Herd Management Includes Culling & Marketing Culls

Published on Fri, 08/19/2022 - 1:51pm

Herd Management Includes Culling & Marketing Culls

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

When expenses go up or feed supplies are short, cattle producers often sell more cows or heifers than they would on an average year, to generate enough income to pay the bills and also have fewer cattle to feed. Culling decisions can help improve the herd—keeping only the better-performing cattle.

It is important to have a plan.  This should include pregnancy testing and closely evaluating every cow—looking at teeth, eyes, feet, etc.  Grant Lastiwka, Forage & Livestock Business Specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, says there are several important factors when evaluating a cow but the number one thing affecting cow profitability is that she has to calve and we must be able to sell that calf.

If she doesn’t have a calf, or doesn’t have a live calf to sell, she’s not profitable.  “Calving issues, health issues (with the cow, or her calf), udder issues (having to handle her and the calf to get colostrum into that calf in a timely manner) are all reasons to cull a cow.  If the cow requires calving assistance or has feet issues, she’s a cull,” he says.

Culling decisions hinge on many factors, which should include safety for people and ease of handling.  “We often say this, but it’s still an issue.  Producers tend to keep a cow if she has a good calf, even when they know that she can be dangerous at times or harder to handle, slowing our working times,” he 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 just don’t work in certain management systems; maybe she goes through fences or hops over the electric fence.  Any cow that makes more work for you should be on the cull list,” says Lastiwka.

Culling decisions should be based on multiple factors and not just whether a cow is open or pregnant.  Some years, there may be economic advantages to keeping a good young cow even if she came up open after her first calf (especially after a short breeding season) sending a poor producer to market instead, even though she’s pregnant.  

Some people recommend culling all cows at a certain age, and keeping more heifers because theoretically they have better genetics, but this advice is too general.  It may not be wise to sell a good older cow while she is still producing good calves (since she has already paid her way and it costs more to develop an unproven heifer to replace her), but you should sell her before she starts going downhill or has physical problems that would reduce her market value.  

Keep track of your cows.  Depending on their breed and genetics, some may start slipping in production by age 10, while others will be highly productive well into their teens.  For instance, a good crossbred cow will generally stay in the herd a year or two longer than her straight-bred counterparts.  The cows with good fertility and longevity are the kind you want, and they are also the ones you should keep heifers from.

During periods of herd reduction to maintain cash flow or fit numbers to a short feed supply, you are often better off to get rid of old cows, poor producers, cows with bad teats/udders, bad dispositions, poor feet/leg conformation, late calvers, etc. than just the open cows.  A good young cow could probably stay in the herd even if she’s open; this is the time to get rid of the real culls instead.  They will also weigh more and bring more money than a thin, open young cow that just weaned off a good calf on a dry year.

Jack Holden (Holden Herefords, Valier, Montana) says culling selections are an important part of moving your herd genetically in the right direction.  “We are especially fussy about udder quality, particularly with any young cow that might not have a good udder as she gets older.  We also cull any cows with soundness issues,” he says.

Fleshing ability is important.  “We want a cow that does the job and still looks good herself.  Our cows have to breed in a very short window of time, and need enough flesh to breed back quickly.”

These criteria will be different for different operations.  “If producers are trying to build numbers, they won’t be able to cull as hard, and probably keep some cows longer than they should.  It’s harder to cull effectively if you are expanding your herd,” he says.

“Then a common problem is that you keep a few daughters out of a cow that’s not the best, and then you have problems show up again in the next generations.  This is especially true with bad udders,” says Holden.

The goal is to keep the cows that make money and are sound and likely to go on a long time.  “You want cows that are problem-free that wean big calves and come back pregnant.  A cow doesn’t need to wean the biggest calf, as long as she weans a good calf, always breeds early, and stays in the herd for a long life of production,” he says.

Disposition is another factor.  “Bad temperament can be a good reason to cull a cow.  Since we calve when it’s cold, and have to calve in barns and handle the cows, we can’t afford to keep one around that might get someone hurt.”  A cow may be really good on all other counts, but if she is dangerous to handle she is not worth keeping around.  She might do ok on a big ranch where calving takes place later in the year, out on open range, where she doesn’t have to be handled, but she won’t be a good risk in any operation that has to handle cattle.  Another factor to consider is that her calves may also be wild and snorty.  This can be a strike against her daughters if you keep them, or her steers in the feedlot; temperamental cattle don’t gain as well and tend to be dark cutters; meat quality is affected by disposition, so a wild or aggressive cow should be culled.

If the ranch needs to generate cash flow and cut numbers to save feed costs, this is an opportunity to sell any cow that isn’t a good producer or has a problem that makes your job harder.  This is a time to cull the poorer ones or sell an older pregnant cow that’s near the end of her productive career, rather than sacrificing a good young cow that is only open because she gave of herself too much (to wean a good calf) instead of breeding back on time, especially if forage conditions were poor.

Fertility is an important factor, and breed-back should always be considered.  But 2-year-olds producing heavy calves have such a demand on them that coming up open may not be their fault.  The group to sort and cull hard on fertility is yearlings.  The quickest, easiest way to develop genetically fertile cows is to ruthlessly cull replacement heifers, leaving bulls with them for a very short breeding season (just long enough for one heat cycle) and cull any heifers that don’t settle.  The open yearling is an attractive animal to sell; she’s often worth more than a thin, open 2-year-old that didn’t breed back.

It doesn’t pay to give an open yearling a second chance, no matter how good she looks nor how good her rate of gain or her pedigree or parent’s records.  You may be perpetuating low fertility with every daughter she later produces.  Making excuses for low fertility in yearlings will eventually result in a cow herd with low fertility.  A short breeding season for yearlings is a good selection tool.

You can sometimes compromise on 2-year-olds, because the ones that come up open after a short breeding season are usually the ones that raised the best calves.  By contrast, a poor milker that puts more of her groceries into herself and has a dinky calf will usually cycle and breed back.  The rancher who automatically keeps every pregnant 2 or 3 year old (no matter how poor her calf) and sells every open young cow (no matter how good her calf) is inadvertently selecting for mediocrity.  Over time he’ll end up with a cow herd that produces mostly below-average calves because he kept that kind of cow. On the other hand, you don’t want to select for high-producing cows that milk too much and can’t breed back in your ranch environment. 

Culling decisions have to fit your goals for the cow herd.

Some ranchers put young open cows into a fall calving program, breeding them later in the year--so they miss only half a year of production instead of a whole year.  The better-milking young cows with the biggest calves are often in that open 2-year-old group.  Fall calving may be the least-cost solution, as well as an economic opportunity.  For just a little more investment (to pay interest on the money to run them those extra months) you can keep numbers up without spending so much to develop another replacement heifer.  Why replace a proven young cow with an unproven heifer?  Also, a fall calving program could enable a ranch to produce a second calf crop in the off season, to spread out marketing and benefit from the often-times higher prices for calves in the spring--when the market is not glutted by spring-born calves sold in the fall.    

Cull Heifers Wisely
Part of annual operating costs is raising replacement heifers.  These costs can be lowered by selecting heifers for feed efficiency and fertility.  It is important for the beef industry to improve production and increase quality by upgrading the factory, the cow herd.  

It may be difficult to cut costs on heifers, but you can make them more efficient and productive with genetic selection.  Crossbred heifers are more fertile and productive than straight-breds, often keeping better body condition and fertility on marginal feeds, with fewer expensive supplements.  You can tailor your cattle to thrive on what your ranch is able to grow.

If you are selecting for high fertility in heifers, trying to make the best culling decisions, keep in mind there must be a balance between inputs (feed costs) and the type of young cow you want in your herd.  You might not want heifers that only perform well on high-quality feeds, especially if you have to buy the feed.

If you spend money on feed to create an artificial environment (and can’t determine the heifer’s true reproductive abilities), you don’t know if she can make it in the real world.  She must be gaining weight, sexually mature, in good physical condition to breed (not too thin nor too fat). This is easier to accomplish if you’ve selected heifers that can do it on natural feeds.

Part of selection is weeding out extremes: the smallest, biggest, fattest, youngest, or heifers with poor conformation or attitude.  After you’ve put them into the breeding program, early culling of any potential problem heifer is also important.  It pays to determine pregnancy status very soon after breeding; then you have more options on what to do with the open heifers, or late-bred heifers if you have a longer breeding season and can sell them as bred heifers to someone who calves later than you do.

Use Culling As An Opportunity And Market Wisely
Evaluate where your herd is today and where it needs to go.  This is the time to make adjustments.  Be prepared to put cull cows on the market if feed costs are high and you can’t afford to maintain open cows or poor performers, but watch the markets.  There are huge differences in how people sell their culls.  Timing is important, where and when, and whether the cows are thin or in good condition.  If you are in a position to put weight on those cows, don’t be tied into a traditional program, weaning on a certain date, selling culls at a certain time.  Be innovative and creative, looking at ways to best market your product.  The way you cull your herd and market those culls may be one of the biggest determining factors in surviving the rough years.
If you had a dry summer and cows are thin after raising calves, that’s not the best time to sell culls.  If you plan to add weight to those cows before selling, it may pay to deworm them, or even implant them.  Research at Kansas State University showed that open cows respond to traditional heifer implants.  

Marketing cull cows and bulls usually accounts for 10% to 25% of annual income on the average beef operation.  This affects yearly profitability or loss.  Increasing cull cow weight and price can reduce the price you need for break-even on calves.  Prudent marketing of culls can always improve your bottom line if you capitalize on the seasonal nature of the slaughter cow market.

Another option (rather than holding culls to add more weight), if you are short on fall pasture and can’t afford feed to put gains on cull cows is to wean their calves early and send cull cows to market ahead of the fall price drop.  If you are not set up to wean that early, preg-check in September and sell cull cows then, rather than waiting until the market hits bottom later.  Another option is to put together a group of bred cows (or even pairs) you’d like to get rid of for one reason or another—that don’t quite fit your program—and sell them as bred cows or pairs when those markets strengthen.

Neal and Amanda Sorenson (Powder River Angus) often sell the cows in their herd that will calve late.  “What is late for us may not be late for someone who is calving in May/June or later.  There can be a good market for those cows.  We probably sell 60 to 80 young pregnant cows each year (ages 3 to 5); there are usually people who want them.  It might be because their herd is calving later and these cows fit their program and have a lot of years left, at that age,” Neal says.

“One market we’ve sometimes used for cull cows is selling some of the younger ones for recips.  Folks putting embryos in recip cows usually want them about 6 years old or younger—cows that have had at least one calf and raised at least one calf.  We pick the young ones that are in good shape, with good udders, and we get a little more money for those as recips than we would at the sale barn,” Neal says.  These are young cows that for some reason lost their pregnancy after being preg-checked, or lost their calf for some reason, and you don’t want to keep them another year without a calf to market.

“This can be a good market for prime age open cows.  The price is usually based on current cow market, adding a certain amount above that.  Many breeders today are putting in embryos.”  They are often interested in good healthy young cows that for some reason won’t have a calf at side this year.

This might be an option for people to sell good cows that lost their calves due to weather, such as blizzards or flooding.  These are good productive cows that might go to slaughter because their calves died in those situations, and they make good recip cows.  

A few ranchers keep their open cows and feed them to better weight before selling them.  “I rarely keep an open cow after her calf is weaned.  Sometimes a person might make money keeping them to put more weight on, but you’d need cheap feed.  A dry cow will gain well, but she’ll also eat a lot of feed.  Unless you have cheap feed, I feel a person is probably better off putting the feed into something else,” he says.