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Demand for Lean Beef Adds Premium to Prices for Lean, Healthy Market Cows

Dale Woerner, Colorado State University meat scientist, says, contrary to the perception of many ranchers, market cows have become much more than the just-get-rid-of-them by-product.

Woerner has studied this cattle market segment perhaps more than anyone. He’s telling ranchers to be aware of the increasing value of market cows and the variety of high-value products coming from them.

For example, he says, not all of the meat from a slaughter cow goes into ground beef. Many rib, loin, and round meat cuts are sold as whole-muscle cuts, similar to steaks and roasts from fed steers and heifers. 

Some cow meat is sold as 90% to 100% lean-muscle cuts, which is near perfect for the lucrative beef jerky or deli-quality roast beef markets. “The perception has been that it’s all ground into hamburger; that’s not true,” he says. 

It’s pumping more money into prices for market cows. “We’ve seen market situations in recent months where the carcass cutout value of market cows is actually higher than that of USDA Select fed steers and heifers,” he says. 

Recent prices at sale barns have consistently been over $100 per cwt (and oftentimes over $120) for cows that are lean and in good condition. A healthy 1,200-pound cull cow can sell for as much as $1,500 or more on the right day at the right place. 

The wholesale price of lean round cuts from cows is over $3 a pound at times – sometimes more than those cuts from fed cattle. That’s because the cow meat is leaner, and that’s what processors want.

While some cow meat gets sold and processed as whole-muscle meat, the biggest market for cull cows is still exactly what you think: 90% lean beef trimmings for grinding into hamburger. Demand for that product has increased as cattle herd numbers have declined in recent years. 

“Any cuts that yield 90% or higher lean trimmings, like the round and chuck from cows, are really in demand,” says Woerner. 

One lesson for ranchers is to market those animals wisely, like they are an important part of the business, says Woerner. To do that, seek out buyers who specialize in cow beef and fully reward the value. That might mean direct marketing to a packer rather than going through a sale barn.

There’s currently not much incentive to feed cull cows before you market them. With the demand for lean cows in good condition, it still rarely pays to invest in grain feed. 

“You will add fat to the carcass, and that’s not what is driving the value of cull cows,” he notes.

Plus, Woerner continues, cull cows are not good gainers anyway. They sometimes add some quick compensatory pounds over the first 30 days of a feeding period, but after that they are very inefficient. 

His best advice is to keep them in good health, follow Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) principles, keep them lean, and you’ll get the best price at sale time. 

Another point worth noting is that cull animals have much higher condemnation rates at slaughter than fed animals. Because they are older animals that have experienced more stresses and health issues on a ranch, the risk of carcass blemishes is higher. Woerner says to practice BQA techniques with injections and handling of market cows.

Horned animals can present an especially big issue with more likelihood of carcass bruising, trimming, and value discounts.

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