SDSU: What to do with the calf crop? |

SDSU: What to do with the calf crop?

It is no secret that compared to recent years the 2016 calf market will be disappointing for sellers. However, producers must still make decisions about their 2016 calf crop, said Heather Gessner, SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist.

“There are options available depending on each situation,” Gessner said. “Some popular press articles have suggested that cow-calf producers should retain ownership to enhance profitability. However, producers should make sure they consider all factors before changing marketing plans to increase their chances for success.”

Gessner, together with Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate look at some options below.

“In addition to knowing feed expenses and market trends, outside factors will continue to affect the cattle markets,” Rusche said. “Producers will need to be proactive with their marketing and risk management plans to mitigate losses. Waiting for the next market shock is not a sustainable marketing plan.”

Sell at Weaning

Selling directly at weaning is one option many operations utilize.

For those with limited feed, facilities, or capacity to manage calves post-weaning this may be the best choice.

“These producers eliminate risks associated with post-weaning performance or death losses, but they also give up any opportunity to capture the opportunity for price improvement and for adding value to home-grown feeds,” Rusche said.

Price protection options for selling directly off the cow are available in the form of Livestock Risk Protection insurance or utilizing the options market, depending on when one weans. While each of the risk management tools has some additional cost and limitations associated with it, those that implement them have a level of price protection in place others do not.

Figure 1 shows the weekly South Dakota 2016 Medium and Large #1 Steer Calf Prices, compared to 2015 prices and the 2010-2014 average price. The average price of $170 per hundredweight is close to $100 per hundredweight lower than a year ago, and $30 lower than the 2010-2014 average. As long as the prices are at or below production costs, per calf weaned, this is a profitable venture for these operations.

Table 1 shows an example beef cow budget that raises a calf from breeding to weaning and results in a breakeven of $618. If the weaned calf weighs 450 pounds, at $1.70 per pound the total value of the calf is $765. Producers need to assess their own budget to determine if this is a profitable decision.


Another common option is to pre-condition the calves for a short period following weaning.

“Pre-conditioning allows calves to begin eating a concentrate or other grower diet and ensures the producer has completed all vaccination protocols,” Rusche said.

She explained that most programs call for calves to be weaned for 45 days before being sold. “There may be an opportunity for price improvement for pre-conditioning calves as they should have a lower risk for sickness compared to calves that were weaned at sale-time.” She said.

Similar risk management tools are available for these calves in the form of LRP or options.

Producers considering this option must evaluate the feed, labor, and management availability compared to the expected gain or improved market price received.

“There is an increased management requirement and additional risks of sickness and death loss during the first few weeks on feed,” Rusche said.

He added that unexpected problems during the weaning and starting phase can result in increased expense that may be difficult to recover at sale time.

The additional component of pre-conditioning is the change in value for a heavier calf. Figure 2 shows the weekly Average South Dakota Medium and Large #1 500 to 600 pound Steer calf prices.


Backgrounding is another standard option for South Dakota producers.

“Depending on location, the method used to background calves can be very different,” explained Rusche. “The protocols, expenses, feed resources and labor requirements for each method vary, so producers should accurately assess this option before implementing it as part of your operation.”

Many are familiar with backgrounding calves on grass over the winter on range ground and then selling these calves in early spring, or holding them through the summer and selling them as “long yearlings.” Others will background in a feedlot system where the animals are fed a total mixed ration until they reach the goal end weight. Each of these feeding options has pros and cons to them and those need to be evaluated by the producer.

Using a budget, Gessner said helps determine if an opportunity truly exists, and provides a breakeven price to implement a risk management protocol to mitigate market risk. Table 2 shows a budget comparison for these backgrounding options.

Larger weight feeder cattle traditionally receive lower prices per pound, as shown in Figure 3.

“The timing of the sale and accurately anticipating what the animal will weigh are critical components of this backgrounding budget,” Gessner said.

As South Dakota winters have proved unpredictable in the past, producers should consider the effect of forced early sales due to unusual snowfall amounts.

Figure 3 shows the decline in the weekly average price for 700-800 pound medium and large #1 feeder steers since 2015 and compared to the 2010-2014 average prices.

Futures and Projections

There is upside potential for the 2016 feeder calf market, explained Gessner. The September 16, 2016 USDA-ERS Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook projects fourth quarter feeder cattle prices at $143 to 149 per hundredweight, first quarter 2017 at $149-159, and second quarter 2017 at $146-156 (Figure 4).

These projections are above current feeder cattle futures prices.

“Retaining ownership of the weaned calf would allow producers to capture those projections,” she explained.

Gessner added that cattle producers could utilize Livestock Risk Protection (LRP) insurance or a put option could provide bottom-side price protection.

–SDSU Extension

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