Fat cattle and alfalfa in the Pecos Valley, New Mexico (probably early 20th century)
"Prize fat cattle" (probably late 19th century)
The Grand Champion steer at the 13th annual Fat Cattle Sale and Show in Quincy, Florida, 1959
Foxhole Martha; 2005 Royal Cornwall Female Breed Champion

Feeder cattle, in some countries or regions called store cattle, are young cattle mature enough either to undergo backgrounding or to be fattened in preparation for slaughter. They may be steers (castrated males) or heifers (females who have not dropped a calf). The term often implicitly reflects an intent to sell to other owners for fattening (finishing). Backgrounding occurs at backgrounding operations, and fattening occurs at a feedlot.[1] Feeder calves are less than 1 year old; feeder yearlings are between 1 and 2 years old. Both types are often produced in a cow-calf operation. After attaining a desirable weight, feeder cattle become finished cattle that are sold to a packer (finished cattle are also called fattened cattle, fat cattle, fed cattle, or, when contrasted with carcasses, live cattle). Packers slaughter the cattle and sell the meat in carcass boxed form.[2]

Feedlots producing live cattle for slaughter will typically purchase 500–850 pounds (230–390 kg) feeder cattle calves and feed to grow the animals into 850–1,400 pounds (390–640 kg) cattle.[3][2] Backgrounding operations will typically purchase 300–600 pounds (140–270 kg) feeder cattle calves and feed to grow the animals into 650–875 pounds (295–397 kg) backgrounded cattle. Backgrounding cattle that achieve weights of 650–700 pounds (290–320 kg) are suitable for sale to grass feeding operations, whereas those achieving weights of 800–825 pounds (363–374 kg) are suitable for sale to feedlot operators.[4] Buyers of feeder cattle tend to look for high average gain (in weight) and low feed-to-gain ratio. Depending on circumstances, different feeder cattle buyers will look for different ranges of animal weight and grade.[5]

Cattle producers and backgrounding operations balance feeder cattle prices, weights, time taken to fatten, death rates, and other feeder cattle factors against feed prices, live cattle prices, and other operating factors to profit from their operations.[6][4]

United States feeder cattle grades

The United States grades feeder cattle that have not reached an age of 36 months on three factors: frame size, thickness, and thriftiness.[7]

The above three factors and their segmented categories combine to form individual grades. For examples, for thrifty cattle, the frame and thickness factors combine to form 12 different grades of thrifty cattle: No. 1; Large Frame, No. 2; Large Frame, No. 3; Large Frame, No. 4; Medium Frame, No. 1; Medium Frame, No. 2; Medium Frame, No. 3; Medium Frame, No. 4; Small Frame, No. 1; Small Frame, No. 2; Small Frame, No. 3; and finally Small Frame, No. 4.[7]

Cash market factors

Price to pay for feeder steers in order to receive average returns for labor, overhead and profit with assumed prices for fat cattle and feed, with typical feeding programs; U.S. Department of Agriculture

Health status, and visual indicators of health, can give feeder cattle premiums or discounts when sold in auctions. Feeder cattle with dead hair and mud are often sold at a discount, and those that are classified as "stale" are sold at a discount. Feeder cattle with other obvious physical indicators that would imply sickness are heavily discounted.

The primary sickness encountered in feeder cattle is respiratory sickness. Discounts on sick feeder cattle compensate for their increased risk of death, and lower performance in weight gain even if they recover. Cattle that look visually "thin" or "fleshy" are generally given discounts or premiums distinct from sickness discounts, as these visual traits do not necessarily indicate sickness and could be advantageous in particular feeding scenarios.[8]

Some feeder cattle are sold with some pre-existing health maintenance programs. These programs may include weaning 21 to 45 days before sale, vaccinating for respiratory and digestive diseases, de-horning, castrating, implanting growth implants, treating for external and internal parasites, and starting to switch the feeder cattle to grain-based feed.[9]

Lot size, or the number of feeder cattle for sale in a group, in relation to transportation available, weight, and sale location impact feeder cattle prices heavily. Price per weight increase with lot size and reach a maximum when lot sizes approaches truck-load sizes. As lot sizes exceed truck-load sizes, prices level off and eventually decrease. This represents fewer buyers and available transportation for larger lots of feeder cattle.[10][8]

Futures market trading

Feeder cattle futures contracts, traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), can be used to hedge and to speculate on the price of feeder cattle. Cattle producers can hedge future buying and selling prices for feeder cattle through trading feeder cattle futures, and such trading is a common part of a producer's risk management program.[11] Production and marketing contracts for delivering feeder cattle in cash markets could also include feeder cattle futures prices as part of a reference price formula.[12]

The contracts are for 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg) of feeder cattle, and call for cash settlement based on the CME Feeder Cattle Index.[13] The minimum tick size for the contract is $0.00025 per pound ($12.50 per contract). Trading on the contract are subject to price limits of $0.045 per pound above or below the previous day's contract settlement price. If both of the first two listed contract months settle at limit, the daily price limits for all contract months shall expand to $0.0675 per pound on the next business day. If neither of the first two listed futures contract months settle at the expanded limit the next business day, daily price limits for all contract months shall revert to $0.045 per pound on the following business day.[14] Feeder cattle futures are also traded on the CME Globex Exchange, below is the contract specifications for feeder cattle on the Globex exchange.

Contract Specs[15]
Feeder cattle (FCA)
Exchange: Globex
Sector: Meat
Tick size: 0.025
Tick value: 5 USD
BPV: 200
Denomination: USD
Decimal place: 3

Final settlement based on CME Feeder Cattle Index

Feeder cattle futures contracts are cash settled based on the CME Feeder Cattle Index. The Index inputs are seven-day feeder cattle auction, direct trade, video sale, and Internet sale transaction prices for qualified steers publicly reported from the following twelve feeder cattle producing states: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. Qualified steers must be between 700 and 899 pounds (318 and 408 kg), and be in either the Medium and Large Frame #1 or Medium and Large Frame #1–2 feeder cattle grades. Additionally, qualifying steers must not exhibit predominantly dairy, exotic, or Brahman breed characteristics, and must not have an origin outside of the US.[13]

The CME Feeder Cattle Index is calculated using prices reported by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). AMS reports number of cattle sold, average price of sale, and average weight of cattle sold for daily feeder cattle transactions for every US state in 50 pounds (23 kg) segments for each grade segment. For example, separate average prices and average weight data are reported for the Medium and Large Frame #1 700–749 pound category, and for the Medium and Large Frame #1 750–799 pound category. The CME Feeder Cattle has eight qualifying reporting segment derived from its qualifying weight and grade standards: Medium & Large #1 steers weighing 700–749 pounds, Medium & Large #1 steers weighing 750–799 pounds, Medium & Large #1 steers weighing 800–849 pounds, Medium & Large #1 steers weighing 849–899 pounds, Medium & Large #1–#2 steers weighing 700–749 pounds, Medium & Large #1–#2 steers weighing 750–799 pounds, Medium & Large #1–#2 steers weighing 800–849 pounds, and Medium & Large #1–#2 steers weighing 849–899 pounds.[16]

The CME Feeder Cattle Index is calculated through the following steps:

  1. The number of cattle sold is multiplied by the average weight of feeder cattle sold within each qualifying 50 pound grade category to produce "Total Pounds Sold" for that category
  2. The number of cattle sold is multiplied by the average weight and the average price of feeder cattle sold to produce the "Total Dollars Sold" for that category
  3. "Total Pounds Sold" are added together from the eight qualifying reporting categories of each report, and then reports from all 12 states for the last seven days are added together to produce an aggregated figure
  4. "Total Dollars Sold" are added together from the eight qualifying reporting categories of each report, and then reports from all 12 states for the last seven days are added together to produce an aggregated figure
  5. The aggregated "Total Dollars Sold" is divided by the "Total Pounds Sold" to produce an average dollar paid per pound price, which then becomes the CME Feeder Cattle Index figure

Qualifying cattle sold with certain minor notes are also included in the CME Feeder Cattle Index.[13][16]

Related derivatives

Derivatives on futures and derivatives on packages of futures contracts, such as options, calendar spread contracts, Trade-at-Settlement (TAS) contracts are also available for feeder cattle futures contracts.[17]

Feeder cattle futures prices are a part of the S&P GSCI commodity index, which is a benchmark index widely followed in financial markets by traders and institutional investors. Its weighting in S&P GSCI give feeder cattle futures prices non-trivial influence on returns on a wide range of investment funds and portfolios.[18] Conversely, traders and investors have become non-trivial participants in the market for feeder cattle futures.[11] The CME offers a S&P GSCI Commodity Index futures contract for trading.[19]

Feeder cattle futures contracts are often grouped together with live cattle and lean hogs futures contracts as livestock futures contracts. These commodities share many fundamental demand and supply risks, such long feeding periods, weather, feed prices, and consumer sentiment, which makes grouping them together useful for commercial discussions about both the commodities and their futures contracts.[20] Commodity indices have followed this practice and grouped these futures contracts together in livestock futures contracts categories.[18]

Gross Margin Financial Instruments

Cattle producers purchase feeder cattle to feed into live cattle or fed cattle for sale to slaughterhouses. Depending on the operation, producers purchase corn, soybean meal, and other commodities as feed. The difference between the selling price for live cattle and the costs of purchasing feeder cattle and feed (usually assumed to be corn, regardless of actual mix of feed used) is referred to as livestock gross margin (LGM), feeding margin, or cattle crush (as opposed to production margin, which also includes other production costs).[21] Cattle producers can use existing futures contracts for feeder cattle and corn to fix those production cost components into the future. Traders can purchase those futures and the live cattle futures contract in particular ratios to profit from the difference of selling finished live cattle against the cost of buying the feeder cattle and feeding the cattle.[3]

In addition to exchange-traded products, cattle producers can purchase livestock gross margin insurance policy contracts (LGM-Cattle) sponsored by the USDA Risk Management Agency from authorized crop insurance agents. These insurance policy contracts are bundles of exchange-traded options on futures contracts, and prices for these policy contracts refer to exchange-traded futures prices.[22][21]


  1. ^ "Backgrounding Feeder Cattle Nutrition". Agriculture Knowledge Centre. Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved 2020-05-10.
  2. ^ a b Petricca, Frank (2017-10-16). "Fats vs feeders, off to a decent start". AgUpdate. Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  3. ^ a b CME Group. "An Introduction to Cattle Feeding Spreads" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  4. ^ a b "Backgrounding Feeder Cattle Nutrition". Agriculture Knowledge Centre. Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  5. ^ Lewandowski, Rory. "What Do Feedyards Look for In Feeder Cattle?". Beef Magazine. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  6. ^ "Understanding the Cattle Market Sliding Scale". Government of Alberta. Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  7. ^ a b c d e "United States Standards for Grades of Feeder Cattle" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  8. ^ a b Mintert, James. "The Value Of Feeder Cattle Traits". Beef Magazine. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  9. ^ Comerford, John W.; Kime, Lynn F.; Harper, Jayson K. "Feeding Beef Cattle". PennState Extension. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  10. ^ Schulz, Lee; Dhuyvetter, Kevin; Harborth, Karl; Waggoner, Justin. "Factors Affecting Feeder Cattle Prices in Kansas and Missouri" (PDF). Kansas State University. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  11. ^ a b Radke, Amanda (2018-08-01). "Cattle Futures 101: Fundamentals of Industry Marketing Tool Explained". Tri-State Livestock News. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  12. ^ "Forward Contracting of Cattle". Government of Alberta. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  13. ^ a b c "CME Rule Book, Chapter 102: Feeder Cattle Futures" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  14. ^ "CME Feeder Cattle contract specifications". CME Group. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  15. ^ "Historical Feeder Cattle Intraday Data (FCA)". PortaraCQG. 5 November 2019. Retrieved 2022-03-22.
  16. ^ a b "Understanding The CME Feeder Cattle Index®" (PDF). CME Group. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  17. ^ CME Group. "Trading at Settlement (TAS) for Agricultural Futures" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  18. ^ a b Mattos, Fabio (2016-02-10). "Commodity Indices and Futures Markets". Cornhusker Economics. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  19. ^ CME Group. "S&P-GSCI Commodity Index Futures Contract Specs". Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  20. ^ Purcell, Wayne D.; Hudson, Michael A. (1985), "The Economic Roles and Implications of Trade in Livestock Futures" (PDF), in Peck, Anne E. (ed.), Futures Markets: Regulatory Issues, Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, pp. 329–376
  21. ^ a b Diersen, Matthew A. "Assessing Livestock Gross Margin for Cattle". SDSU Extension Fact Sheets. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  22. ^ "Livestock Gross Margin - Cattle". United States Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency. Retrieved 2020-05-15.

Public Domain This article incorporates public domain material from Jasper Womach. Report for Congress: Agriculture: A Glossary of Terms, Programs, and Laws, 2005 Edition (PDF). Congressional Research Service.