The COVID-19 outbreak has brought significant market disruptions to beef markets. Cash sales beginning the week of April 6-10 decreased significantly due to several processing-plant closures. Packers that remain open are unsure of their processing capacities because they face temporary labor shortages due to COVID-19.
At the time of writing, fed-cattle markets — particularly beef-type cattle — were experiencing the greatest degree of sale cancellations in Wisconsin. Market-cull cows and bulls, including both dairy and beef animals, present some fundamental differences from marketing fed cattle for Wisconsin farmers.
The possibility exists that market cows may need to go to a sale or processing location farther away than normal due to reduced processor capacity. Marginal market cows that would have made the usual trip may be at greater risk of becoming non-ambulatory before processing.
Market cows and bulls with mobility or health issues may not be able to wait for market conditions to improve. Farmers need to plan to deal with them in a timely manner, which may mean selling them in a depressed market if they are currently fit for transportation.
Consider a few factors when planning to sell market cows and bulls in the coming weeks and months.
- Communicate with sale-barn managers before arriving with cattle to be sure sales are occurring, especially if intending to bring large numbers of cattle. There could be limitations on the number of head buyers are purchasing.
- Prioritize and develop a plan for marketing cows and bulls that cannot wait for market conditions to improve but are fit for transport. That includes those cows and bulls with health issues, mobility issues or that need to be marketed due to low feed inventories.
- Have a plan for on-farm euthanasia and proper carcass disposal for cattle that become non-ambulatory, or are at great risk of becoming so, before they can be marketed.
- Check if nearby processors will process market cows and bulls that are not fit for long transport but are still suitable for harvest. That should be part of a standard Beef Quality Assurance or FARM program plan. Bear in mind nearby processors are often booked in advance and may be unable to handle a large increase in numbers.
- Consider the risks and potential net returns of retaining market cows and bulls for longer periods of time. As disheartening as it may be to sell them now at distressed prices, it is important to consider the risks to net returns of retaining ownership longer. Every day a producers owns cattle longer, the farm incurs feed and yardage expenses. It is important to evaluate the net returns for different options being considered while keeping in mind market volatility. Farms may need to look at both short-term and long-term strategies because it is unknown how long market disruptions may last.
The correct decision for a farm may change as pasture and new crop forage becomes available. High-risk cattle due to lameness or stress from their current physical states aren’t good candidates to own longer due to their limited abilities to maintain weight. They also have an increased risk of needing treatment or euthanasia if their condition worsens.
It might be possible to add some weight to thin but otherwise healthy market cows and bulls. General rules of thumb for the amount of feed and time required to add weight to beef cows include a feed-to-gain-conversion rate of about 10 pounds of dry-matter feed to one pound of weight gain, and a rate of gain near 2.3 pounds per day can be used for estimating costs when feeding a finishing-type ration. A nutritionist can help develop a ration for that purpose. Visit www.fyi.extension.wisc.edu for more information.
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