Calculated culling a must
— Culls have a big bottom-line impact
Weaning time for commercial cow-calf operations means it’s time to make cow herd culling decisions. The proper marketing of these animals should be planned as cull cows represent a small but significant source of income for commercial producers.
Many people recommend deep culling every year, but these recommendations are more suitable for seedstock herds rather than commercial herds. A lighter touch is appropriate for commercial herds because once a cow enters the herd, the producer has made an investment that takes years to recoup.
This difference in culling pressure is because of the different economic models that the seedstock and commercial industries use. While a genetically superior seedstock heifer has the potential to be profitable with its first calf crop, it takes several calf crops for a commercial cow to breakeven and become profitable. It is the difference between having a female with the potential to produce a $5,000 seedstock bull compared to a $900 feeder calf. The economics favor a shorter generation interval in seedstock herds obtained by deep culling, while sustained fertility and longevity are the key factors to profitability in commercial operations.
Let’s start with the easy stuff for commercial cow herd culling: open cows. They should be destined for the truck heading to town. The feed required to carry them an additional 18 months until they can be rebred and calve again will not be recouped. Because reproduction is the most economically important trait in a commercial operation, every producer should pregnancy check their cow herd.
Disposition is another important culling criteria. The level of disposition problems acceptable to a particular commercial operation depend on how the cows are managed, but any cow that is known to be aggressive and dangerous—thus posing an unnecessary risk to the safety of personnel—should be culled. Culling wild cattle will also make the whole cow herd easier to work. Disposition is heritable and cattle with bad dispositions are known to have lower reproductive performance, higher rate of sickness, lower feedlot performance, and lower grid performance.
Compared to seedstock herds, culling for individual calf performance is a lower priority. In commercial herds, cows that bring in unusually small calves should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Calf performance will start to decline when cows get old (>10 years) or when milk production is limited from problems like mastitis. Cows that bring in small calves for these reasons should be culled.
Small calves from younger, healthy cows have often been sick, so the underperforming calf is often not the cow’s fault. In this case, producers should consider notching the commercial cow’s tag, and if for any reason a cow’s calves do not perform in future calf crops, she can then be culled.
Soundness is another reason to cull commercial cows, but only when it becomes a problem to the cow’s performance or will cause extra labor. Examples are when a cow is unsound in her feet and legs, so that she can no longer travel properly in extensive pastures. Udders with teat size and suspension problems that will require a cowboy to intervene to get a calf nursing should also be on the cull list. Cows that are thin because they have broken mouths (lost teeth) should also be culled.
In terms of improving soundness, the place to put the most pressure is on replacement heifers and bulls. Where seedstock herds should cull deeply based on soundness, commercial cows should only be culled if their problems are truly functional.
Whether to cull cows that have lost their calf sometime before weaning depends on the situation. Marketing these cows in the spring after calving or during the summer after they have fleshed up from spending time on good pasture can be a good source of income to a producer at a time of low cash flow.
However, this time of year, cull cow prices are generally trending to a seasonal low, and if the cow comes in bred, it generally pays to keep her to calve next spring. These mature cows will generally have less calving difficulty and higher performing calves compared to replacing them with first-calf heifers.
Proper marketing can make a big difference in income potential from cull cows and can be the difference in an operation’s profitability. The larger the herd, the more market options a producer has. As mentioned, culling a load of cows that have lost their calves can be a good source of income if marketed during times of seasonally high prices.
When marketing culls, load lots sold on the rail will generally return more income when compared to marketing small groups of cattle through a sale barn. On the rail, many of the reasons a cow can be discounted by an order buyer no longer exist.
Producers also need to determine each year if it will pay to put extra weight on cull cows to both improve their payweight— value per cwt.—and market timing. This all depends on facilities and access to cheap, higher energy feeds.
For thin cows, it is easy to put 100 pounds of gain on them in a relatively short period of time with the proper feed. However, it is not as easy to put weight on already fleshy cows and old cows with broken mouths. These extra pounds can mean the difference between a cow whose loin is potentially stripped out to be tenderized for low-end restaurants, and those that are totally boned out for processing. Putting on some extra weight will also significantly improve dressing percent and may place cows into a better seasonal market window.
Proper culling of the cow herd will make for a more profitable commercial cowcalf operation. Culling thresholds for commercial herds are different than seedstock herds, as they do not require as severe culling criteria. In the end, cull cows are a significant source of income for commercial operations, so it is important that their marketing be well-planned and executed. — Dr. Bob Hough (Dr. Bob Hough is the retired executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of America and a freelance writer.)