Culling cattle is a big decision on the ranch |

Cutting back to get ahead: Strategic cow culling can be a benefit

Using culling as a tool to make your ranch more profitable

Terryn Drieling

Taking a look at the range and available hay will help ranchers come up with the number of head to retain, says Dr. Kris Ringwall. Photo by Terryn Drieling.

While ranchers may not be the most emotional folks on the planet, their feelings run pretty deep when it comes to their cows. One of the hardest decisions to make is when a faithful cow has reached the end of her productive life and has to head down the road.

When drought, fire or flood causes a feed shortage, and economics call for deep culling, those decisions are even more difficult.

But could seasons of forced culling actually be of benefit to the ranch? Does forced culling have the potential to improve the herd, range, and ultimately profits in the long-term?

According to Dr. Kris Ringwall, director of the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center and Dr. Karla Jenkins, range management cow/calf specialist from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center, the answer to those questions is yes.

Match Game

Aside from his or her human resources, a rancher's greatest asset is the land. Keeping that in mind can help make the culling process more straightforward.

Ringwall says, "You've got to match your feed resources to your herd size. Don't assume conditions will improve. Whatever your program is, reserve at least half a dozen bales per cow for the winter months. The number of bales you have should set the number of cows you retain. If I have six hundred bales, I can keep one hundred cows. If conditions improve, keep the hay you don't use. Carryover is a good thing."

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Both Ringwall and Jenkins agree that record keeping, planning ahead, and getting an early start to culling can be a rancher's saving grace in dry years.

"Since there are different stages of dryness and drought, it's important to start early, stay positive, and look toward how you can use the resources you have," said Ringwall.

Jenkins says, "Know what you need to have for rain by a certain date. If you don't have that rainfall by that date, pull the trigger and cull the cows first on your list. Have a second trigger date and second wave of cows to cull and so on."

Progressive Culling

Removing cows can give more relief to the range than removing the calves. For that reason, early culling trumps early weaning. Ringwall and Jenkins both suggest that early culling coupled with progressive culling, or culling in waves based on trigger dates, rainfall, and range condition could have the greatest positive long-term impact on a herd.

The first cows to go should be the obvious. This includes cows that would have made the cull list regardless of drought conditions – the bad bag, lame, and/or open cows. After culling the obvious, if the stocking rate is still more than the land can handle, Ringwall suggests that the hard to handle and downright mean cows should be next in line to leave.

"Factor in family, personnel, and safety. Unruly cows shouldn't be kept around just because they breed up and raise a calf every year," said Ringwall.

The third wave should include granny cows, anything over 9 years of age. These cows generally do not have many productive years left in them. They also provide a unique opportunity to sell the productive individuals as bred cows and the others as market cows.

The fourth wave should include cows that just don't fit the program, culling cows that are too big, too small, or have other undesirable traits uncharacteristic to the rest of the herd.

At the Core

"Culling this way provides a great opportunity to get rid of the outliers and really get down to your core group of cows. You might even take it one step further, coming back to your mature cows to cull based on performance. This will yield a set of very productive retained cows, as well as a nice package to sell as bred cows," said Ringwall

Early weaning should be considered after the herd has been pared down. Early weaning at this point can take pressure off of the range, and allows that core set of cows the opportunity to regain some condition before winter. If early weaning is a go, an assessment should be made as to whether to keep the calves on the ranch, sell early, or retain ownership off the ranch.

"If you don't already have the feed on the ranch, it makes more sense to send calves to the feed than it does to bring the feed to the calves. Retained ownership through the feed yard could provide an opportunity to hit an entirely different market and is something to be considered," said Ringwall.

Think Outside the Box

After culling that deep, one might wonder whether to restock the reproductive herd or try something new.

"Ranchers might consider taking on yearlings and running them in place of some cows. Retaining and/or taking on more heifers would be a good fit too, as they could be kept as replacements, sold as bred heifers, or marketed as yearlings to go on feed. Both the yearling and heifer options can help reduce the risk of culling deep into the cow herd because they can be sold early, or not run at all in years when grass is in short supply," said Jenkins.

In place of culling, limit-feeding cows through the drought in confinement is yet another option to be considered.

"If it pencils out for your operation, early weaning your calves and confinement feeding the cows is something to be considered. And it doesn't have to be confinement in a feed yard. As long as the cows have at least 2 feet of bunk (or feed) space per head, it could be feeding on a pivot corner or fallow ground," said Jenkins.

Make Hindsight Foresight

"We live in an area where drought is bound to happen every few years. It's important to keep good records through it all and have a plan in place before the next dry year rolls around," said Jenkins.

"If you find yourself saying 'I wish I'd done that different,' learn from it and make a plan for the future. Life doesn't always go where we want it to go. We have to look at it as a business. Don't hang on to things based on emotion, or you may not be in business tomorrow," said Ringwall.