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You Can Retain, Feed and Rebreed Open Cows Profitably — Sometimes

By Steve Lira, Economics Associate
and Jon Biermacher, Ph.D., Associate Professor

Posted Sep. 4, 2019

When it comes to retaining, feeding and rebreeding open cull cows, there are several aspects to consider and decisions to make. To help us understand the economic potential of different ways of managing such an operation, Noble Research Institute conducted a three-year study (2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18) on its Oswalt Ranch.

Study Methodology

During the study, we used a total of 244 open cows.

At weaning each year in the fall, all cows were weighed, pregnancy tested as open via ultrasound, and assigned an initial body condition score (BCS) by certified beef quality assurance (BQA) research technicians.

Using body condition scores, the cows were sorted into two management groups: a “thin” group (BCS less than 5.5) and a “moderate” group (BCS greater than or equal to 5.5). Each month through the end of the retaining period, cows in both groups were weighed and given a BCS. At weaning time and at the end of the retaining period, the USDA cow grader, Tina Colby, traveled to the study site and placed a dressing percentage and USDA grade (lo-lean, lean, boning utility, breaker) on every cow.

Feed Rations

Feed rations were developed for both groups to improve the condition of all cows to a target BCS of 6. The ration for the thin group included a mixture of ground hay (60% alfalfa and 40% grass) fed at rate of 20 pounds per head per day, plus 9.5 pounds of corn per head per day, and fed seven days a week. The ration for the moderate cows included the same mixture of ground hay, plus 1.5 pounds per head per day of 32% protein cubes, and fed three days per week.

Rebreeding Attempts

In addition to feeding the two groups of retained open cows, two rested breeding bulls were assigned to each group of cows each year for a 60-day breeding season in an attempt to rebreed the open cows. Each year, bulls were given a soundness exam prior to turnout on Dec. 1. At the end of each trial in each year, all cows were pregnancy tested via ultrasound. All cows that tested open were subjected to a secondary blood test to confirm that they were open.

Marketing Scenarios

Economic information was generated from two alternative marketing scenarios.

First, we used slaughter cow prices from published USDA-AMS market reports from five sale barns in Oklahoma (OKC West, OKC National, Tulsa, Woodward and Durant) to place initial and ending values on all cows with the assumption they are open. Information from this marketing approach will be useful for producers who do not have access to rested breeding bulls and would only retain and feed open cows. In our second scenario, we used actual sale prices received for all of our open and bred cows that we sold each year of the study. In year 1, we sold all bred cows younger than 6 years of age in a special cow-replacement video auction. All other cattle (open and bred) were sold at Oklahoma City National Stockyards each year at the end of each trial. Marketing bred cows through video auction or live auction in our region was not an option for years 2 and 3. However, marketing scenario 2 does provide information to producers who have access to truckload lots of open cows and rested breeding bulls that can be used to rebreed open cows.

Cattle grazing on hillside

Table 1 graphic: Descriptive Statistics for Thin and Moderate Management Groups of Cows by YearThe average BCS among all cows, years and management groups moved from 5.53 to 5.93, and 85% of open cows were rebred successfully each year.

Results

Table 1 reports descriptive statistics for number of cows, beginning (weaning) and ending dates, cow weights, and BCS by management group. On average over the three-year study, cows were retained past weaning for 165 days, and 85% of the open cows were rebred successfully in each year. The results suggest the feeding rations for both groups were effective in moving the open cows in poor condition to the desired BCS of 6 prior to marketing. The average BCS among all cows, years and management groups moved from 5.53 to 5.93. The real question, though, is whether or not the final value of the animals outweighed the expenses associated with keeping them through the winter.

Table 2 reports the economics by year, management group and marketing scenario. For the first market scenario, we found that retaining, feeding and marketing open cows in both management groups would not have earned a positive net return compared to selling them at weaning in any of the three years. This was expected because the cost of the feed rations outweighed the price effect from retaining them until the spring.

Results from market scenario 2 show that the actual net returns from selling our bred and open cows varied between systems and years. In the first year, we generated net returns that averaged $500 per head for 63 bred cows (Moderate = 47; Thin = 16) less than 6 years of age in the special bred cow video auction. In year 2, the thin group had 26 older bred cows that were discounted compared to the younger cows in the moderate group, pulling down the net returns for that group. In addition, bred cow and slaughter cattle prices for year 2 and 3 were significantly lower than for year 1, which also had a negative effect on our bottom line for cows in both groups. It’s noteworthy to point out that slaughter-cow and bred-cow prices were declining compared to the record cattle prices of 2014, so much of the loss in year 2 and 3 was due to the effect from the declines in these prices.

Cattle grazing in pasture

Table 2 graphic: Marketing ScenariosFor market scenario 1, we found that retaining, feeding and marketing open cows in both management groups would not have earned a positive net return compared to selling them at weaning in any of the three years. Results from market scenario 2 show that the actual net returns from selling our bred and open cows varied between systems and years. (Note for market scenario 2: Video auction was a marketing option only in year 1.)

Conclusions

Results from this study suggest a number of key factors associated with making a profit from retaining, feeding and breeding open cows.

First is the producer’s ability to place a score on the animal’s condition and to sort open cows into thin and non-thin groups.

Second is to allocate resources (low-cost feed and hay, labor, rested bulls) on those animals that are thinner and in poor condition.

Third, it is also more economical to have enough open cows to make up truckload lots in order to help keep transportation costs per animal at a minimum.

Fourth, we found that the returns from selling younger, bred cows are greater than selling older open or older bred cows, which is similar to previously published findings.

Recommendations

In most cases, especially cases where rested breeding bulls are not available, we encourage producers to go ahead and sell heavy, older open cows at weaning, and provide very low-cost pasture or hay to improve condition and weight on cattle that are thinner, in poorer condition. It is also important to keep an eye on slaughter cow prices. When the market price for slaughter cattle seems to be significantly lower than the average price, you will have better odds to make a profit by retaining lighter, poor-conditioned cattle.

If rested bulls are available and you can conduct pregnancy tests, you might find it advantageous to sell bred cows in periods when the nation’s producers are increasing their herd sizes and bred cow prices are moving up. It can also be good to rebreed open cows if you have access to special bred-cow sales and as long as the urge to keep a bred cow back in the herd is not overwhelming. For smaller operations that have limited labor and financial resources and only a handful of open cows, we encourage keeping those cows on low-cost pasture or hay for a short period after weaning; market them after they have regained some condition.

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