Deciding which animals to cull is a long-term decision with short-term implications. Ranchers tend to cull harder when expenses go up or feed supplies are short, selling more cows or heifers to generate enough income to pay the bills.
However, those short-term culling decisions are crucial to the long-term future of the cow herd. Rather than sacrificing some opportunities or long-term goals, use these decisions to help shape and improve the herd to more fully take advantage of better prices or better feed supplies later, with better-performing cattle.
Culling decisions should be based on several factors; pregnancy may not be the only consideration. It is important to have a plan to make the best decisions for your own operation. This should include pregnancy testing and closely evaluating every cow — teeth, eyes, feet, etc. You also need a marketing strategy for the culls.
When to sell
Some 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 top calves, since she has already paid her way and it costs more to develop an unproven heifer to replace her. But do sell her before she starts going downhill or has physical problems that would reduce her market value.
Fertility is an important factor, and breed-back should always be considered. But the 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 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 and culling 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 parents’ records. You may be perpetuating low fertility with every daughter she later produces.
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 the rancher will end up with a cow herd that produces mostly below-average calves because that kind of cow was kept.
Some ranchers solve this dilemma by putting the good, young, open cows into a fall calving program, breeding them later in the year instead of waiting till spring, 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 for them, as well as an economic opportunity for the ranch.
For just a little more investment to pay interest on the money to run her, and an extra month or two for feed to get her bred for fall calving, you can keep numbers up without the cost to develop a replacement heifer.
Also, the 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 oftentimes higher prices for calves — when the market is not glutted by spring calves being sold in the fall.
Cull heifers wisely
Some of the annual operating cost is raising replacement heifers. These costs can be lowered, but don’t settle for cheaper, lower-quality animals that produce less profit in the long run because of poor performance. Instead, reward feed efficiency and fertility. It is important to improve production and increase quality by upgrading 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 straightbreds, often keeping better body condition and fertility on marginal feeds and 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 and trying to make the best culling decisions, keep in mind that 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 can only perform well on high-quality feeds, especially if you must buy the feed.
If you spend money on feed to the point you created 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 and 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.
It pays to determine pregnancy status as soon as possible after breeding; then you have more options on what direction to go 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
Your decisions can make a big difference on whether you can capitalize on better markets. Take this opportunity to position your cattle genetically, shaping the cow herd not only for better reproduction and calving ease, but also for feed efficiency.
Evaluate where your herd is today and where it needs to go. This is the time to make the adjustments. You must 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 can 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.
Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.