Cull or keep? Factors to consider when culling cows

Plus, culling on temperament and maternal behaviour

When culling cows it’s important to have a plan, preferably one that includes pregnancy testing and close evaluation of every cow.

Bruce Viney, a risk management specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, recalls that when he ran cattle he culled for a lot more reasons than whether or not they were open. “If they have bad feet, bad udders, bad attitudes, we got rid of them,” says Viney.

“Every producer has a notebook or record-keeping system. When a cow calves, you can note that she has a bad udder or was wild/aggressive and needs to be on the cull list. Come fall, however, when she has a big calf and she’s quieted down or her udder doesn’t look so bad, and she’s bred again, it is easy to lose our resolve about selling her. It’s easy to decide to keep her one more year, rather than acting on the earlier decision.

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“You are tired in the spring, and frustrated, working long hours during calving, and you have a cull list. Then you soften in the fall. You don’t stop to consider the extra costs of production involved with those animals — the fact that a wild cow might break out and you’ll have to fix fence, or that she might hurt someone, or that you might have more labour involved if a cow has a bad udder,” Viney says.

Grant Lastiwka, forage/livestock business specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, says safety and time are the most important factors. “The number one factor affecting cow profitability is that she has to calve and we have to be able to sell that calf or the cow is a costly loss to our bottom line.”

If she doesn’t have a calf, or doesn’t have a live calf to market, she costs you. “Calving issues, health issues, udder issues are all reasons to cull a cow. If the cow requires calving assistance or has feet issues, she’s a cull. I culled this year for a cow that had a calf with scours two years in a row,” he says.

Culling decisions hinge on many factors, which should include safety for people and ease of handling. “We often say that, but it is still an issue; producers tend to keep that cow if she has a good calf, knowing that she can be dangerous at times or harder to handle, slowing our working time,” Lastiwka says.

“If a certain cow doesn’t work in your system, you don’t need her. If she stays skinny while the other cows maintain body condition, she might have a weak calf, or might not rebreed. Some cows don’t work in a certain management system; maybe she doesn’t stay in a fence or hops over the electric fence. Any cow that makes more work for you should be on the cull list,” he says.

This includes any cow that has a vaginal prolapse before calving, because she will do it again in subsequent years.

Sometimes you have to prioritize reasons you’d cull a cow. “How her calf performs might be important. If calf performance is poor I’ll probably cull the cow, after the other reasons have been covered, or I might decide to keep one with poorer feet if she has one of the best calves. Depending on cow price to calf price ratio, this factor will be varied, but the cows with low calf productivity are the ones that should get less chance to stay in the herd.”

The biggest factor for Travis Olson, a seedstock and commercial cattle producer from Athabasca, Alta., is her profit potential. “We calve 1,500 cows each year and 1,000 of them are registered Angus. We are in the cattle business to make money. When making culling decisions, the first thing to think about is whether the cow will make a profit in the future. The number one factor in profit and loss in beef operations in North America is how many calves you wean for every cow you expose to the bull. If a cow is open, she needs to be gone,” he says.

If she didn’t raise her calf whether due to coyotes because she’s not attentive enough, or the calf got sick because she didn’t have good colostrum or her udder wasn’t good enough for the calf to suckle soon enough after birth and comes up dry, she should be gone. “Sometimes there’s a freak incident, like a calf run over by a vehicle even though the mother was right there and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Usually it’s the fault of the cow, however, if she doesn’t bring home a calf. It is important to eliminate cows (and cow lines) that cause you problems,” says Olson.

“Any cow that makes you feel unsafe should also be culled. It’s a blend of profitability and quality of life for the producer,” he says.

Functional traits are also important. “We’ve always culled cows that get bad feet. Any cow that has trouble moving around won’t do as well. They may rebreed for several years, but it’s a genetic component you don’t want to perpetuate; you wouldn’t want to keep daughters from that cow,” he explains.

It’s similar with udder problems. Culling decisions based on udder evaluation can be tricky since udder and teat shape and length can change over time. A heifer that had a good udder as a first calver may have a drooping and even a blown-out udder as an older cow. Teat length on a heifer may be a clue, but udder attachment is difficult to predict. The best clues might be what her mother’s udder was like as an older cow, and her sire’s mother, since udder conformation is inherited.

“Feet and udders are important, but how important depends on whether you are doing this as a commercial producer or a purebred producer. Some things a commercial producer might let slip by — and get a couple more calves out of that cow before culling her — but are issues that a purebred breeder should not tolerate. A breeder’s excuses become his customers’ problems. You don’t want any of those problems. But the biggest factor is profitability. Do the cows get pregnant, and do they have a calf to wean?” says Olson.

“Many producers pay attention to a weaning index — how much does the calf weigh at weaning, in relation to the mother? But weaning weight only looks at half the equation; you are only looking at the production, and not what the cow consumes. We weigh every cow. If the average cow weighs 1,400 pounds on our ranch, that would be about a 100 index on her weight. If she is indexing an average calf (index 100) at 550 pounds at weaning, that’s acceptable. Some cows index a calf at 102 and you’d say she’s a good indexing cow, but if her weight is 1,700 pounds and she is 20 per cent heavier than the average, she’s also eating 20 per cent more than the average so she should be weaning a bigger calf. Those are the cows we are eliminating as well. The only way you can do that is by weighing the cows to know what they actually weigh.”

The Ole ranch is now downsizing average weight on its cows in the belief that it’s better to have more efficient, smaller cows that wean a higher per cent of their own body weight in calf weight.

“Culling the inefficient cow is important, but still secondary to culling a cow that isn’t raising a calf every year,” he says. Once you have your herd fertile and the cows breeding back on schedule, then you can start culling on other attributes.

Preg-checking a cow with ultrasound.
photo: Supplied

“Select cattle for the environment. We do a lot of winter grazing, and it isn’t easy for cows to dig through snow and consume high-lignin diets. Some cows can handle this better. Cows that can’t handle it won’t do well and should be culled. Cows that don’t fit the environment, by milking too much or having too much growth or are too hard fleshing are culls on our place,” says Olson.

“If you have ample feed, good grass, and don’t mind putting hay in front of cows, that’s a different story. Most producers are cost-conscious, however, and trying to extend their grazing season. One of the culling decisions has to be on cows that are not cutting it on that management program,” he says. Winter feed is one of the major costs of running a cow, if you have to feed very much hay.

“The most important factor in profit or loss is how many calves you wean and the second most important thing is winter feed costs. We need thrifty cows,” he says.

“As an industry, we are now seeing producers ask for things they didn’t ask for in the past. Our smallest-framed, easiest fleshing bulls — which 12 years ago would have been hard to sell — are now high sellers,” Olson says. Producers are realizing they need to reduce frame size and birth weight, and add fleshing ability.

“As cattle prices in the marketplace dip, we have to cut costs. When everyone was making money in the cattle business, people weren’t as worried about what they were spending on the cattle.”

There are always some cows that need to be culled, for various reasons, especially when you are trying to select for more profitable cows. Every operation, regardless of size, tends to cull a certain per cent per year. “In our herd of 1,500 cows, if I am culling six per cent per year that don’t get pregnant, and another three per cent that lose their calves before weaning, and two per cent on feet and udders, and two per cent on cows that are lower indexing — and all those numbers add up to about 15 per cent, I get rid of 225 cows per year. The guy who has 100 cows would be culling 15 head per year,” says Olson.

It doesn’t matter how aggressively you pay attention to teats and udders, feet, fertility, etc., there will always be a few cows with poorer traits. “There’s always the odd one that gets mastitis and a bad teat, or a cow that throws back genetically to something undesirable. You are always working on those issues, but it’s nice when you get to the point where some of the traits you cull for are far less numerous in your herd,” he says.

Marketing the culls

Market timing is sometimes difficult.

“If we preg test, then we can manage the cull group for a future target market or sell them to cut losses once the calves are weaned. If you calve early and can preg test for an August cow sale and wean early, that would be best of worlds,” says Lastiwka.

Bruce Viney says there are no right answers to fit everyone, and the best decisions vary from year to year because cattle prices are not predictable. “Even though prices tend to go up in the summer, they don’t always. Knowing your cost of production is crucial. Even though you might have lots of feed, this doesn’t mean you should put it into old cows. You might be better off to keep it for calves or another use,” he says.

“If you have older cull cows that will bring the lower end of the price range, you might not want to spend much on feed to try to get them heavier. Sometimes you are better off to just sell them. On the other hand, if the open cows are young heifers that lost calves, they are worth more and you can afford to spend a little more to get them ready to sell and put together a load. Sometimes there’s a good market for heiferettes if they have the potential to grade better.”

Everyone wants to hit the peak market, but that’s hard to do. “There is a seasonal tendency for higher prices in summer, but it costs feed and overhead to hold cull cows over winter and get them into that market. If you have cheap feed and the facilities to do it, you can make money, but there is always some risk in holding cows.”

“We are lucky here in that we have markets nearby and don’t need a full load to justify transportation cost. If a cow gave us a problem we just got rid of her. Keeping a bunch of cull cows longer to put more weight on them is not always the best choice. The feed has a value. You could always sell it or use it for something else,” he says. All factors need to be weighed.

Ole Farms sells cull cows directly to the packing plant. “This is one advantage we have as a large operation. We sell our cull cows by the load and get a price on the rail,” says Olson. This is more profitable than selling through an auction and paying a commission.

“The auction also tends to find a way to discount your animals; if they are going directly to the plant you don’t have this discount. It doesn’t matter if a cow has a sore hip or some minor problem; she goes on the truck just fine and we get full retail value, whereas if she went through the auction she would be severely docked. The cattle business is a tight market. It takes away your profit if you pay a lot of money in sales commissions,” he says.

Some years, for some operations, it might pay to keep a thin cow and put more weight on her, while other years it won’t pay. “Dry cows that come home without a calf usually have good flesh, and the best time to market them is as soon as we find them — sorting off the cows that lost a calf and getting them to market quickly. Usually we send one load of cows in mid-summer,” he says.

“Then after we preg-test (by ultrasound) and find the open cows, we watch the market to see when we should ship those. Our typical market time is March-April. We put some weight on those cows over winter and market them in early spring. Most years the better price will pay for the feed we put in them, and they also gain very well. Many of those cows will put on 100 pounds between January and March,” he explains.

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