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Beef Quality Corner -- Cull Cow Marketing

Livestock Update, October 1998

Bill R. McKinnon, Extension Animal Scientist, Marketing, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

It is the time of year when thoughts turn to culling herds and marketing slaughter cows. Beef cow/calf producers should be reminded that the cull cow will show up ultimately on a consumer's plate sooner than any other beef animal he sells. That cull cow who always weaned the 3-weight fuzzball, put the owner on the fence once a year, or got free room and board last year will constitute 1 out of every 7 beef meals in the U.S. Beef from cull cows represents roughly 15% of the total of U.S. beef production. Though much of our ground beef comes from cows and bulls, whole muscle products are also fabricated from cows. Muscles from the round find their way into roast beef sandwiches at fast food restaurants. Ribeye rolls can be shaved and used to make "Philly steak" sandwiches. Whole ribeyes, strip loins, and tenderloins can also be marketed through "family" or economy steak houses. The above illustrates the importance of the cull cow and impact on the consumer's impression of beef quality.

During 1994 the beef industry conducted the National Non-Fed Beef Quality Audit. The goal of the audit was to establish baseline data for current quality shortfalls and identify targets for desired quality by the year 2004. The audit study included audits of packing and processing plants, interviews with professionals in the meat packing, processing, marketing, restaurant and retail industries and overall strategy sessions. Following the audits and interviews, the strategy workshop developed three general recommendations:

  1. Manage non-fed cattle to minimize defects and quality deficiencies
  2. Monitor the health and condition of non-fed cattle
  3. Market non-fed cattle in a timely manner

The workshop participants also developed ten strategies for improving the quality, competitiveness, and value of cull cows and bulls for slaughter.

  1. Minimize condemnations by monitoring herd health and marketing non-fed cattle with physical disorders in a timely manner.
  2. Effect end-product improvements by monitoring and managing non-fed cattle and by marketing them before they become too fat or too lean, too light or too heavy, thinly muscled or emaciated.
  3. Decrease hide damage by coordinating management and parasite control practices and by developing new methods for permanent ownership identification on non-fed cattle.
  4. Reduce bruising by dehorning, by correcting deficiencies in facilities, transportation and equipment, and by improving handling.
  5. Encourage competitiveness by implementing non-fed cattle marketing practices that assure producer accountability
  6. Assure equity in salvage value by requesting improved consistency of interpretations and application of federal meat inspection criteria among non-fed cattle slaughter establishments. I
  7. mprove beef safety by encouraging practices which reduce bacterial contamination of carcasses.
  8. Prevent residues and injection site lesions in non-fed cattle by ensuring responsible administration and withdrawal of all animal health products.
  9. Enhance price discovery by encouraging development of effective live and carcass grade standards for non-fed cattle.
  10. Encourage on-farm euthanasia of disabled cattle and those with advanced bovine ocular neoplasia.

It always behooves the producer to remember that there is a food product that represents the beef industry under the hide of that old cow.

Some cow/calf producers may want to consider avoiding the rush to market cull cows during the typical October to November cow runs. This period usually brings the lowest slaughter cow prices of the year. If cows can be economically carried past the late fall runs, the producer may be rewarded in three ways. As a new year begins, the price of slaughter cows generally rebounds as supplies better match demand. With sufficient supplies of at least moderate quality feed, cows should gain weight increasing the price per head. Thirdly, as cows gain weight after calf weaning and improve in condition, the red meat yield is improved and the live price per pound improves. Skimpy forage supplies this fall may be stretched by extremely cheap corn, barley, and by-product feeds. The cost of a pound of energy will be cheaper from these grains than $60 per ton hay.

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