply of cows," says Dunn, adding that most of the cows Fall River Feedyard feeds out for the white cow market are processed for the Kosher market. "Between Christmas and New Years is always a good time to sell because the packer needs cows over the holidays."

Selling at the peak time takes a little planning says Wright, who suggests either early-weaning or holding onto cull cows for a few months to wait out the market lows.

"Bottom line, if you've got to sell them, you want to avoid the market lows. If there's anyway that you can hold your cows to catch the upswing in the market, there can be money made, depending on the cost of feeding," Wright says. "If you don't have the facilities to feed your cull cows, it might be best to pull the calf off earlier before the market shifts."

Dunn agrees with Wright - depending on the cost of feed - if producers hold onto their cows until the market turns, it could increase their cash flow. However, he discourages cow/calf producers from feeding out their cull cows with plans to market them in the white cow market, which requires putting them on a high-energy grain diet for 85 to 90 days.

"I have ranchers call me from time to time wanting me to feed out their cull cows. I tell them they can't compete with the packer. The packer won't give the same money for a white cow when she's finished," says Dunn, who adds that River Falls Feedyard is among the largest feeders of white cows.

Feeding for the

white cow market

Michael Dikeman says if a producer has the feedstuffs available at the right price, and a marketing plan, money can be made by feeding cull cows. Dikeman is a professor in the department of animal sciences and a meat science specialist at Kansas Stat University.

"Feeding a cull cow to sell on the white cow market increases the value of the animal quite a bit. By feeding them on a high grain diet, the carcass that would typically be harvested for ground beef and baloney, can now be harvested for ribeyes, short loins, top sirloins and made into steaks," Dikeman said. "It depends on the price of feed - if corn is $4, it's not the time to feed cull cows. You have to sell to a processing plant that recognizes and is willing to pay for the value of white cows." Trying to sell white cows at an auction barn probably will not pay.

Dikeman recently conducted a study looking at the most efficient feeding program for cull cows. During the research he says they made an unexpected discovery.

All the cows in the study were implanted with Revalor-200 and fed a high-energy diet. The study looked at the impact beta agonists had on feed efficiency. The trial supplemented one of it's four groups of white cows with Optaflexx for 25 days, followed by Zilmax for the last 20 days of feeding. Dikeman says they originally tried this to see if there would be additional performance benefits. They didn't see any. Cows supplemented with the sequence of the two beta agonist showed the same increases in efficiency as those only supplemented with Zilmax - increased yields and dressing percent, along with increased efficiency of gain. However, carcasses from cows supplemented with the two beta-agonists had increased meat quality - tenderness, juiciness and color.

"We significantly improved the marbling, as well as putting on outside fat on the surface of the carcass which helps avoid the potential of cold toughening," Dikeman says. "We were able to make the meat similar to that of steers of heifers in terms of color, and marbling."

Dikeman says Zilmax has not yet been approved for use in the feeding of cull cows.