Purchasing cows can be an exciting time for a beginner. It can also definitely be a gamble trying to figure out when the best time is to buy or sell cows.
There is no cookie-cutter guide that perfectly fits every person, situation, geographic location, economy or year. These things are going to be variables–variables that you’re going to need to be well aware of when you decide to start your herd.
If you don’t have cows yet, your first step is going to be buying cows. Assuming you’ve got a place to put them and a means to feed them and keep them safe, the biggest other factor you’re going to look at is when to make your purchase.
Buying Cows In The Spring
Generally speaking, cows are more expensive in the spring. This is due to two big reasons.
First, there isn’t as much beef on the market in the spring.
Second, people who want to fatten a calf themselves are more motivated to purchase in the spring because they can pasture their cow all spring and summer and into the fall in lieu of feeding it with expensive hay in the winter which is also more labor intensive.
So although the initial price to purchase the cow is a bit higher than it would be in the fall, the price to feed the cow is less. Even if you have to pay to pasture your cow on someone else’s land, the cost is typically still less than the cost of feeding it hay year-round.
If your goal is to keep your cow for years and years, there may not be an advantage to purchasing it in the spring in the long run.
The exception to this would be if you’re buying a pregnant cow who is ready to calve in the spring. (This may not be important to you if you are in an area that calves year-round.) However, if you do not have a bull and you are planning to have calves or otherwise start your herd, purchasing a pregnant cow in the spring might be a better option than trying to find a bull to rent each spring or purchasing your own bull to feed all winter.
Buying Cows In The Fall
Facing the end of fall, cow owners must now figure out how to feed their cows all winter. This involves either feeding them the hay they’ve already grown, or purchasing it. As a general rule, we plan for 40 pounds of hay per day, per mama cow (or bull). If you are in a colder climate, your cows will need more because they will burn more calories to keep warm.
Becoming more labor intensive and expensive to feed cows going into the winter, coupled with the fact that large scale ranchers sell their calves in the fall, prices are less than they would be in the spring.
If this is your first cow or first family milk cow, it’s nicer to purchase in the winter when you have more time to get to know your cow (and possibly learn the milking process if that’s your goal). Purchasing a cow and learning how to take care of it in the spring can cause frustration in learning time management when there are so many other things that suddenly demand your time and attention in the spring.
On another note, if this is a family cow, they have a winter coat which makes them softer in the fall (i.e. a better cuddle buddy if you get a calm breed). Soft, fluffy cows can be enticing for older kids to bond with.
If your desire with your cows is to turn a profit off the animals themselves, you’ll want to figure out when the best time is to sell them after you’ve had them awhile.
Selling Cows In The Spring
Selling your cows in the spring can be advantageous because potential purchasers are willing to pay a higher initial cost in the spring in order to capitalize on the lower feed and maintenance cost of having a summer cow, which drives the selling price up.
If you don’t have pasture, or access to pasture, you are not going to want to purchase hay and feed your cow all spring, summer, and fall. This will motivate you to sell in the spring.
If you are in an area like we are, people like to fill their freezer going into the winter, which is one factor that also makes them easier to sell at this time.
If you are too busy or otherwise unable to take care of a cow in the summer, and you bought a pregnant cow in the fall, then selling mom and baby as a pair in the spring should yield a small profit despite finances put forward to feed it all winter.
This is one technique used when the goal is simply to turn a profit off cows. If this is your goal, however, just remember that there always exists the potential of your calf dying and thus being unable to sell.
Selling Cows In The Fall
Although the prices are lower in the fall, ostensibly the best time to sell your cow is actually in the fall. This prevents you from incurring high feed costs as well as loss from cold and harsh conditions.
If your goal is turning a profit, note that you don’t want to keep said cow past the point of diminishing return. (It will eventually slow down growing, and/or your input costs will eventually equal or exceed your returns.)
Another thing to consider if your cow is older, is if it will be physically able to make it through the winter. Selling now may be a better option than taking the chance your cow gets debilitated (and eventually dies) in the winter.
Large swings in the market (either for cows or feed) are always going to have the power to completely derail the best made plans. Make sure you are following the current pricing trends either by looking on-line, or talking to people in-the-know.
All of these factors are crucial to know and consider when first starting out.