Cow Culling Considerations
By Katrina Waters Huffstutler
Photo by Russell Graves, picturepasture.com
It's fall, and for many ranches, that can mean time to reduce the cow herd by getting rid of any females that aren't earning their keep. But sometimes the decisions aren't black and white, so we asked two cattlemen to share their cow culling considerations.
When a brood cow is past her prime, she goes from being an asset to an operation to being a burden. Instead of making money, she costs money. Most producers strive to sell cows before they reach that point, maximizing their profits.
And while there is no guarantee when it comes to choosing which females to keep and which to cull, a thorough examination and good records can go a long way in the decision-making process.
Evaluating the prospects
Dr. Nick Wilson, a cow-calf operator near Lipan and former professor of ranch management at TCU, and Dr. Todd Thrift, assistant professor of beef cattle nutrition at the University of Florida, agree on the top decision maker — pregnancy status.
"If I am going to keep a cow, I sure want her to have a calf every year," Wilson says. "If she's not having a calf every year in sequence, that's just like someone not showing up for work and you're still paying them."
He says while he keeps track of the ages of each of his cows, he doesn't base culling decisions on age.
But he does keep a close watch on the more elderly females in the herd. He recalls a story he shared with TCU students time and time again.
"I had this cow one time," Wilson says, "that was 22 years old and had raised 20 calves and maintained good body condition throughout. But she came up open in her 23rd year — and I culled her!"
After pregnancy-checking a cow, Thrift recommends a thorough examination of bred cows to eliminate any animals that may no longer be able to raise a strong calf and maintain good body condition.
"The first area I'm going to check is her mouth. Does she have a sound mouth? Is she missing one tooth, or all of them?" Thrift says. "If she has no teeth at all, clearly she needs to go. If she is fairly broken-mouthed and [her teeth] really have a lot of wear, she probably needs to go. She may be doing OK now, but when we're feeding hay in the winter, that may change quickly."
He says there are exceptions to every rule, though, and he has one of them in a university unit right now.
"She's only 10 years old, but has been smooth-mouthed for more than 2 years. And she gets along just fine. So, if one has a questionable mouth, you should also ask yourself whether or not it is affecting her."
Cows should also be evaluated for soundness in their feet and legs, udder quality and any conditions that would hinder their ability to maintain body condition or raise a strong, healthy, high-quality calf.
A cow's body condition score means a lot to Wilson, who believes keeping a cow in good condition throughout her life leads to easier maintenance when she is older.
That's why he is a stickler for proper nutrition and proper grazing techniques.
"Body conditions depend on nutrition to a large extent," Wilson explains. "And one of the things we tend to do wrong more often than anything as an industry is overgrazing. [When pastures are overgrazed] the average cow cannot get the proper nutrition she needs to maintain appropriate body condition."
He goes on to say getting that cow adequate, proper nutrition from the grass is "probably the No. 1 factor" in production — not to mention it's a real money saver.
"If you have to supplement when you shouldn't have to, you are putting more money into an animal than you need to," Wilson explains, admitting that it boils down to personal preferences in management. "And, on my operation, I tend to not want to have to haul hay to my cows or feed them when they should not have to be fed."
He says his philosophies have helped him in his operation as he rarely needs to cull a female due to a bad mouth.
"I attribute that to the fact that I'm not overgrazing. The cows are getting the nutrition they need without having to really dig it out of the ground. And, as a result, I don't turn over my herd near as fast as lots of folks do."
Past performance is important
No doubt past performance is often an indicator of future success, and with cows it's no different. Cows that haven't raised the best calves in the past likely won't start, and some will start raising smaller calves as they age. That's why good records can make culling decisions easier.
Wilson says being a smaller operator allows him to keep detailed records on each cow — and that includes tracking what type of calf she raises.
"When she has a calf, I keep an eye on them to follow how good a calf it is and how good a job she does raising it," he says, adding that for him, that includes maintaining a good body condition score throughout. "I keep an eye on what type of body condition she stays in, and, while I won't say I want her fat, I certainly want her to maintain an average or better body condition score."
He also says he's culled so strictly in the past that he rarely needs to cull a cow for not raising good calves — even more reason to strategically cull before it becomes necessary to cull.
Thrift says while not all operations have the type of record keeping practices to support such culling, there is no doubt knowing a cow's history is helpful.
"It depends on the operation, but you might give a cow another chance if you have records that she has raised 9 calves and they've all weighed more than 600 pounds," Thrift says. "[But you have be careful about that] because I used to be one of those people who would say, ‘Let's try to squeeze one more out of her.' But I'm starting to notice that my lightest calves every year are out of those cows."
He says cows that produce small calves should definitely be put on a "watch list" for close monitoring. He recommends marking them with a different color ear tag or other means of easy identification.
"They don't need to be culled the first time they raise a small calf, per se — it may not be their fault," Thrift says. "But, if it happens twice, it's their fault."
Getting the mostout of your culls
Once cows have been identified as culls, it still may not be time to take them to the local auction market.
Wilson says market conditions play a big role in his culling decisions.
"I like to know what the market is doing now and I try to look down the road a little to determine where I think it may be 3 or 4 months from now," he says. "Because, while I don't like an open cow on my place, this year was one where waiting a few months really paid off. They brought a lot more money than they would have when I was originally looking at selling them."
Thrift agrees. (At press time), he characterizes the market as "very unique" and says open cows in good flesh are quite valuable — in his part of the world, they are bringing 50 to 60 cents per pound.
"They are pretty high and may very well stay pretty high through the fall," he says, adding that while he cannot predict where they'll be in October when this issue comes out, he expects them to stay at least moderately high.
"Right now, with these market conditions, it's awfully hard to hang on to an open cow," Thrift says. "If she's fleshy and in good condition, it is pretty hard to turn down $800 or $900 on a cull cow when you could turn around and replace her with a bred heifer that would be younger and more productive."
"Cow Culling Considerations" is from the October 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.