Will feeding open cows cost — or make — you money this winter?

Use an online calculator and pencil in your numbers before deciding 
to preg check this fall, says beef economist

Feeding cows that won’t give you a calf next spring can sometimes make you money — but it all depends on your costs and what happens 
to prices over the winter.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Preg checking your cattle is important — but it’s hard to know if you should cull open ones now or feed them through the winter.

Beef economist Kathy Larson of the Western Beef Development Centre doesn’t always recommend feeding open cows.

“It’s a costly venture, particularly when we have tight feed supplies,” she said. “In Saskatchewan, we’re paying 5-1/2 or six cents for hay, and so I wouldn’t see that keeping open cows would make sense.”

Most calves and the bulk of cows hit the market in the fall, pushing down prices. But prices usually rise during the winter.

“There’s some thought that if you held on to them, and maybe put a little more condition or weight on them, the price the following spring would more than make up the cost that you incurred to overwinter them,” she said.

Using price data from the past 10 years, Canfax Research Services recently applied price trends and put those into an online calculator developed by the Beef Cattle Research Council. That allowed it to estimate the financial benefits of three options; culling open cows in the fall; preg checking and feeding them separately; and skipping the pregnancy check and giving every cow similar rations. It then broke the prices down further to consider four feeding systems; dry lot, swathed barley, bale grazing, and corn grazing, and calculated average daily gain in each.

Larson advises producers to use the online calculator to put their own numbers in.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen prices typically drop 15 per cent from the summer high to November,” she said. “We have the slump in the market because producers were preg checking and then there are a lot of open cows coming to the market.”

The Canfax study found producers would be significantly further ahead if they don’t preg check and feed cows all winter. But the prices estimated in the blog post, published on Aug. 31, have already changed, said Larson.

“They talk about how prices will be 95 cents (per pound) this fall and it’s already 90 cents,” Larson said on Sept. 13. “It changes so fast.”

One of the things producers can do is get some current pricing information. There are free sources available, or people who have a subscription to Canfax can go and see historical data as well.

“I am a huge proponent of getting producers to start getting comfortable with their numbers, and using calculators that are there,” said Larson.

(If they see shortfalls of these calculators, they can always give their feedback to the Western Beef Development Centre, Canfax, or the Beef Cattle Research Council, so they can improve on the tools available, she added.)

In its study, Canfax assumed prices would increase 27 per cent from November to March, which has been the average of the past 10 years. But that jump didn’t happen in 2016, said Larson.

“It was only 15 per cent,” she said. “They do say near the end of the article that if prices only increase five per cent, then you see that it doesn’t really pay, or it pays very little.”

Everyone’s situation is different, and producers need to put in their own numbers, she said.

The calculator accounts for either feeding cattle separately or as a group, but not bale grazing, swath grazing, or feeding them with standing corn.

“That’s not built into this little online calculator,” she said.

The Beef Cattle Research Council calculator (called the ‘Economics of Pregnancy Testing Beef Cattle’ model) allows users to enter their own overwintering costs, average daily gain, length of winter feeding period, and other variables. It can be found at on the BCRC website via the Resources pull-down menu and Decision Making Tools.

The Western Beef Development Centre has an online cost-of-production calculator. It can be found at www.wbdc.sk.ca.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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