Mark Z. Johnson, OSU Extension Beef Cattle Breeding Specialist

This week we revisit this age-old question based on the February 21, 2023 USDA Market Report.  The question has been asked forever, or at least as long as we have been breeding cattle with a notion of trying to make the next generation better.  It is a classic and timeless question.  It is an important question.  At this time of year, when many bulls are being marketed and we are planning ahead for spring breeding season, it is the question that is asked a lot!   

The Answer

I remember first hearing the answer nearly 40 years ago as a student at OSU.  “A good bull is worth the value of five calves he sires.”  I’ve heard that answer again many times over the years.  I believe it is a good answer and a good rule of thumb to follow, the problem is it doesn’t exactly narrow down the range.  If we do a little “cowboy math”, this answer may in fact lead to more questions.  Such as…

When are we marketing our Calves?  What is their Value?

According to the most recent USDA Cattle Market Report from Oklahoma National Stockyards:

523 lb. weaned steer calves (Large, 1) are worth about $2.31/lb. for a value of $1,208 per head.  Therefore, if my future marketing plan is to sell weaned steers, $1,208 x 5 = $6,040 is the answer.

874 lb. yearling steers (Large, 1) are worth about $1.78/lb. for a value of $1,555 per head.  Therefore, if my future marketing plan is to sell yearling steers, $1,555 x 5 = $7,775 is the answer.

1,400 lb. finished beef steers are worth $164.50/cwt live for a value of $2,303 each.  Therefore, if my future marketing plan is to retain ownership through finishing and sell fed cattle on a carcass value basis, $2,303 x 5 = $11,515 is the answer.

So, in the current market, a good bull is worth somewhere between $6,040 - $11,515 to a commercial cattle operation.  Where exactly in that range depends on your marketing plan and the market conditions at that time.  Not an exact number because there are “many layers to this onion.”  One key point illustrated here is that the longer you will own the offspring before marketing, the greater the value of the bull to your operation.  Retained ownership gives you more time and opportunity to capture the value of your investment in genetics.  And we haven’t even considered the value added to replacement females if we select daughters as our next generation of cows.

I encourage cow-calf operations to consider their production system and marketing plan.  Doing so dictates where to apply selection pressure.  Genetics pay when you purchase a bull capable of improving genetic potential for the specific traits that will translate to added value at your intended marketing endpoint.

Keep the following chart in mind as another way to evaluate ownership cost of bulls on a per cow or annual basis: