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Why Are Beef Producers So Afraid To Cull Cows?

cull cows

In my last three articles, I’ve discussed managing toward a 30-day calving season, developing and selecting replacement heifers, and culling cows and selecting bulls. If you were to review those articles, you would find some repetition and some interconnection of ideas. The question posed by this article’s headline relates to that inter-connectedness and ideas presented in earlier articles.

We must each do our own math for our varying circumstances, but I continue to ask why ranchers who raise their replacement heifers seem to want to keep so few of them and, as a result, cull so few cows – often keeping open and dry cows to rebreed. If you’re able to produce heifers cost-effectively, they aren’t a cost center but a profit center that gains value as they develop. If you can’t develop them cost-effectively, you should buy replacement cows.

I often see articles advising us to sort our cows based on body condition for winter feeding. Again, I ask why? It takes time to sort them, and much more time to feed and provide water in two places than one. Also, wouldn’t we like to replace a thin cow with one that can maintain good condition while competing with her contemporaries? And, if she calves unassisted and rebreeds in spite of lower body condition, aren’t we happy anyway?

A Closer Look: Cull Now, Restock Carefully

We’ll want to keep yearlings, two-year-olds and cows separate. That’s already enough groups to manage without having to sort within the groups. Age-group sorting is much more important and effective than sorting within the groups. If you winter cows and first-calf heifers the same, you’re either cheating the heifers or wasting money on the cows.

Now, if my practice is to buy bred cows as replacements, I really only have one group. In this case, I could be convinced to make one sort of thinner cows to be fed separately, but they would surely have to be thinner.

We have become convinced that it costs so much to raise a replacement heifer that we can’t afford to cull a cow unless she is really bad. In most cases, the replacement should be increasing in value until the time of pregnancy checking and on through gestation and calving. During that time, she could be sold for a nice profit as a bred yearling, a coming two-year-old, or as a pair. The open heifers should also sell for a nice profit. If this weren’t so, why are there so many stocker operators willing to buy them as calves and carry them to long yearlings?

Industry At A Glance: Cull Market Continues To Surge

In the current market, the sale of a cull cow in good condition will pay the cash cost of developing a heifer, plus some of the opportunity cost. However, selling late-calving and late-bred cows as pregnant replacement cows to someone calving later than you can easily compensate for the additional cost of carrying a few more two-year-olds. Remember, you only need to cover the opportunity cost for the additional heifers that you will be keeping. It only takes a few years until you can be selling significantly more bred cows than slaughter cows.

In some cases, it does cost a lot to develop a replacement. In those cases, there are alternatives:

  • Let someone else develop them at a lesser cost, or (my choice) buy replacement cows.
  • Change the calving season so that cows calve in synch with your natural environment. This will provide 2-3 months of green grass before heifers will be bred, thus reducing the need for an expensive wintering diet.
  • Reduce your pre-breeding target weight. In most situations, it doesn’t need to be 65% of projected mature cow weight.

We often do ourselves a disservice by adding the opportunity cost of developing a heifer to the out-of-pocket cash costs. The analyses I see usually forget to add the revenue from the opportunity of putting a heifer in the herd that is bred to calve early in the season and to replace a cow that is late-calving, dry or open, or that raises poor calves. Unless you do an inventory-based analysis that considers all animals carried and marketed during a year, you will make mistakes.

Here’s an example

I’ve included an example below that will need to be modified to fit individual circumstances. I have done many of these and then followed with the practice, and the results don’t differ much.

Think of it this way. The pregnant heifer going into your herd isn’t much different than the cow she replaces. She will cost a little more to winter than the average cow due to her higher nutrient requirements, but the thin cow you would sort to feed better will also cost more. Meanwhile, the cow that calves late weans a smaller calf, and the open and dry cows don’t wean anything.

So, if the sale of a typical cull cow will pay the cash cost of developing her replacement, and if you can sell enough later-calving cows as bred cows to offset the cost of keeping a few more heifers, the resulting shorter calving season and elimination of problem cows should result in more profit.

burke teichert calving example 1

cow turnover rate

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at[email protected].

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