“Let’s Give Her One More Year…” – When to Cull in Your Cattle Herd

— Written By Kaitlyn Johnson

When looking over our cattle from year to year there comes a time when a decision must be made about the fate of a brood cow, stimulating this decision is the need to maximize productivity and profitability. Every producer is guilty of “let’s give her one more year…” especially in years when forage and hay is abundant. As many are finishing up the spring calving season it is an opportune time to be considering which cows to cull.

Pregnancy rate is a very important factor to consider when making culling decisions and animals with low performance rates or found open should move to the top of the culling list. If she doesn’t have a calf she is not paying her production cost. Pregnancy rate is the most know factor that is considered, there are however some other factors that should be considered as well; they are aging, udder scoring, body condition scoring (BCS), disposition, eyes, and structure.

Aging your cattle can allow better record keeping for your herd as well as influence your decision to cull. As a cow ages you should look at her teeth to see the wear on the teeth and how many she has left, cattle need teeth to graze and eat efficiently. Also, younger cows in the herd should be genetically superior to the older cows. Cattle with broken mouths or badly worn teeth or are young but not superior, should be culled.

Udder condition of cows is not only linked to milk production, which affects calf performance, but the udders physical structure can impede the calf’s access to milk which can lead to decreased growth despite adequate milk. The following udder scoring system uses a scale of 1-9, with 1 being the poor classification and 9 being the superior classification.

For example a “9” or “7” requires no intervention and daughters of these cows should be given preference as replacements. The “1’s” should be culled and their daughters should be avoided as replacements. The “3’s” should be culled as economic conditions allow.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is a useful management tool for distinguishing differences in nutritional needs for the cows in the herd. BCS range from 1 to 9, with a score of 1 being extremely thin and 9 being very obese. Cows should have a BCS of 5 to 7 at calving and a 5-6 at breeding. Fat slaughter cows have more trim and wastage when harvested and thin cows will bruise more easily. Cattle that are not at these optimal ranges are using more resources than the 5-7 cattle and therefore costing more money which eats into the profitability of the operation.

To me the second most important trait to consider when culling is disposition. It might have been fun to run and jump over/under fences when we were younger but as we begin to slow down this is not the case. One cow with a bad attitude can ruin the dynamic of the entire herd and cause many safety issues. This trait can also be passed on to their offspring and disposition problems can cause a decrease in reproduction rates as well as other performance characteristics, all of which decreases profitability and safety. One method in which this trait can be measured is by using a chute score. These scores are determined while the animals are in the chute and when they exit the chute. Cattle with a high score should be culled as they pose safety concerns for both animal and handler. A table for the chute score chart can be found here:Chute Score.

Monitoring the eyes of beef cattle on a routine basis is important. Repeated examinations allow the producer to become familiar with the normal appearance of the eye which makes spotting problems much easier. Lacking good eye sight can lead to production decreases as well as safety concerns.

Last but not least in importance is the structure of the cattle. The two most common types of lameness are arthritic joints and foot and hoof problems. Excess hoof growth can lead to curling toes and eventual misalignment of the feet and leg bones. Lame cows can create problems when they enter the marketing chain and return fewer dollars to the producer. Down cattle are no longer allowed to be marketed or slaughtered, they must be mobile. Keep this in mind when culling based on structure, the cow must be able to get on and off the trailer several times before it reaches its final destination. If this cannot be done it can create major problems in the system and should not be marketed.

It is key to have a well rounded approach to culling cattle, not just if she has a live calf each season. Safety, productivity, and profitability can all be affected by using this approach in culling decisions. If you “give her one more year” she may not make it on and off the trailer and you have just lost the sale of that slaughter cow, which could be your profit for the year. Some of these factors can also be applied to the bulls in your herd, the health and mobility of the bull can have a large impact on the profitability and productivity of your operation.

 Source: Chute Side Quality, Defect and Culling Guide- Beef Checkoff Program.

For more information on Cattle Culling please contact Kaitlyn M Cranford- Livestock Agent at kaitlyn_cranford@ncsu.edu or 910-947-3188.

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