Culling your beef cow herd

Just as wise selection of bulls or replacement heifers are primary ways to improve your beef cow-calf herd, selecting the cows to cull each year is also important as a way to improve your herd.

Photo credit: Maddie Curley, MSU
Photo credit: Maddie Curley, MSU

While we most often think of selection only in terms of adding to the group, that is positive selection, it works in the negative as well. CHAPS (Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software) data from North Dakota State University Extension show an average beef cow cull rate of 13.2 percent, or 6 or 7 of every 50 cows. Choosing those animals wisely can help improve your herd.

Michigan State University Extension beef educators spoke about choosing cull cows wisely at their 2017 Cow-Calf Management Seminar throughout the state. There are really two types of culls for beef producers. In the dairy industry, they are referred to as involuntary culls and voluntary culls. From a management standpoint, it is beneficial to reduce involuntary culls, thus increasing more of the culls that you choose in order to improve the herd.

Involuntary culls are those cows that are obvious culls, whether because they are open, diseased, lame or broken cows. Diagnose pregnancy status beginning at 30 days after breeding. Consider testing cows for Johne’s Disease if they fail to return to a good body condition after weaning. Sometimes these animals will bring low prices at market. Identifying animals before they get to that point will improve returns at market.

At calving and prior to breeding, start examining your herd for which cows to consider culling once they have weaned their calf in the fall. Identifying the cows to cull takes a good eye, good notes and good vision for what you are working to achieve. Anticipate which cows will be less likely to produce profitable calves and are, therefore, less likely to help you next season.

A good eye

Understanding what you are looking for, not just today but also the trend of features, will help you anticipate problems and be able to cull cows ahead of those problems when you can get a higher return for them.

Examine the udders of your cows after calving when they are full to anticipate which ones are less likely to be good for another season. Udders with poor suspension and/or large, meaty teats may be less likely to feed calves well and more prone to mastitis. An udder scoring system, developed by the Beef Improvement Federation, will help you translate your observations into quantifiable measures. Check them out here.

Examine the feet and legs of your cows for structural problems that lend themselves to greater risk of lameness. Cows with these problems may be less likely to get up and eat, stand to be mounted or to nurse their calf. Thus they likely will lose body condition, wean a smaller calf, and have less pay weight when eventually culled. Again, there is a scoring system, this one developed by American Angus Association, for feet and legs of beef cows that can enable you to be objective. Find it here.

Age is a factor used by some based on experience. Herd managers should anticipate problems to increase as beef cows advance into their senior years beyond ten years of age. Aged cows may lose teeth and/or have decreased mobility, but the real question is whether their feed intake has been impacted. Examine the body condition of cows and the milk supply to their calves determined by the calf’s weaning weight.

Good notes

What kind of calf has the cow produced over the past few years? What did they weigh at weaning? Did the dam supply 100 percent of its calf’s milk or did the calf have to steal from other cows? How has their health been? What was their body type and overall condition?

Each year, it’s helpful to record for each calf how they performed. Which calves make up the bottom 20 percent of the calf crop? Maybe you make a grading system for them; A through F. The cows to cull are those that produce calves that don’t perform as well. How much of that is due to the maternal line? That may be difficult to determine, but the dam has to share some of the blame. If this cow produced calves at the lower end of the list for two years in a row, she ought to be on your cull list.

Good vision for what you are trying to achieve

As you work to improve your herd and your annual calf crop, what are you trying to achieve? What are the characteristics that your buyers want and for which they are willing to pay? When you look at your cows and their calves, which ones do not move your herd in that direction?

It may be a poor disposition that is inherited, or it may be the size of the cow. It may also be cows that took more assistance on your part in order to get them through calving or to help them feed their calf.

Cows that calve outside your desired calving window likely took more breeding attempts to conceive or just didn’t return to estrous as quickly as the rest of the herd. These cows may make your cull, or maybe your sell list. If they are late-breds they may be sold as bred cow and fit other operations calving windows, but not fit yours. Work toward your goals by selecting culls from among those that are less likely to help you achieve your goals.

Culling cows is one of your opportunities to make your herd better. This is a good time of year to start gathering information to help you make the best decisions possible. Cull sales equate to 15-20 percent of cow herd income, so don’t overlook this opportunity to market high value cull cows at the right time.

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