My regular readers know I have a few key ideas about the management of commercial cattle ranches. While I love the study and implementation of genetic principles in commercial cattle, I learned early on that they are only a small part of what I have to manage, and they must fit well with every other piece of the management puzzle. To do that, I need to simplify. Here are the key ideas around which I make economic decisions:
•Heterosis or hybrid vigor is important and should be incorporated in commercial breeding programs. To simplify, I don’t strive for maximum heterosis, but seek an optimum that fits comfortably with the other factors I must manage, including grazing, labor efficiency and marketing.
In most situations, the use of composite or hybrid bulls works best. In my travels I’ve seen and heard of too many straightbred herds with low conception rates, and too much death loss and sickness. Some form of crossbreeding can greatly help reduce those problems.
• While I have a strong belief in the value of whole herd inventory-based records, such as weaned calf crop percentage, pregnancy rate and average weaning and sale weights, I don’t keep individual cow records.
However, I do like individual ID on every cow for a number of conveniences, but I only keep track of cows that are exceptions. Much of this tracking is done with an ear notch or a notch in the ID tag, rather than with paper or computer records.
• As commercial producers, we raise market calves and typically don’t cull many cows. However, we do want to cull the right ones.
• We can make rapid genetic change in some traits, but it often isn’t economic progress. The associated unintended consequences often come back to bite us. Rapid change in weaning weight, for example, may result in larger cow size and higher milk production, which results in a reduction in stocking rate and/or an increase in fed feed. It could also be accompanied with lower conception rates or a longer calving season.
Some tips on cow culling
With these ideas in mind, let’s first talk about culling cows and then selecting bulls. Every person’s cull list looks a little different, but I cull the following:
- Any cow or heifer open at pregnancy check. For market purposes, I may re-expose some cows, but they will be sold.
- Late-bred or late-calving cows. I’ve discussed the marketing of late-bred or late-calving cows in previous articles.
- Dry cows at the end of calving season and at weaning. They either aborted after pregnancy checking or lost a calf during or after calving.
- Cows that wean unacceptable calves. The calves could be too small or have other problems.
- Any cow that requires handling beyond routine procedures, such as pregnancy diagnosis, immunizations, etc. This includes such things as doctoring, calf delivery, prolapse, etc.
- Poor disposition. Wild cattle get wild three ways – they inherit it, learn it from herd mates, or learn it from their handlers. Removing the wild ones eliminates the first two options.
- Bad udders, bad eyes, lame, etc.
Most geneticists will tell you that most of these traits aren’t highly heritable and genetic progress will be negligible. I agree but all progress isn’t genetic. If retained, some of these cows will repeat the same problem.
I can assure you that if you strictly cull this way for several years, you will eventually have to cull very few each year. This culling can also be done without paper or computer records; you simply mark them as you handle them.
Even the unacceptable calves can be turned back to the cows the morning after they are weaned. When they mother up, you simply sort them off and mark the cow. If the cow is carrying her record, you never have to go back to the house. The record is there all the time.
Some readers will make some allowances for certain cows, such as assisting calving with a first-calf heifer. I did this for many years, but have become more inclined to not confine them for calving and would like to have them calve unassisted. Each person’s definition of a short calving season can be different to fit circumstances. How bad does an udder have to be to merit culling? How do you define poor disposition? Each of these questions must be answered in the context of your objectives and circumstances.
You must play culling rate against herd turnover or replacement rate. If replacements are expensive to raise or purchase, you will want to slow your turnover and will need to cull less severely. If you can develop replacements cost effectively and have a good market for bred cows, you can increase the herd turnover rate and cull more aggressively.
Some tips on bull selection
Now a few points on bull selection:
• Find the right seedstock producer. If you are terminal crossing your cows, does your seedstock supplier focus on growth, carcass, feed efficiency, reasonable calving ease and male soundness? If you’re raising your replacements, does he expect his cows to graze most or all of the year with minimal supplementation? Does he eliminate cows you would not choose to be the mother of your bull? Does he expect his bulls to pass a breeding soundness exam at one year of age? Do you really want daughters from his bulls to be your next generation of cows? Do the cow size and milking ability fit your breeding plan? Can he help you maintain an optimum level of heterosis in your herd with the bulls and breeds he offers? Does he have individual animal records and EPDs based on whole herd reporting?
While I’ve spoken negatively about individual records on commercial cattle, I’m equally outspoken about the value of very complete, honest and detailed records on seedstock cattle. To the best of our ability to predict, you want to purchase bulls that will make the changes or maintain the levels of performance that you want. Over time, a few bulls contribute most of the genes in your cowherd.
• Select bulls that will provide and maintain heterosis in your herd. I prefer to buy composite bulls to maintain a level of heterosis. This approach greatly facilitates grazing and labor management. I want to trust a seedstock provider to understand my objectives and make bulls to help me reach those objectives.
• Unless you need to correct a marked deficiency in your herd, select for balance in traits to avoid unintended consequences of narrowly focused selection.
Remember, that if you’re raising your own replacements, the bulls you select become the future of your herd. Meanwhile, judicious cow culling can clean up your herd and make it more manageable and marketable. You’ll not only eliminate the misfits, but shorten the calving season, which will provide a more uniform and marketable calf crop.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.