Many ranchers who tried to feed through a drought without selling cows have said they will never do it again. You can slip too far into debt borrowing money to buy feed in a bad year. It’s often better to sell early, before feed grows short and cow condition falls.
But there are ways to cull wisely to reduce losses that might help get you through the drought with the least negative impact on your herd’s genetics.
Joe Stookey, a cattle producer and recently retired professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, believes when you need to cut numbers you should cull hard, and take the opportunity to rid yourself of those cows and heifers you don’t like for one reason or another.
“This is an opportunity to cull any with bad temperament. There have been studies showing that conception rates are lower when doing AI or embryo transfer in high-strung cattle. Those animals are stressed more when coming through the chute, and have higher cortisol levels. That can interfere with other hormone profiles, so those animals don’t conceive as readily,” he says.
“It’s easy to cull heifers on disposition/temperament, but many producers hesitate to cull a pregnant cow, and almost never cull cows in midsummer when they have calves on them.”
“If you have some good replacement heifers it’s not as hard to cull a questionable cow. A heifer won’t eat as much as a cow. If you are short on feed in a drought and have to cut numbers, you have to look harder at culling some that you would otherwise keep,” says Stookey.
“For me, bad temperament ranks high on the list of things I’d cull for, whereas a lot of people tend to overlook it.
“Feet and legs, udders, etc., are also good reasons to cull a cow, especially if you are raising purebreds. I want to be able to show bull buyers the cow that raised that bull. If the cow has something wrong with her, the bull’s daughters may also have problems,” he explains.
Travis Olson, at Ole Farms Athabasca, Alta., says the general rule of thumb is to cull hardest in the classes of cattle that won’t hurt you in the long term.
“In our operation we take a lot of cattle to finish. If we are in a drought, the first group we sell is the yearling steers. The second thing we look at is the cow herd. How you cull the cows may depend on when your breeding season is. If you calve in March, and are facing a drought that summer, you could ultrasound those cows 60 days into the breeding season and identify your open cows and sell them early,” he says.
“Sometimes you might do well to get them into a feedlot and put some gain on them before you sell them. We’ve been doing that for several years. It depends on the time of year. If you are moving cows out in October-November, that’s usually when the market is lowest. Typically, a good marketing time for cull cows is April through August. If it’s just a regional drought, you can market them between May and August and still get good value for them. The next year when you have more grass you can repopulate — either buy more cows or keep more heifers,” he says.
“Most commercial producers don’t have production records. Some things are obvious, such as a cow that is temperamental or has a bad udder or bad feet. If you have production records you can cull even harder, getting rid of the poor producers,” says Olson.
“Without production records for guidance, many people tend to cull an older cow and keep the younger ones with more life ahead of them.
“Another thing a person can do, to find the ones that might be slow breeders or poor producers, is to run all the cows through the chute and put heat-detection patches on them. Let’s say you are calving in May-June and realize you are entering a massive drought and need to sell some cows early. The bulls won’t be turned out with the cows until late July, but if it’s getting close to the end of June put a heat patch on the cows. Then you can tell which ones have started to cycle. You can keep those — and sell the ones that haven’t cycled yet.”
This enables you to keep the fertile, healthy ones that will breed early, and these tend to be the most productive cows.
“A heat patch is only about $1 and a cheap way to identify the best cows. If 30 per cent of the cows are not cycling yet, pick the culls you need to get rid of from that 30 per cent. You can pick the older cows, the ones with bad disposition, poor udders, etc., from that group,” he explains.
If a cow is cycling 30 days before the bull will be turned in, she will likely breed early.
“The other thing you’ll notice when you use those patches is that the ones that aren’t cycling yet are the late calvers. At our place, the cows with calves born the end of June are more likely to not be showing signs of estrus yet. Those cows with small young calves might be some you’d sell as pairs to someone else who has more grass,” he says.
“If you are forced to sell something, there are ways to cull strategically. You can be hard on your heifer pen, too, but heifers are eating only about 60 per cent what the cows are. You can keep more heifers for the same amount of feed. That might be one of the easy decisions; put your heifers in a feedlot, keep more heifers and cull harder on the older cows and the ones that aren’t cycling yet,” he says.
The cows that are slow to cycle are usually not your best cows.
“Most people don’t realize the impact on calf weights due to the difference between cows that cycle early and the ones that don’t. If they are not cycling, they are not in optimum health. If they are not healthy, they are not going to raise the best calf. Thus the cows that are not cycling early are the number one thing I’d look for when making culling decisions, aside from the obvious bad udders, etc.,” says Olson.
This is a simple tool — just putting a patch on every cow and waiting 20 days to see which ones have cycled. “This is low cost, low impact. You can put a patch on 100 cows in an hour, or do it when you are branding and vaccinating. If you are putting cows through the chute anyway, just put a patch on them. This can tell you a lot about that cow, that you don’t have time to observe if you are busy running a ranch.”
“On our ranch we like to have a lot of feed inventory, so that if we get into a drought we have extra. During a really dry spell we can feed from an old red clover silage pit in midsummer and we don’t have to get rid of our really good genetics. We like to have five per cent carryover so that we can feed cows in the summer if we have to,” he says.
“We can’t prevent drought, but we can bank grass. We can manage grass better so we get better utilization. I see many pastures that are overgrazed, and can’t preserve water. If people take all the grass that’s there (not leaving half for litter) the pasture can’t absorb as much water. It’s very important to leave a heavy thatch layer. This will do a lot for future grass production, and you are not exposing bare dirt to the elements and wind erosion,” says Olson.
It’s always wise to have some stored feed in case of drought. “If at all possible have some extra hay bales. In our case we keep extra silage because we think it keeps its quality longer. We try to have 50 per cent carryover in silage, and 1,000 extra bales of straw; we’ve been in drought situations where this enabled us to have enough feed for our cattle. You can feed a little silage, a little straw, and buy some barley or corn and make it work,” he says.
“We tend to get a serious drought every 15 years or so, and it’s a lot easier to get through it if you have extra feed. The last serious drought, we even custom fed our neighbour’s cattle with the straw and silage we had, and the barley we’d placed in, and it was an extremely profitable year for us, during a very difficult time.” Planning ahead can pay off.
Embryo harvest: Hope for the future
Even in regions that have suffered long-term drought, you know that eventually the drought will break. The next question is about replacing the cattle. How long will it take for ranchers in a harsh environment to get a herd back that will work in that environment? If they bring in high-producing cows that aren’t used to hustling for a living, they won’t work. It may take multiple generations of cattle to get the right kind of cows again. Once the base herd is gone, those genetics are not readily replaced.
In some situations ranchers might harvest embryos out of some of their good cows before they ship them — cows that have done well in that environment, with the longevity and production needed. They are not necessarily registered; they are just commercial cows that are proven and hardy — and can produce in harsh conditions. In some situations it is beneficial to harvest embryos out of this kind of cow and then use those genetics later at some point when things get better. It’s a different kind of plan, but may be helpful, because sometimes it’s not as simple as just buying more cows when the drought is over.