Burke Teichert: How to cull the right cow without keeping records

Burke Teichert: How to cull the right cow without keeping records

In nearly every talk I give, I challenge the audience to cull the right cow. That requires the development of a systems mindset and some good discipline. We are often told to keep individual records on each cow and calf. I want to contradict that and tell you that it is a waste of time. The time spent on tagging calves and keeping records would be much better spent planning and developing fence and water to do a better job of grazing or working on selection, culling and marketing strategies.

You don’t really select cows. You eliminate or cull the ones you don’t want. You select bulls.

If you cull the right cows, your herd will rapidly be rid of most of the problems that take your time and cost you money.  Also, it will slowly improve in the income-generating traits. Now, how do we cull the right cow without any paper or computerized records?

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It starts with heifer calves. Sometime between weaning and breeding, you eliminate the “ugly” ones and poor doers—doesn’t take any paper or computer to do that. Then expose the rest (a very high percentage) to bulls or AI for a very short time. I prefer 30 days or less. Then eliminate those that don’t get pregnant—again, no paper or computer. I can already hear someone saying, “I want to select the heifers that I expose to the bulls.” Let me ask several questions:

  • Are you going to sell the mother of every heifer that you don’t keep? Why not?
  •  If you have used good bulls, shouldn’t the heifer calf have a good chance of being better than her mother?
  • Do you really think you can select the good ones more accurately than Mother Nature and the bull? I have a lot of experience that tells me you can’t.
  • What really makes a replacement valuable?

With very few exceptions, heifers that breed in the second cycle will not live long enough to catch up to those that breed in the first cycle. The research shows that yearling heifers that breed in the first cycle will average about one more calf in a lifetime and significantly more pounds of weaned calf. So, start by culling heifers that don’t breed early.

Then my cull list continues:

  • Opens—yes, every one, even if it’s your daughter’s first heifer. It’s much more profitable to cash her in and replace with one that will calve next year. Make this sort off the end of the chute at pregnancy check time—no paper or computer.
  • Dries—don’t confuse with opens. These are the real expensive ones. You feed them from the time they were checked pregnant but somewhere along the way, they lose their calf. You can sort them off at calving, branding or weaning—usually the earlier the better. Some ranchers sell rebred dries. I think this is OK if they are sold to people who don’t raise replacements.
  • Those that need individual attention—to pull calves, doctor, etc. You surely can’t afford these. They have taken valuable time. To help keep track of these cows, I do like to tag every replacement heifer when she is confirmed pregnant. Then, as problems occur, use a notching tool to notch the tags of those you have to handle so you can find and separate them at a subsequent working. Weaning and pregnancy checking is a good time to get the notched animals sorted off and placed with your market animals.
  • Raise poor calves. Some will say I need a scale and adjusted weights to do this. No, I’m only looking for the poor ones. I can see those, and I don’t sell adjusted weights. When you wean, sort the poor calves off and let them back in with the cows the next day. They will “mother up” and you can then sort them off and prepare them for marketing.
  • Bad disposition. You just don’t want them. Besides being a danger to handlers, they cost you money in many other ways—broken fences, more shrink as they stir up the whole herd, etc. They get a bad disposition three ways—inheritance, they learn it from other cattle, or they learn it from their handler. The first two are easy to fix.
  • Ugly (your definition). Sometimes your “ugly” will be someone else’s “pretty.” I liked to call those that calved after the first 30 days “ugly” and sell them to someone as terminal crossing cows who thought they were pretty nice. Remember, with the cows (not yearling heifers), I like a short calving season and long breeding season. There are other things that can make them ugly—tall and narrow, feet, legs, udders or things that will reduce buyer acceptance.

You see we didn’t need to tag calves at birth or keep any paper or computer records to get this job done. It is simple and takes little time for the good cow man who has a good mental picture of what a cowherd should look like and do. Your cows will become more uniform in phenotypic appearance and cow size will move toward what is best adapted to your management and environment while you are eliminating the ones you don’t want—if you don’t mess it up with poor bull selection.

Some who respond to my articles are trying to reduce their dependence on labor, equipment and facilities. At the same time, they are replacing fed feed with grazing. As you reduce inputs, culling rates may be a little higher for a while, but there are good cows in every herd. The good ones will survive and reproduce. Average cows are pretty good cows. That kind will keep you in business.  Those that can’t wean an acceptable calf every year are the ones to eliminate.

Following these guidelines will make more progress in the operational and economic efficiency of your herd than trying to select faster growing, prettier heifers. What does it matter if they grow faster if they are born later and have less days to grow; if they won’t breed as well; if they don’t calve as easily or; if you have to doctor them? Don’t let a desire for high growth rates and weaning weight obscure the goal of total pounds produced from the system and, yes, profitability.

Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at [email protected]

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