MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Deciding which cows to cull from the beef herd is a decision that all producers make from time to time. Recent studies by Kansas State University scientists indicate that once the decision is made, it may be worth a producer's time and money to keep those cows a bit longer before sending them off to market.
K-State scientists found that by putting cows on concentrated feed for 70 to 90 days before sending them to market, much like younger heifers and steers in feedlots, producers can add enough value to the animal to make the practice economically worthwhile, depending on the price of feed and the market for cows.
"This practice is not real prevalent," said Michael Dikeman, meat scientist with K-State Research and Extension. "That's why we think that there may be some lost opportunities out there."
Dikeman, along with meat science specialist John Unruh, coordinated the efforts of research teams that included beef cattle specialist John Jaeger, meat science graduate students, and other faculty members.
The team presented their findings at the 2009 K-State Cattlemen's Day in early March.
"The cows in one study netted nearly $172 per head, after considering purchase price, feed, supplements, trucking, check-off and yardage costs," Dikeman said. "In this study, the value of the cull cows was increased from $54.50 per 100 pounds to $77.00 per 100 pounds. The cost of gain averaged $80 per 100 pounds."
Two studies were conducted at K-State's Western Kansas Agricultural Research Center at Hays. In the first, 60 cows were split into equal number groups, each with different feeding scenarios for 70 days:
In the other study, 60 cows were separated into 12 pens, holding five cows each. The cows were four- to nine-year old Angus crossbreds. All were implanted with Revalor-200(R) (developed to enhance weight gain and feed efficiency).
Each was fed a high-energy diet, and assigned one of four treatments:
"One thing about feeding a high concentrate diet is that with cows you can step up the diet to a high concentrate ration one to two weeks more quickly than you can with younger steers and heifers," Dikeman said. "A cow's rumen physiology is more mature and can handle higher concentrations of feed more quickly."
In addition, cows that have been on grass or roughage only diets have yellow fat, which is not acceptable to most beef consumers. Putting cows on feed 70 to 100 days changes a cow's fat to a white color, resulting in what the industry calls a "white cow." The muscle takes on a more attractive color that is more typical of grain-fed animals and the marbling fat that the animal puts on makes the meat more tender and juicy.
"What we found across these studies," Unruh said, "was that implanted- plus-grain and implanted-plus-Zilmax(R) plus grain should increase total gain, hot carcass weights, dressing percent, ribeye area, and total subprimal weight compared to grass-fed cows."
"By doing this, and especially keeping in mind the current economic climate and new uses for certain cuts of beef, we can add value to some of those cuts that otherwise would end up as ground beef, bologna, or other processed meats" Dikeman said.
The animal scientist warned, however, that producers should be mindful of feed prices and seasonal trends in cow prices. March through August is when cow prices tend to be higher, he said, adding "They'll want to avoid those periods in the fall when there are more cows on the market because they didn't conceive or in the late winter or early spring when a cow may have lost her calf."
Dikeman also cautioned that Zilmax(R) currently is only approved to feed to steers and heifers in feedlot finishing rations and Intervet, Inc. controls sales to be used only for steers and heifers.
Experiments such as the two K-State studies are needed to determine if approval will come for cows. Revalor-200(R) can be used in any age cattle; OptaflexxTM can be purchased for diets of any age cattle, although the label does not state its use for cows.
The researchers also said that if a producer intends to feed cull cows before marketing them, they should make sure they have an interested buyer before going through the process.
"We recommend that producers establish a market before they feed the cows," Dikeman said. "You've got to have a processing plant that is interested in 'white' cows that will produce higher quality beef than the average cull cow. If you don't have an arrangement worked out ahead of time, and you just take the cows to auction like you normally would, these cows might get lost in the shuffle."