A yardstick to cull by

Jul 1, 2011
by DTN

Kay Richardson generally culls his cows at fall weaning. But they best be looking sharp year-round because for this producer, culling never ends.

“Culling is really a continuous process,” says the Evinston, FL, producer. “I might make the decision anytime.”

He starts with the obvious. “If she is an older cow and doesn’t have a calf, she is out. If a younger cow is open, we’ll take a second look and I might move her into the terminal herd.”

Ditto for Randy Euken of Lewis, IA. “If she is open, she goes, unless it is a second-calf heifer. Then we might give her the benefit of the doubt.”

Culling for fertility

Both producers hold their cows to a strict 60-day breeding season. And the decision to cull open cows is based on more than short-term economics; it’s with an eye toward building the best, most reproductive herd possible.

“They say fertility isn’t highly heritable,” Richardson says. “But if you are raising your own replacement heifers and keeping the ones coming out of cows that calve every year, you’re doing something right.”

Virginia Tech animal scientist Scott Greiner agrees.

“Fertility is lowly heritable, 10 percent or less, compared to other traits like growth and carcass characteristics. Despite this, there is clearly a genetic component to fertility and we can make progress by removing/culling cows that don’t fit our breeding season.”

He adds, “The use of the new EPDs related to fertility and reproduction, like heifer pregnancy and stayability, are other tools producers can use to enhance reproduction in their cows.”

Culling for quality

Culling doesn’t just stop with those open cows. Other cull-worthy flaws in Richardson’s and Euken’s herds are structural unsoundness, being a hard keeper, having eye problems, or just plain old age.

“If she is an older animal and has any problems at all, it’s a no-brainer,” says Richardson.

Euken stresses disposition as a culling criterion, but adds that is seldom a problem by the time a female reaches the mature cow herd. “I cull heifers two or three times before I breed them,” he notes.

Both producers take a hard look at calf quality. “We’ll cull for consistently low weaning weights,” says Euken. “We’re in this to make a living. And I’m always keeping an eye out to see how we can improve.”

Richardson concurs, saying he’s “always looking at the bottom-end producers.”

Recordkeeping counts

Picking out those bottom-end producers takes good records. Richardson’s recordkeeping system started in 1960 when his uncle enrolled the herd in Florida’s Beef Cattle Improvement Association.

“He made the decision then to identify each cow and keep a record on her. That’s the best management decision we ever made,” Richardson says.

In that early system, each cow had a 5- x 8-inch card with her identification number and brucellosis tag number on it. Each line on the card represented a year with the calf’s birthdate, sex and breed of sire listed. Every year, the Richardsons weighed each calf prior to weaning, as well as the cows. “That data gives you a weaning weight per pound of cow body weight. Some cows are giving you bigger calves more efficiently,” Richardson explains.

Today, the idea is the same, but the system is a little more refined. Richardson uses the Cow Sense Herd Management Software recordkeeping program from Midwest Microsystems. “With Cow Sense, you can recreate those 5- x 8-inch cards. I like that format.”

Iowa producer Euken previously used CHAPS and Cow Sense, but he recently has gone back to his own simplified recordkeeping system. Culling by carcass data In the 1990s, Richardson added a new criterion for culling when he started receiving carcass data back on his fed calves. “It is mindboggling. There are a lot of numbers and it becomes more complex. I’ve culled cows based on carcass data, but I don’t cull based on one poor calf. The poor calves are usually not out of the same cows year to year. You have to remember you’ll always have bottom-end calves and half the problem might be the bull.”

And that’s where the line begins to be drawn. Richardson may be an aggressive culler, but he cautions it’s not something with which to get reckless. A good program is about the data, but there’s also an art to it that comes from generations spent working cattle.

“If you cull for everything with reckless abandon, you’ll get rid of all your cows. I don’t think you can afford that.”

Make the most of culls

With cull cows and bulls bringing in around 20 percent of the sales on most cow/calf operations, this is one place where a little shrewd marketing can pay some decent dividends.

Richardson keeps a pasture set aside for cull cows so he can sell them when he feels the market is right. Normally, he culls in the fall at weaning, but holds them until spring.

“The timeliness of marketing is huge,” he says.

“Generally, you can count on a better market in the spring.” When he does sell, he depends on the local auction barn.

Euken follows the market closely, too, and he has his own feedlot. He uses the market to decide when and where to market cull cows. “I look at the price being offered and how it correlates with the fat market. Since we’re selling cattle yearround, we know what buyers want.”

If he has room in his feedlot, Euken may put culls in there, feed them out and sell directly to the packer. He also has fed them through the nearby Tri-County Steer Futurity and let Futurity market them. Occasionally he markets through the local sale barn.

Euken and Richardson both emphasize the importance of marketing cows while they are still healthy, mobile and in good flesh. Richardson says, “It is a risk to keep a cow after 12 calves. You want to sell her when there is still some salvage value left.”

It is a practice Frankie Caughman endorses. “Producers will get $10 less per cwt for a really thin cow,” says the director of Cattle Procurement for FPL Food LLC in Augusta, GA. And he doesn’t like the risk that comes with animals that appear to be on their last leg. “If they become nonambulatory while they’re here, we can’t use them for human consumption.” — DTN