So far 2014 has been one for the record books when it comes to the cattle market. Increased cattle values combined with less expensive feed have dramatically changed the outlook for cow/calf profitability compared to the last few years.

These market place changes should trigger at least an examination of retained ownership plans. After all the net returns from selling calves at weaning will be some of the highest ever for most herds. The question then becomes whether there is an opportunity to capture additional profits by retaining ownership, or is the best strategy to sell at weaning and take the profits immediately?

Table 1 shows the returns for backgrounding calves from 550 to 750 pounds using a range of values at weaning (or purchase) and at selling. The costs for individual operations will vary depending on feed values and yardage costs, however for the purpose of this discussion the cost of gain is assumed to be $0.70 per pound.

Table 1. Profit or Loss Backgrounding from 550 to 750 pounds



Sale Price (750 Pounds), Dollars per Hundred






Calf Price (550 pounds) Dollars per hundred

















Based on this analysis the margin between the initial price and sales prices significantly affects the profit and loss. Risk management, either through price insurance products, futures and options, or cash contracts needs to be strongly considered when deciding whether or not to retain ownership. Price volatility has increased along with price levels this year. A geopolitical or economic issue halfway around the globe could lead to net losses.

Another often overlooked factor is how retaining ownership might affect feed supplies and carryover. This year hay and feed supplies are generally adequate going into fall. The same was true in the fall of 2011; but by 2012 feed inventories were critically short for many ranchers due to drought. It is important that producers make sure the potential rewards for retaining ownership justify the additional risk.

It is also important producers don’t automatically assume the risk is too great and that calves shouldn’t be retained. As shown in Table 1 substantial profits are possible, depending upon the buy-sell margin and the expected costs of gain.

Some situations where retaining ownership might pay off include:

  • As a tool to add value to raised feedstuffs which are otherwise more difficult to market. Feeds such as high-moisture corn or silage are two examples. Feeding to cattle is a way to market those feedstuffs and save drying expense or harvest delays.
  • Selling some of the calf crop while retaining the balance. This could be viewed as “not putting all the eggs in one basket” marketing. One example could be to sell the steers and hold on to the heifers as replacements either for sale or within the herd. Or the heaviest calves could be marketed at weaning with the lighter calves grown on forage.
  • Sell premium priced calves and replace with less expensive, “opportunity” cattle. This isn’t exactly a retained ownership strategy, but can be used as a way to add value to home grown feeds while capturing premiums for high-quality calves at weaning. Buying calves cheaper could help manage the buy-sell margin risk; however the risks of health or performance issues need to be considered.

This is a simulation of one scenario. All operations are different and this table may not apply to all situations.