Watching the markets to determine where and when to take cattle to the sale barn

Factors such as solid market prices, drought conditions and forage shortages are causing many producers to wonder if they should be proactive and cull part of their herd now. The current cattle market continues to hold in a pattern that’s a bit unusual for this time of year. The years of countrywide drought, drastically reduced cattle numbers and increased input costs have even the most seasoned market experts scratching their heads when forecasting where cattle prices will go in the months to come. 

Individual and Herd Analysis

Culling cattle is a normal part of managing a cow herd, and choosing when to sell varies from operation to operation. “The decision to cull cattle is a routine part of the beef cow/calf herd management. Ultimately producers should make these decisions based on what is best for their operations’ profitability and what is best for their animals’ well-being,” Maggie Justice, Ph.D., beef cattle extension specialist and assistant professor with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, explained.

When making the decision, producers should take time to assess their situation based on individual animals as well as the herd as a whole. “When looking at it on an individual animal basis, overall health status, conformation and reproductive status are some of the most important factors to consider,” Dr. Justice said. “It is important that the herd is healthy and producing for us.”

According to cattle extension specialists, when looking at the herd it’s important for producers to consider their current pasture conditions and feed costs. This is especially critical as winter feeding approaches. “Our pastures have been struggling as we recover from a few years of drought and feed costs only continue to rise. This can be one of the most important factors to consider when culling animals,” Dr. Justice stated. “You have to stop and consider if a cow is not pregnant or raising a calf, can your operation afford to maintain her needs.” 

Market Status

Traditionally, cull cow prices are higher in the late spring and early summer months because fewer cull cows are being sold during that timeframe. According to Dr. Justice, this can often lead to producers hanging on to cull cows through the winter for higher prices. 

However, the market currently remains anything but typical. “This year continues to be an outlier all across the board and cull prices are remaining high with a high number of cull cattle still being sold even as we approach the end of the summer. Deciding to cull now could result in a good return at the sale barn for that animal,” Dr. Justice explained. 

Fall Outlook

Beef extension specialists state cull cow prices typically dip in the fall. As producers wean calves and preg check cows more animals are brought to market, therefore driving prices down. However, this year the market hasn’t followed the traditional patterns. Prices remain high. Whether the prices will hold into the fall is yet to be seen. 

Additionally, the national cattle herd numbers continue to decline as the country moves through years of drought as well as producers selling off cattle because of good market prices. This leaves experts speculating about what the fall market will look like. However, if producers need a jumping off point when deciding whether to cull part of their herd, they may want to consider the following advice. “There is no right one size fits all answer, but beginning with the question, ‘Can I afford to meet this animal’s needs?’ is a good start,” Dr. Justice advised. 


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