As unpleasant as the thought of reducing a cowherd is, a plan needs to be ready in the event that dry conditions persist, says Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University beef specialist.
While cows generally are viewed as a herd, all producers know the herd is made up of smaller groups. The decision to reduce the cowherd really is a process of deciding which groups to keep.
Broadly speaking, one can classify cows as young, mature, old or older. There are excellent, good, fair, average, poor and bad cows. There are cows that are daughters of good, average or poor bulls. There are cows with calves at side, pregnant or open. And there are cows we like and those we don't like.
As an illustration, Ringwall cites the process by which the Dickinson Research Extension Center sorts its herd.
It begins with a sort on paper, he says, followed the next week with working of the calves and movement to their respective pastures.
Age is the first sort. The sort is based on the previous year's records, and then fit to the current year's stocking plan.
“Last year's calf records per cow showed we had 56 two-year-olds that weaned 530 lbs. of calf/cow; 48 three-year-olds that weaned 573 lbs.; 44 four-year-olds that weaned 581 lbs.; 30 five-year-olds that weaned 627 lbs.; 44 six-year-olds that weaned 620 lbs.; 32 seven-year-olds that weaned 599 lbs.; seven eight-year-olds that weaned 643 lbs.; 16 nine-year-olds that weaned 607 lbs.; 16 10-year-olds that weaned 582 lbs.; one 11-year-old that weaned 534 lbs.; and one 12-year-old that never weaned a calf,” he says.
Young cows are more prevalent in the herd, he says, and the data also shows old cows don’t produce as well as middle-aged cows. While old cows will wean calves, cowherd reduction needs to begin with old cows.
Old cows require more care and will not compete for forage against younger cows. Sort off the old cows (more than 10 years of age) and put them in a "maybe sell" pen.
Some lines of cattle perform better than others and maintain their ability to milk better. However, if pasture is short, a cow more than 10 years is old.
Further review of the data shows five-, six-, seven-, eight- and nine-year-old cows weaned 627, 620, 599, 643 and 607 lbs. of calf/cow, respectively. The 10-year-olds last year that will be 11-year-olds this year didn’t produce more than 600 lbs. of calf and won’t produce more pounds of calf this year. These cows are in their declining production years and, as they lose their teeth, they will continue to decline.
As the old cows age within any environment, their decline will increase proportionately and the first indication of stress will reduce milk production, which translates to a smaller calf.
Remember, Ringwall says, the decisions made to survive dry weather will position the cattle operation better for next year. Thus, the old cows should be the first set of cows set aside for potential sale.
While the genetics for performance may be in the old cow and calf, the nutrition won’t support the pair. The cows are still up and available, so cut those older cows to the side and then see what else might fit in the hold pen.
Obviously, open cows and those that lost their calves and didn’t accept a "within-herd twin graft" already should have gone to town. With high grain prices and the prospect of escalating hay prices, there is a real term for cows without calves. It's called “beef,” he says.
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– Kris Ringwall, NDSU Extension beef specialist