Cow Herd Management Includes Good Culling Decisions

Published on Mon, 07/24/2023 - 10:48am

Cow Herd Management Includes Good Culling Decisions.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 When expenses go up or feed supplies are short, most ranchers sell more cows or heifers than they normally would, in order to generate enough income to pay the bills.  Culling decisions are crucial to the future of the cow herd so it should be done wisely.  Use these decisions to help shape and improve the herd (to take advantage of better prices or better feed supplies later, with better-performing cattle) rather than sacrificing your long-term goals.

It is important to have a plan, to make the best decisions for your own operation.  This should include pregnancy testing after the breeding season, and closely evaluating every cow--teeth, eyes, feet, etc.  Culling decisions should be based on several factors; pregnancy may not be the only consideration.  There may be some economic advantages to keeping a good young cow even if she came up open after her first calf--sending a poor producer to market instead, even though she’s pregnant.  You also need a marketing strategy for the culls.

Some folks recommend culling all cows at a certain age, and keeping more heifers because theoretically they have better genetics, but this advice is too general.  It may not be wise to sell a good older cow while she is still producing top calves (since she has already paid her way and it costs more to develop an unproven heifer to replace her), but you do want sell her before she starts going downhill or has physical problems that would reduce her market value.  

Keep close track of your cows.  Depending on their breed and genetics, some may start slipping in production by age 10 or 12, while others will be highly productive well into their teens.  The cows with good fertility and longevity are the kind you want, and they are also the ones you should keep heifers from.

During periods of herd reduction to maintain cash flow or fit numbers to a short feed supply, you are often better off to get rid of old cows, poor producers, cows with bad teats/udders, bad dispositions, poor feet/leg conformation, late calvers, etc. than just the open cows.  A good young cow that produced a good calf could probably stay in the herd even if she’s open (especially if feed was short and it wasn’t her fault to be open); this is the time to get rid of the real culls instead.  They will also weigh more and bring more money than a thin, open young cow that just weaned off a good calf on dry year.

If the ranch needs to generate cash flow and cut numbers to save feed costs, this is an opportunity to sell any cow that isn’t a good producer or has a problem that makes your job harder.  Cull the poorer ones or sell an older pregnant cow that’s near the end of her productive career, rather than sacrificing a good young cow that is only open because she gave of herself too much (to wean a good calf) instead of breeding back on time.

Fertility is an important factor, and breed-back should always be considered.  But the 2-year-olds producing heavy calves have such a demand on them that coming up open may not be their fault.  The group to sort and cull on fertility is yearlings.  The quickest, easiest way to develop genetically fertile cows is to ruthlessly cull replacement heifers, leaving bulls with them for a very short breeding season and culling any heifers that don’t settle.  The open yearling is an attractive animal to sell; she’s often worth more than a thin, open 2-year-old that didn’t breed back.

It doesn’t pay to give an open yearling a second chance, no matter how good she looks nor how good her rate of gain or her parent’s records.  You may be perpetuating her low fertility with every daughter she later produces.  Making excuses for low fertility in yearlings will eventually result in a cow herd with low fertility.  A short breeding season for yearlings is a good selection tool.

But you can sometimes compromise on 2-year-olds, because the ones that come up open after a short breeding season are usually the ones that raised the best calves.  By contrast, a poor milker that puts more of her groceries into herself and has a dinky calf will usually cycle and breed back.  The rancher who automatically keeps every pregnant 2 or 3 year old (no matter how poor her calf) and sells every open young cow (no matter how good her calf) is inadvertently selecting for mediocrity.  Over time this creates a herd that produces mostly below-average calves. On the other hand, you don’t want to select for high-producing cows that milk too much and can’t breed back in your ranch environment.  Culling decisions have to fit your goals for the cow herd.

Some ranchers solve this dilemma by having two calving seasons, putting any good young open cows into the fall calving program, breeding them later in the year instead of waiting till spring--so they miss only half a year of production instead of a whole year.  The better-milking young cows with the biggest calves are often in that open 2-year-old group.  Fall calving may be the least-cost solution for them, as well as an economic opportunity.  

For just a little more investment (to pay interest on the money to run her, and an extra month or two for feeding her to get her bred for fall calving) you can keep numbers up without spending so much to develop a replacement heifer.  Why replace a proven young cow with an unproven heifer?  Also, the fall calving program could enable a ranch to produce a second calf crop in the off season, to spread out marketing and benefit from the often-times higher prices for calves--when the market is not glutted by spring calves sold in the fall.  Each operation must figure out what works best, without sacrificing genetic goals.  A heifer should only get one second chance (such as slipping a few months into a fall-calving program).

Cull Heifers Wisely
Some of the annual operating cost is in raising replacement heifers.  These costs can be lowered, not by settling for cheaper, lower-quality animals (which produce less profit in the long run because of poor performance) but by improving their feed efficiency and fertility.  It is important for the beef industry to improve production and increase quality by upgrading the factory--the cow herd.  

It may be difficult to cut costs on heifers, but you can make them more efficient and productive with genetic selection.  Crossbred heifers are more fertile and productive than straight-breds, often keeping better body condition and fertility on marginal feeds and fewer expensive supplements.  Tailor your cattle to thrive on what your ranch grows.

If you are selecting for high fertility in heifers, and trying to make the best culling decisions, keep in mind that there must be a balance between inputs (feed costs) and the type of young cow you want in your herd.  You might not want heifers that can only perform well on high-quality feeds, especially if you have to buy the feed.

If you created an artificial environment and can’t determine the heifer’s true reproductive abilities, you don’t know if she can make it in the real world.  She must be gaining weight, sexually mature, in good physical condition to breed (not too thin nor too fat), and this is easier to accomplish if you select heifers that can do it on natural feeds.

Part of the selection process is weeding out extremes--the smallest, biggest and fattest, youngest, or heifers with poor conformation or attitude.  After you’ve put them into the breeding program, early culling of any potential problem heifer is also important.  It pays to determine pregnancy status as soon as possible after breeding; you have more options on what to do with open heifers, or late-bred heifers if you have a longer breeding season and can sell them as bred heifers to someone who calves later than you do.

Use Culling As An Opportunity
Your decisions can make a big difference on whether you can capitalize later on better markets.  Take this opportunity to position your cattle genetically, shaping the cow herd for better reproduction and calving ease and also for feed efficiency.

Be prepared to put cull cows on the market if feed costs are high and you can’t afford to maintain open cows or poor performers, but watch the markets.  There are huge differences in how people sell their culls.  Timing is important--where and when, and whether the cows are thin or in good condition.  If you can put weight on those cows inexpensively, don’t be tied into a traditional program, weaning on a certain date, selling culls at a certain time.  Be creative, looking at ways to best market your product.  The way you cull your herd and market those culls may be one of the biggest factors in surviving the rough years.

Marketing Culls
If you had a dry summer and cows are thin, that’s not the best time to sell culls.  If you plan to add weight before selling, it may pay to deworm them, or even implant them.  Research at Kansas State University showed that open cows respond to traditional heifer implants.  

Marketing cull cows and bulls usually accounts for 10 to 25% of annual income on the average beef operation.  This affects yearly profitability or loss.  Increasing cull cow weight and price can reduce the price you need for break-even on calves.  Prudent marketing of culls can always improve your bottom line, capitalizing on the seasonal nature of the slaughter cow market.

Another option (rather than holding culls to add more weight), if you are short on fall pasture due to drought and can’t afford feed to put gains on cull cows after weaning is to wean calves early and send cull cows to market ahead of the fall price drop.  If you are not set up to cull that early, preg-check in September and sell cull cows then, rather than waiting until the market hits bottom later.  Another option is to put together a group of bred cows you’d like to get rid of for one reason or another—that don’t quite fit your program—and sell them as bred cows when the bred cow market comes up.