Angus bull

The steer-bull price differential: A historical perspective

By Kenny Burdine, Livestock Marketing Specialist, University of Kentucky

I decided to shift gears a bit this week and dive into a topic that often comes up when I visit with producers in extension settings. I am often asked whether I think it pays for a cow-calf operator to castrate bulls and sell steers. Castration is not without cost as it requires time and facilities and does stress calves for a period of time. Like so many management decisions, there are an infinite number of ways to examine this topic and there is more to consider than economics alone. But, it is a good question and one for which a livestock economist should be able to provide some perspective.

When examining historical prices, it is difficult to argue that there is not a price advantage to selling steers. Sure, there will be times when a group of bulls will outsell a group of steers, but I view those times as the exceptions, rather than the norm. Sometimes those exceptions may be due to quality or lot size differences. Other times it may be as simple as a buyer needing to fill out a load of bulls and bidding the price of a group up beyond what would have been expected. But, going back to January of 2010, there has not been a single month when the average price of 550 lb bulls exceeded that of 550 lb steers in Kentucky. The figure above plots this data by month from January 2010 to July 2021. The bull discount got very wide at times during 2014 and 2015, but otherwise has been running in a general range of $7 to $14 per cwt. Over that entire time period, the bull discount has averaged $11.12 per cwt.

A logical follow up question would involve the likely weaning weight differences between steers and bulls. I tracked the price differential at the same sale weight. On a 550-pound calf, that $11.12 per cwt historical price difference amounts to a little more than $60 per head, but also ignores potential weight differences between the two. I like to frame this discussion by asking how much more a bull calf would have to weigh at weaning to make up for that difference. To answer this question, we have to understand the value of additional pound (value of gain) and not confuse this with sale price. Price slide refers to the decrease in price per cwt that occurs as the weight of cattle increases. Because of price slide, the value of additional pounds is typically less than the sale price. This is a key concept in cattle marketing that impacts most all decisions that producers make. I will walk through a quick illustration.

The average price of a 550-pound bull calf from 2010 to 2020 in Kentucky auction markets was $150 per cwt or $825 per head. If the price slide in the market were $10 per cwt, for each 100-pound increase in the bull’s weight, his price decreases by $10 per cwt.  So, if a bull weighed 600 pounds, rather than 550 pounds, his price would have been $145 per cwt ($5 per cwt less) and his total value would be $870. This is $45 more dollars than the 550-pound bull, which means that those additional pounds were worth roughly $0.90 each.  At that rate, the bull’s weight would need to exceed the weight of the steer by 67-pounds for their values to be similar. As price slide increases, the value of additional pounds decreases. So, if the price slide were $15 per cwt, rather than $10 per cwt, the value of those additional pounds would be even less.  Using a larger price slide of $15 per cwt would make the value of those additional pounds worth only about $0.60, which would mean that the bull would need to outweigh the steer by roughly 100 pounds for his value to be comparable. Similarly, a smaller price slide would result in higher values of gain and fewer additional pounds needed to offset the price differential.

Finally, I would mention that implants likely need to be considered as part of this discussion too. While I leave implant specifics to my animal science colleagues, implanted steers have the potential to see much better rates of gain and narrow that weight difference considerably. So, unless a producer is selling into a market that does not allow implants, they may offer the potential to receive steer prices, but see lower impacts on weight gain.

Every producer has to decide for themselves whether castrating bulls makes sense for their operation. I am fully aware that there is a cost to working calves and some producers may choose not to do this due to facility or time limitations. I have not attempted to delve into those additional costs in this article, but rather have focused on the value differences, so that producers can weigh those against the additional costs. There is pretty consistent evidence that bulls will sell at a discount to steers in the marketplace and the additional pounds needed for bulls to offset that discount can be significant. I would also point out that there are individuals in the market who make money by purchasing bulls, castrating them, backgrounding them for a period of time, and re-selling them. I just mention this as evidence that this is a common way that value is added to cattle. So, producers who typically sell bulls may want to consider the potential value that can be added to their calves through this practice as they look for ways to increase profitability in the future.

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