by: Heather Smith Thomas

When culling cows, it is important to have a plan, and this should include pregnancy testing and closely evaluating every cow. Travis Olson, at Ole Farms, Athabasca, Alberta, says the biggest thing to focus on is the economic factor. “We calve out about 1,500 cows each year and 1,000 of those are registered Angus. We are in the cattle business to make money. When making culling decisions the first thing to think about is whether a cow will make a profit in the future. The number one factor in profit and loss, in beef operations in North America, is how many calves you wean for every cow you expose to the bull. If a cow is open, she needs to be gone,” he says.

If she didn't raise her calf (whether coyotes got her calf because she's not attentive enough, or the calf got sick because she didn't have good enough colostrum or her udder wasn't good enough for the calf to suckle soon enough after birth) and she comes up dry, she should be gone.

“Once in a while there might be a freak incident, but it's generally the fault of the cow if she doesn't bring home a calf. It is important to eliminate the cows, and cow families that cause you problems,” says Olson.

“Any cow that makes you feel unsafe (and might injure you or family members or employees) should also be culled. Culling is a blend of profitability and quality of life (and safety) for the producer,” he says.

Functional traits are also important, like conformation of feet and legs, udder, etc. “We always cull cows that get bad feet. Any cow that has trouble moving around won't do well. I've seen cows with structural issues that rebreed for several years, but it's a genetic component you don't want to perpetuate; you wouldn't want to keep daughters from that cow,” he explains.

“Feet and udders are important. How important depends on whether you are doing this as a commercial producer or a purebred breeder. There are some things a commercial producer might let slip by and get a couple more calves out of that cow before culling her—but these are issues a purebred breeder should not tolerate. A breeder's excuses become his customers' problems,” says Olson.

“Everyone pays attention to how much the calf weighs at weaning. But weaning weight only looks at half of the equation; you are only looking at the production, and not what the cow consumes. We now weigh every cow. If the average cow weighs 1,400 pounds on our ranch she needs to wean a calf that's at least 550 to 600 pounds. But some of our cows weigh 1,700 pounds. That 1,700 pound cow is 20 percent heavier than the average, and eating 20 percent more than the average so she should be weaning a bigger calf. If she's not, those are the inefficient cows we are now eliminating--and the only way you can do that is by weighing the cows to know what they actually weigh.”

The Ole ranch is downsizing average weight on the cows. It's better to have more efficient, smaller cows that wean a higher percent of their body weight in calf weight. “Culling the inefficient cow is important, but still secondary to culling a cow that isn't raising a calf every year,” he says. Once you have your herd fertile and the cows breeding back on schedule, then you can start culling on other attributes.

“You need to select cattle for the environment. On our place we do a lot of winter grazing, and the cows are consuming high-lignin diets. The cows that can't handle it don't do well and need to be culled. Cows that don't fit the environment, either by milking too much or having too much growth or too hard fleshing are culls on our place,” says Olson.

“If you have ample feed, good grass, and don't mind putting hay in front of those cows, that's a different story. Most producers are cost conscious, however, and trying to extend their grazing season. One of the culling decisions hinges on cows that are not cutting it on that management program,” he says. Winter feed is one of the major costs of running a cow, if you have to feed very much hay.

“The most important factor in profit or loss is how many calves you wean and the second most important thing is winter feed costs. A cow has to fit your management program. If she is really thin on a grazing program, she won't rebreed. We need thrifty cows,” he says.

“In general, as an industry, we are seeing producers ask for things they didn't ask for in the past. In our seedstock program for our customers, our smallest-framed easiest fleshing bulls (which 12 years ago would have been hard to sell) are now high sellers,” Olson says. Producers are realizing they need to reduce frame size and birth weight, and add fleshing ability.

“As cattle prices in the marketplace continue to dip a little, we have to cut costs. When everyone was making money people weren't as worried about what they were spending on the cattle.”

There are always some cows that should be culled, for various reasons, especially when a producer is trying to improve the herd and select for more profitable cows. Every operation, regardless of size, tends to cull a certain percent of the herd per year. “In our herd of 1,500 cows, if I am culling six percent per year that don't get pregnant, and another three percent that lose their calves before weaning, and two percent on feet and udders, and two percent on inefficient cows that don't raise a good calf—and all those numbers add up to about 15 percent --I get rid of 225 cows per year. The guy who has 100 cows would be culling 15 head per year.”

It doesn't matter how aggressively you pay attention to teats and udders, feet, fertility, etc. there will always be a few that regress to poorer traits. “There's always the odd one that gets mastitis and a bad teat, or a cow that throws back to something that's undesirable. You are always working on those issues, but it's nice when you get to the point where some of the traits you are culling for are far less numerous in your herd.”

Marketing The Culls – “Basically what we've been doing is selling directly to the packing plant, and this is one advantage we have as a larger operation. We sell our cull cows by the load and get a price on the rail,” says Olson. This is more profitable than selling through an auction yard.

Some years, for some operations, it might pay to keep thin cows and put more weight on them before they are sold, while other years it won't pay to keep them longer. “Our dry cows that lost a calf usually have good flesh, and usually the best time to market them is when the market tends to be higher in summer—rather than waiting until late fall. Usually we send one load of cows in mid-summer,” he says.

“Then after we do our preg testing and find the open cows, we watch the market closely to see when we should ship those. Our typical market time for those is March-April. We put some weight on those cows over winter and market them in the early spring. Most years the better price will pay for the feed we put in them, and they also gain weight very well. Many of those cows will put on 100 pounds between January and March,” he explains.

Looking at a 10 or 20 year average, the market is usually higher in April than it is in November. “Everyone wants to preg test in October/November when they bring their calves in for weaning, and if they don't want to winter those open cows, those are all sent to market. I think a person usually gets paid to hold them over and sell on the spring market,” he says.

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