Drought Management – Cow Culling Decisions

October 17, 2019

Matthew Burns, Clemson Extension

Brian Bolt, Clemson Extension

Every year, cow-calf producers eliminate cows from their herd in order to maximize productivity and profitability on their operation.  Many factors should be considered when producers begin to discuss what traits to cull for. The gate often swings back and forth between cull or keep. Culling cows should be a management decision and not influenced by emotion. In years when standing forage and hay resources are abundant, it is much more difficult to make these tough decisions. However, when drought conditions are present or persist, culling cows may be necessary to decrease pasture and financial losses. Making culling decisions and what events trigger these choices in advance of drought or financial distress makes for more logical outcomes.

Pregnancy rate is a very important factor to consider when determining the profitability of a cow-calf operation. In fact, aside from age, pregnancy status was responsible for the highest culling rate in the 1997 NAHMS Agriculture Census (figure 1). Reproduction is the most economically important trait for cow-calf producers. However, the heritability of reproductive traits is low, and progress through selection for reproductive traits, is slow. Culling for poor reproductive performance is a better approach to improve reproductive efficiency than making genetic selections. Although, one could argue that culling is genetic selection. Cattle found open (i.e. not pregnant) at the time of pregnancy diagnosis should be at the top of the list for culling. Because they will not have a calf, they cannot pay their production cost and, therefore, will decrease the profitability of the entire herd. Also consider that culling animals from your operation does not preclude their opportunity to remain in a breeding herd. Other producers may find value in cattle removed from your operation for a variety of reasons.  Your ethics should determine how you disclose the reason you are marketing to potential customers.

Figure 1. Reasons cattle were culled from beef cattle operations in the United States. Data taken from the USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) 1997 census.

Figure 1. Reasons cattle were culled from beef cattle operations in the United States. Data taken from the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) 1997 census.

Performance characteristics should also be considered when making culling decisions. Milking ability and genetic potential are among the top factors that affect performance. There is something to be said for a cow that weans a calf every year, but if she consistently weans calves with below average performance, she should be a candidate for the culling list. Weaning weights for calves and lifetime production summaries for cows will assist in culling low producing cows. These cows are passing on inferior genetics and inhibiting genetic progress and profitability of the operation. If decreased performance of the calf, however, is due to some environmental factors or health problems, the cow may be a keeper. For this reason and more, accurate record keeping is essential to maximizing profits. Production from older cows will decline as they begin to exhibit age related issues such as decreasing body condition, soundness issues, and general appearance. As appearance and production decline, the salvage value will also.

In my mind, one of the most important traits to consider when culling is disposition. When I was younger, it was fun to climb a fence or jump in the truck to get away from “Sassy”, but I think we all agree that the older we get, the less fun it is. We all know cattle carrying a ‘high head’ can spoil the whole herd and present significant safety hazards. These cattle will more than likely pass this trait on to their offspring, and disposition problems can cause a decrease in reproduction rates, as well as other performance characteristics. Research shows that feedlot cattle with poor dispositions do not gain or grade as well as docile cattle.

Some other factors to consider when sorting out a cow’s fate is age, mouth condition, udder, structural soundness, and health problems.  The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) provides a free resource for cattlemen in the BIF Guidelines publication available on their website. The guidelines provide standardized scoring and record keeping systems to assist producers in making the correct culling decisions for their operations.

Age:  Younger cows in the herd should be genetically superior to the older cows. Lifetime production summaries will identify poor producing cows.

Mouth Condition:  Cows with broken mouths or badly worn teeth should be culled. These cows will spend more time and effort in attempting to meet their nutritional needs and their production consequently suffers.

Udders:  Cows with poor udder suspension, large teats, or blind quarters should be culled (see figure 2 from the BIF guidelines). Udder conformation is not only linked to milk production, which affects calf performance, but its physical structure can impede a calf’s access to the milk causing a decrease in growth despite adequate milk production.

Figure 2. Udder and teat scoring system to aid in culling decisions (2019 Beef Improvement Federation Guidelines).

Figure 2. Udder and teat scoring system to aid in culling decisions (2019 Beef Improvement Federation Guidelines).

Structural soundness:  Cows with bad feet or older cows showing sign of arthritis should be culled. Due to limited mobility and costs associated with care, these animals are not able to maintain production efficiency.

Health Problems:  Good health records will help identify cows that may have been repeatedly treated for an illness or have calves that are unthrifty or not as healthy each year.

These factors will lead to a decrease in performance. In a year like the current one, production costs are up due to increased input costs (feed, fertilizer, fuel, etc). Forage may be abundant and cattle prices have certainly reflected higher inputs, but the reality is, proper management of input cost while efficiently maximizing outputs will increase profitability. Cows that may have been profitable in years past, may not be profitable in the future due to increased input cost. The challenge of a good manager is to keep the most profitable cows and cull the rest. It is always easy to say “let’s give her one more year”, but give a replacement heifer that chance, and she might surprise you.

Are you taking responsibility for the lower performing calf as the manager or is the cow responsible? How can you answer this question?  Records, not just records, but organized records. Having the ability to analyze each cow based on her previous performance is very important in determining the cause of decreased performance of the current calf. For example, it is weaning time and a list of culls is put together based on poor performance of their calves. However, upon further examination of the records it is discovered that one of the cows has weaned eight calves with weaning weight ratios over one hundred. Records show a new bull that was purchased with really good carcass numbers, but not as much growth, sired the current calf. Without records showing the “cow history” it becomes very difficult to discover these situations in which you may want to keep certain cows. Record any observations during the year that would influence your culling decisions. It becomes imperative to document reasons for culling throughout the year, otherwise, when a cow who “should” have been on the list is checked pregnant, it becomes easy to overlook and keep her.   Some producers may prefer to keep handwritten records and can keep cow histories on index cards. Have an index card for each cow that tells her “life story” through production data of the cow and her calves. Other producers may prefer to use electronic records like excel spreadsheets or databases. Any of these methods will be very helpful when making culling decisions. If you have any questions about culling decisions and what to look for, please contact your local Livestock Extension Agent.


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