Cow culling criteria
November 17, 2015
Most producers with spring-calving cow herds are in the process of making decisions at this time of year about which cows to keep or cull. The first step is to determine the number of cows to cull. This will be based on the desired herd size going into the future and the number of replacement heifers that will be kept. If herd size will stay the same, then the number of cows to cull must be somewhat less than the number of replacement heifers retained because not all heifers will get pregnant and succeed at entering the herd. However, if herd size will change, culling can either be very rigorous if the herd will get smaller or must be lenient so more cows are kept if needed for herd size to increase.
Once the number to cull is determined, there is a variety of criteria that can be used to determine if a cow should be kept or culled. Not all producers will use the same criteria because of differences in their management goals or because of how rigorous or lenient their culling pressure will be. However, all producers should have a clear list of the criteria that matter most to them so that they make wise culling decisions. Following is a list of several criteria that producers should consider:
Disposition: Because wild or mean cows can damage facilities, or worse, cause injury to the people that work with them, they can be very expensive (in more ways than just costs of facility repairs and medical bills). Producers should consider culling all cows that are dangerous to work with.
Pregnancy: It should be a hard and fast rule that any female that failed to get pregnant will be culled. An open cow will accumulate all of the operating costs that a pregnant cow will incur over the next year, including feed, veterinary cost, etc. However, she will not produce income from a calf to offset those costs, and is therefore guaranteed to be highly unprofitable.
Chronic health issues and/or low body condition: Poor-doing cows will not be able to perform and therefore should be culled for at least two reasons. First, culling and selling them before they lose all value will increase the salvage value received. Second, if they are in poor health, they should be sold for slaughter from an animal welfare viewpoint. Unhealthy animals should not be retained if they are obviously suffering. Beyond normal fall culling, cows suffering from unrecoverable health issues, such as cancer eye should be culled when first observed rather than waiting until the condition is so severe the cow will be condemned.
Structural unsoundness: Cows that have bad feet, legs, udders, or broken mouths should be considered for culling. This may depend on the severity of the unsoundness, meaning it is an issue the cow cannot recover from, such as laminitis. In reality, this is like other health issues. If the unsoundness is severe enough that it affects performance or is causing the cow to suffer she should be culled.
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Performance: Once cows have been culled because of all of the previous criteria, and additional cows could be culled to maintain the desired herd size, then the remaining culls should be chosen from the poorest performers. Criteria used to measure performance should be based on performance records and economically important criteria. For example, it could be based on average weaning weight of all calves produced. Other criteria could be considered as well, such as post-weaning performance if calf ownership is retained beyond weaning.
Days pregnant: Cows that were bred late can be considered for culling. This is basically a measure of performance. Late-born calves will be younger and therefore lighter at weaning. Culling the late-bred cows will increase the uniformity of the calf crop by preventing young, light calves. Additionally, it shortens the calving season, improving labor management the next spring.
Did not wean a calf: Cows that are pregnant but did not wean a calf may be profitable again in the future, but were definitely not profitable in the current year. Whether or not to cull these cows may depend on the reason the calf died before weaning. If it was her fault, she should be culled. If it was not her fault, such as the calf being struck by lightning, then she might be kept.
Age: There is variation in opinion about whether cows should be culled at a specific age, such as when they have reached 10 years of age. Many cows may still be very productive at this age, so other age-related criteria may be more appropriate. For example, they could be mouthed each fall at weaning or pregnancy checking. Cows that have lost most or all of their teeth could be considered for culling, especially if their health, body condition, or calf performance is slipping.
Not only should each producer have a clear list of culling criteria in mind, but also the list should be ranked by importance. For example, some criteria, such as pregnancy should be enforced regardless of how many open cows exist. An open cow will not be profitable under any circumstances and therefore it is likely better to cull all open cows even if it means herd size is decreased. It is better to have fewer cows than to maintain herd size based on keeping cows that are guaranteed to lose money.
Criteria such as poor performance can be used if the critical issues, such as pregnancy status and chronic health problems have been enforced and more cows can be culled. In this case, performance records can play a key role in objectively choosing the poorest performers. If it will be based on weaning weight, then sorting the cows based on average weaning weight of all calves produced can allow identifying the cows that have weaned the smallest calves. Keep in mind that young cows, especially first calf heifers, will have lighter weaning weights than mature cows, so their weaning weights should probably be considered separately from the weaning weights produced by the mature cows.
Choosing the cows to cull is an important annual management practice. Not only will it determine the productivity of the cow herd in the future, it also provides an important source of revenue to the beef cattle enterprise. On the average, cull cows provide 20 percent of the gross receipts from a cow-calf enterprise.
–Ken Olson is an SDSU Extension Beef Specialist