Of the roughly 32 million head of cattle slaughtered every year in the United States, about 20 percent are culled cows and bulls. And the sale of cull cows represents a significant enterprise for ranchers, typically accounting for about 15 to 20 percent of annual returns to cow-calf operations.

During the recent 2015 Range Beef Cow Symposium, Colorado State University animal scientist Dale Woerner, PhD, told ranchers that while market cow prices have dropped from 2014’s record levels, they remain historically high. Last year, he says, some classes of cull cows reached values as high as $235 per hundredweight on a dressed basis, at times exceeding the value of Select grade finished cattle. Currently, cutter cow prices are around $170 per hundredweight on a dressed basis, which remains above the five-year average of around $150 per hundredweight.

Woerner says a shortage of lean beef, demand for ground beef from the booming upscale burger restaurant sector and a shift to herd rebuilding after years of liquidation have contributed to high cow prices. While there are some seasonal fluctuations in cow prices, Woerner says some of the top prices each year occur during weeks corresponding with national holidays. These include the first week of January, last week of May, first week of July, first week of September, third week of November and the second half of December. The price spikes occur, in part, because sale barns close for the holidays, resulting in fewer cows available to packing plants those weeks. Ranchers who can forward contract cows for sale during those short weeks often can capitalize on higher prices.

While much of the meat from cull cows becomes ground beef, Woerner says about 43 percent of it is marketed as whole-muscle cuts. Virtually all U.S. cow plants harvest the rib and loin, and many also harvest whole-muscle cuts from the round, flank, chuck and brisket.

High demand for ground beef helps drive cull cow prices though, and particularly demand for lean beef, which can be blended with fat from finished steers and heifers to create ground beef at various lean-to-fat ratios. For these reasons, cull cows that are lean, but not too lean, tend to have the highest market values. Moderate cows with body condition scores (BCS) of 3 to 4 produce carcasses with 8 to 11 percent fat, putting them right on the 90 percent lean target. Excessively thin cows, at BCS 1, will have 4 percent fat or less, and yield poorly. Fat cows at BCS 8 or 9 will have up to 30 percent fat, with lean-meat yield below 50 percent.

Ranchers can benefit by managing their cull cows such that they go to market at BCS 3 or 4, fitting the classification of “cutter” cows and producing 90 percent lean carcasses. “Breaker” cows, at about 75 percent lean, and “boning” cows at 85 percent lean, typically have lower values per hundredweight.

Woerner also reminds producers to adhere to beef quality assurance standards in managing their cull cows. Avoid risk of defects associated with misplaced brands, bruising, injection-site lesions, arthritic joints and birdshot.

Watch a video with Dr. Woerner discussing cull-cow values at the Range Beef Cow Symposium.