Love your wife and kids, not your cows
September 26, 2016
The title of this article is a phrase I have used over the years in my Extension programming. Part of the title seems fairly obvious; Of course we love our wives and children! The second part of the title may seem a bit questionable to some of you. Most cattlemen would not raise beef cattle if they didn't genuinely have the animal's best interests in mind in terms of daily management that contributes to animal welfare. However, the second part of the title serves as an opening to a seasonal topic that is very appropriate to discuss at this time of the year which is culling beef females from the herd.
Research studies from across the country indicate that the typical culling rate of the nation's beef cow herd falls between 15 – 20 percent. Beef cow income usually makes up 10 – 25 percent of the gross income generated by a cow herd. In many herds, cull cow income will be the difference between an annual profit or loss.
We are rapidly approaching the time when cow-calf producers will be weaning their spring-born calves. Weaning is an excellent time to evaluate your cow herd and decide which cows get to remain your "employees" and which ones need to find a new career. Notice that I referred to the cow as an employee. After all, they work for you. Yes, you have to provide them with the infrastructure to do their job including proper nutrition, health care, facilities, etc. However, if they are not being productive for you, they need to be replaced.
Cows and heifers leave operations for a variety of reasons. Ask a room full of cow-calf producers from anywhere in the country for the key reasons to cull a female from the herd. I would feel confident that the reasons would include any or all of the following factors: 1. Age or bad teeth; 2. Pregnancy status (open or aborted); 3. Temperament; 4. Other reproductive problems; 5. Economics (drought, herd reduction, market conditions); 6. Producing poor calves; 7. Physical unsoundness; 8. Udder problem; and 8. Bad eyes. While all of these factors are valid reasons for culling, I suspect that the first three factors listed who be the top reasons for culling in any given year.
Let's discuss those first three factors in a bit more detail. There is no "magic" age when a cow should be culled. Most beef cows are at the peak of their productive life from 4 – 8 years of age. Most start to "show their age" as they approach 10 years of age but there are exceptions. A sound management practice would be to examine the teeth of older cows after fall palpation to determine if they have adequate teeth to digest harvested forages during the winter and graze pasture grasses adequately to maintain body condition and support a calf.
The older I become, the less tolerant I am of any temperament issues. I suppose this is a direct result of the fact that I don't run as fast or heal as quickly as I used to! Animals with poor disposition or aggressive nature are obviously difficult to deal with on an individual basis and can corrupt a larger group of animals. Disposition has become an increasingly important factor as the average age of farmers and cattlemen increases as time moves along. Don't tolerate the bad actors!
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Ultimately, the factor that should ultimately sort a female to the keep or cull pen is pregnancy status. While variable costs such as feed have moderated somewhat lately, it is still fairly expensive to maintain a cow on an annual basis. Producers often fail to consider fixed costs such as machinery, buildings, management, and replacement animal expense. We do not have enough space in this article to debate a sample budget, but it is fair to say the annual carrying costs for a beef female can run from $700 to over $1,000 depending on the situation. An open female is not going to generate any income to help pay the bills.
Carrying an open female over to the next year or the next breeding season only compounds the accumulation of expenses. In nearly every case, the producer would be better off selling the open female and replacing her with a bred female. This is particularly true of yearling females. If you can't get a properly developed, healthy yearling heifer bred in a 60 -90 day breeding season, sell her as a heavy feeder calf or finish her out to harvest weight. If she is sub-fertile as a yearling, she will likely have fertility problems as a mature female.
I can assure you that the implementation of proper culling practices can be challenging to accomplish. It requires an established breeding and calving season, realistic production goals, and the discipline to carry out your plan. I would be less than honest with you if I said that I have always been completely disciplined with my culling program. It has been my experience that when you start making excuses for a beef female's poor reproductive performance, it seldom works out well for the owner!
–Ohio State University