Assessing cull cow finish levels can be tricky, with many killing out far better than they handle.

In a bid to overcome the problem, EBLEX has introduced a new grading system to help farmers achieve the best returns from OTM cattle and improve selection skills for both the home and export trade.

Cows will be identified by four grades (1-4) depending on their level of finish.

And with some cull cows now making up to 900, EBLEX says farmers have much to gain from talking to buyers and auctioneers to assess the market’s needs.

The grading system was launched at Beeston Castle Auction Mart in Cheshire last week, where the wide variation in the levels of finish carried by cull cows highlighted issues facing both dairy farmers and suckled calf producers who are trading in the cow market for the first time in 10 years.

While the trade is urging farmers not to sell cows which are over fat, EBLEX is aware that assessing levels of finish carried by cull cows is a skill farmers need to master.

The decision facing most farmers is whether to sell cows straight out of the cubicle shed or to move them on to short-term finishing to improve fleshing and, hopefully, enhance their value.

Steve Powdrill, EBLEX north east regional manager, says it is only by getting to grips with the new grading system and by opening up a dialogue with auctioneers and cow buyers that farmers can start making balanced decisions about how to get the best returns from cull cows.

“EBLEX is planning some practical workshops in the Better Returns Programme to help farmers in the selection and marketing of cull cows.

We want to help farmers assess what is under the hide and that is not as easy as it may be with prime beef cattle,” says Mr Powdrill.

He says information coming from abattoirs suggests that cull cows are killing out at between half and one grade fatter than prime beef cattle.

“Farmers holding on to cows for further finishing mustn’t risk getting them too fat, or extra feeding will be a waste of money.

Putting on flesh and not fat is essential, but every cow has to be assessed individually.

“There is every indication that we are moving towards a strong and sustainable market for cull cow beef from both the home and export trade.

But to help farmers get the best possible prices for these cows they must have an understanding of buyers’ needs and the commodity they are dealing with.”

Liz Ford, regional project manager for EBLEX is aware that farmers have been forced to regard cull cows as something to be disposed of and not marketed.

But the lifting of the OTM ban and the introduction of the new EBLEX grading system means cull cows have the potential to significantly contribute to profits for dairy and suckler herds.

“Understanding the grading system and being able to identify what type of cows you have and how they should be marketed for the best return – that is the challenge facing farmers.

“Some cows that appear to be well fleshed and look likely to produce an ideal carcass can often kill out far too fat.

Their appearance can be deceiving compared with prime cattle, but these are the new skills that farmers need to address,” says Ms Ford.

“Whether or not to feed in an effort to add value is the big question.

The Holstein influence means milk producers have a significantly different commodity to sell now compared with 10 years ago.

They must be able to assess if Grade Four cows are unlikely to be improved by extra feeding or whether there is the potential to achieve a more saleable Grade Three carcass.”

EBLEX says the export market is already gearing up to take UK cull cows.

Grade One and Grade Two cows will be required and buyers from many EU countries are already actively setting up in the UK to source cattle.

“MLC has been working hard on the export market and even if we get just 10% of the export enquiries we have had so far for both clean and cull cattle, it is going to have an impact on the beef market,” she adds.

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com