Cow feeding trend re-emerging in feedlots, as drought grip tightens

Jon Condon, 07/09/2023

THERE’S a small, but growing trend happening in commercial feedlots feeding light cows to add weight and condition before slaughter.

The trend was last seen during the 2019-20 drought, and was also commonly seen during the previous drought cycle back in the early 2010s.

Northern-bred composite cows on shortfed programs in a Darling Downs feedlot

Full-mouth cows are not eligible for a Grainfed (GF) cipher, but the practise of short-feeding light cows is simply designed to add weight and condition.

That need is being added-to by the footprint of more extreme drought conditions that’s growing across eastern Australia by the week.

A large multi-site east coast beef processor told Beef Central during Tuesday’s weekly kill report that a small, but growing proportion of his company’s cow kill was now made up of fed cows.

“We are starting to kill a few more cows out of feedlots,” he said. “It’s not yet in big licks, like we saw in the previous drought, but its growing.

“It might be 20-25pc of cows now being killed have had some feed – either at a registered feedlot, or via self-feeders in the paddock – especially western cows. It’s not for everybody, but some people will do it.”

Typically, beef processor price grid offers start to fall away dramatically, once cows get below about 240-260kg dressed weight – incentivising suppliers to keep weights up.

And with heavier, better-conditioned cows, a few sweet cuts can be harvested for sale as whole muscle meat, rather than being simply consigned to the grinder.

A large commercial feedlot operator confirmed that his yard was already feeding some cows for weightgain and condition.

“There’s a few processors who are buying light cows and putting them onto feed for 50-70 days, ensuring they turn from boner-types (all manufacturing meat), into carcases where loin cuts are worth harvesting,” he said.

“In other cases, the cows are being placed on feed by the breeder, or a buyer, to sell later as heavier, better finished animals.”

“To what extent it’s happening at this stage is hard to tell, but there are certainly cows on the books now in some feedlots.”

Light-conditioned, better framed cows going onto feed tended to be ‘very big eaters’, he said, consuming 15-20kg of finisher ration a day. And weightgain in liveweight could be large – around 2kg/day on the right cattle.

“But the risks, from an animal welfare viewpoint, are something that lotfeeders need to keep a close eye on. Some of the cows coming in will calve, being pregnant when sold simply as ‘light cows.’


So is the venture profitable, for the stakeholder putting them onto feed?

“It largely depends how cheap the boner cows are,” the lotfeeder contact said.

“At the same time, ration prices are lifting significantly at the moment – anywhere from $500/tonne to $530/t for finisher ration*. (Editor’s note: We made a silly reporting error in the original version of this story, reporting ration price at $5/-$5.30/kg, instead of $500-$530/t. In the rush, it was out by a factor of 10. Thanks to reader James Haden for picking up the mistake and alerting us).  But even so, the exercise looks attractive, depending on the cow’s initial value.”

Over a 60-day feeding period, a feeder cow could eat $480 worth of ration, and put on 100-120kg of liveweight. A boner cow coming into the yard at 400kg liveweight, could exit after 60 days, producing a carcase around 270-280kg.

Typical Queensland cow grids offer a top sell for 300kg+ (this week 415c/kg) and 5c off for each 20kg liveweight below that. Below 240-260kg, grids fall much more sharply, because processing costs don’t change, regardless of weight.

In the example above, a 270kg cow freshened-up in the feedlot would this week make 405c/kg when sold direct.

“In effect, the process turns a cow that has very little value to a processor, into something which has good value, with good meat, and loins that can be sold as whole muscle into the budget beef trade,” the lotfeeder said.

“For this reason, if this drought cycle continues, it’s likely we’ll see more of it,” he said. “And there is no shortage of these cheap cows in the market at present.”

Price plunge

As a price guide, mediumweight score 2 cows at Roma sale on Tuesday averaged 158c/kg liveweight, and sold to only 185c. Dubbo sale last Thursday saw cows to restockers make 150-185c/kg, and score 2 cows average 142c/kg.

The NLRS processor cow index today sits at 206c/kg, but that indicator includes both more attractive (to processors) heavy cows +520kg, and light cows 400-520kg.

The light cow component of the index over the past seven days has averaged 172c/kg. Some individual saleyards contributing data to the cow index have averaged as low as 151c/kg over the past seven days.

One Queensland processor estimated some cows he had bought in the saleyards this week represented carcase weight value in the chiller of only 265c/kg.

As a comparison, this time last year NLRS eligible cows sold through the saleyards channel averaged 373c/kg liveweight, or $2155 a head.

“But processors I think, would be very concerned about availability of manufacturing cows (and potentially price) once this drought breaks,” one lotfeeder contact said.

“International demand will be high, but availability of cows could again become very tight, once it rains.”

“Give recent modest international grinding beef price improvements, all the indications are that slaughter cows are again in the black for processors, and US supply is going to be very tight, for some time.”

A feedlot nutritionist spoke to for this report told Beef Central that cows seen in some NFAS feedlots at present were being fed for one of two purposes.

Some were being production-fed for better slaughter outcomes, but equally, other breeders were being fed only a maintenance ration, preserving them for future breeding purposes.

Quarterly surveys

Beef Central asked the Australian Lot Feeders Association how cows being fed in NFAS-accredited feedlots for added weight and condition – but not for a Grainfed cipher – were treated in quarterly feedlot surveys.

We were told that the survey makes no distinction in market categories, but simply represents a total numbers of cattle on feed. The inclusion of production-fed cows is captured in the very high June quarter cattle-on-feed figure of 1.256 million head – the second highest on record.





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  1. Tim Fay, 10/09/2023

    So if I buy 1000 skinny cows and feed them I could make 200,000 let’s go.

    Refer to earlier reader comment and our response, Tim. Editor

  2. James Haden, 08/09/2023

    The maths only makes sense if the cows are fed 1.5 – 2.0 Kg of finisher ration per day and not 15 – 20 Kg.
    Because at $5 Kg for 55 days they’d have eaten $4675 worth of finisher and even if it was Wagyu beef at that point you would be losing considerable money !! .
    Otherwise, it’s a great article.
    Cheers, James.

    Thanks for picking up our mistake, James. It was out by a factor of ten. We have now corrected it in the original copy. Editor

    • Andrew Wrigley, 09/09/2023

      Think it might be 50 cents per kg of finisher ration and still 15 to 20 kilo’s a day for those poor old cows

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