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Cull or keep? How to make the best culling decisions

Courtesy of Neal and Amanda Sorenson Weighing and tagging calf
Every calf on the Powder River Angus Ranch is weighed and tagged at birth. While this is standard procedure for seedstock outfits, many commercial cow-calf ranches find that a similar management approach helps in making cull-keep decisions later in the year.
There are a lot of things to consider when making culling decisions. Emotion isn’t one of them.

When culling cows, it is important to have a plan. This should include pregnancy testing and closely evaluating every cow. Culling selections are an important part of moving your herd genetically in the right direction, says Jack Holden, Holden Herefords, Valier, Mont. He is part of a family that has been raising Hereford seedstock for more than 50 years.

“We are super-hard on our cow herd because we feel that a good seedstock program starts with a good cow,” he says.

Reasons to cull

Neal and Amanda Sorenson with Powder River Angus, fifth-generation ranchers near Spotted Horse, Wyo., also use extensive culling as an important part of their breeding program. “First criteria is whether or not they have a calf. Open cows are culled, but we also sell them if they lose their calf,” Neal Sorenson says.

“We tag and weigh each calf at birth, and this is a good time to look closely at the cow and give her a score on feet, udder and disposition.” This is the best time to give an udder score because the bag is tight; it’s easy to see if a calf would have a problem suckling.

“Another factor in whether we keep her is how much calf she weans,” says Sorenson. “We also want a very short calving season, so if a cow is not bred in our time window and will be calving later, we sell her. We sell some young cows because they are calving later or have less production than we want, or less-than-desirable feet or udder scores.”

Disposition is critical to both producers. A cow may be really good on all other counts, but if she is dangerous to handle, she is not worth keeping around. She might work on an outfit where calving takes place later — or out on the range, where she doesn’t have to be handled.

But if her calves are wild and snorty, this can be a strike against them in the feedlot; temperamental cattle don’t gain as well and tend to be dark cutters. Profitability and meat quality are affected by disposition, so a wild or aggressive cow should be culled.

Any cow in the Holden herd that doesn’t raise a good calf is sold. “Our herd must be production-based, so we look at weaning weights. I am lenient on a 2-year-old heifer whose first calf might not be the greatest, because she won’t hit her peak for another year or two.

Weaning weights matter

“But after that, we look harder at weaning weights. When they wean their second calf, we are super-hard on them from that point on — especially the ones that maybe got another chance as a 2-year-old. A below-average second calf is two strikes against that cow, and we don’t give her a third chance,” Holden explains.

Fleshing ability is also important. “We want a cow that has everything else right and does the job, and still comes in looking pretty good herself. Our cows have to breed in a very short time and need enough flesh to breed back quickly,” he says.

Yearlings on the Sorenson ranch that don’t settle in one AI cycle and one cycle with a cleanup bull are sold as fat open heifers. “We put them on feed briefly, so it’s a quick turnaround. To market a calf, it’s a long time till harvest; but on a yearling heifer it’s just 60 to 100 days on feed.

“We send our steers to a custom feedlot that provides carcass data, and that feedlot buys our open heifers because they are efficient on feed. That can be a good market for cull yearling heifers,” Sorenson says.

Building numbers

When ranchers are trying to build numbers, culling is less stringent. After the herd reaches desired numbers, you can be more selective on udders, disposition, foot and leg structure, and other traits that are important to you.

“This is where we are now. We’re fully stocked and want a static number of cows, but we keep almost all our heifers and breed them, and let them sort themselves,” Sorenson says. 

“I think fertility is the most important thing when selecting heifers, so any that don’t conceive in a short breeding season go to market. We breed early, calve early and preg-check early,” he adds.

If you are still trying to build numbers, you’ll probably keep some cows longer than you should. “Then, a common problem is that you keep a few daughters out of a cow that’s not the best, and that problem shows up again in the next generations. This is especially true with bad udders,” says Holden.

The goal is to keep the cows that make money and are likely to go on a long time. “We want cows that are problem-free — that wean big calves and come back pregnant,” Holden says.

“A cow doesn’t need to wean the biggest calf as long as she weans a good calf, always breeds early and stays in the herd for a long life of production,” he says.

Courtesy of Neal and Amanda Sorenson

Did she bring a calf to the branding? That’s one of the main things that both the Sorensons and the Holdens look at when making a cull-keep decision on a young cow. Fertility and mothering ability are important in any operation, and you can’t afford to keep a cow for a year if she loses a calf for any reason.

“When we were building our herd, we kept some less-than-perfect cows,” says Sorenson, “but there are times you have to cull hard, such as in a drought. If you don’t have enough feed, you have to sell some cows.”

But that can be the silver lining in a really bad situation. “You have to get rid of a certain number, so you take that opportunity to sell any cows that have a problem. You cull a lot deeper — down to the number you can take care of — and end up with a better herd. Then you are building back from the best cows,” Sorenson says.

Marketing the culls

It pays to sell cows when the market is higher, rather than in late fall — when everyone else is selling culls and prices are lowest. “We have an advantage, because we calve so early and wean calves earlier than most ranchers in our area,” says Holden.

“We make culling decisions as quickly as possible after weaning, and sell those cows ahead of that fall run. We generally get about $10 per cwt better price, compared to selling them a month and a half later,” he says.

“This can make $100 to $150 per head difference. It almost always pays to market cull cows in summer rather than waiting until fall,” he adds.

If a person has an idea about the cows that need  to be culled — such as older cows you know you don’t want to run another year, or any cow with a problem or not-so-great udder or disposition — you could wean their calves a little earlier than the others, and send those cows to market ahead of the price drop.

“We’ve done that on some sets of cows, to get them drying up and ready to market quicker. The cost of weaning those calves early is generally a lot less than what you get in a better price on those cows,” says Holden. Sometimes it works well to wean a little early, if you have good pasture for the calves or can feed them inexpensively.

“Another alternative, if a person has extra feed, is to hold cull cows a little longer [especially if they are thin after weaning that last calf] and sell them after the cull cow market is coming back up again,” Holden adds.

“You can often be farther ahead putting them on decent feed; with their calves weaned, they gain weight easier. Sometimes it pays to hold them another six weeks or so, rather than sell them at the bottom of the market. In our country, that later rebound isn’t as good as the early market, but it’s sure a lot better than selling in the middle of the glut,” he says.

Markets change

Every year is different and sometimes your situation will be different. Decisions on when to sell culls may depend on the market, your feed supply and the cost of feed.

If you are selling cows because you are short on feed, it’s often better to sell earlier than later. There’s no rule of thumb that’s best for everyone or for every year, and there are several marketing options for cull cows. 

Any cows in the Sorenson herd that will calve late may go to another herd. “What is late for us may not be late for someone calving in May or June. We probably sell between 60 and 80 young pregnant cows each year [ages 3 to 5] because there are people who want those cows,” Sorenson says.

One market the Sorensons sometimes use with open cows is selling some of the younger ones as recipient cows. “Folks putting embryos in ‘recip’ cows usually want them 3 to 6 years old — cows that have had at least one calf and raised at least one calf.” These are young cows that came up open or lost their current calf for some reason, and producers don’t want to keep them another year without a calf to market.

“Cows for this market usually go through a stringent health check, but a lot of that is done after they leave our hands. We pick young ones that are in good shape, with good udders, and get a little more for them as recips,” Sorenson says.

This might be an option for people to sell cows that lost calves due to weather. “There were horrendous calf losses in Montana this winter, through no fault of the cows. These are good, productive cows that might go to slaughter just because their calves died in those storms, and they would make good recip cows,” Sorenson says.

Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.


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