Many cattle producers do not like the idea of culling cows. Certainly, as animals age and may not be raising a calf anymore, it becomes a reality that every rancher faces. However, the idea of culling deep into a productive herd is an unwelcomed prospect.
As I write this, the entire state of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought. Precipitation has been slim for most of us. Additionally, evapotranspiration (ET) has been significantly higher than normal thus far in 2012. The loss of moisture through plant ET can be seriously detrimental to forage if soil moisture is not adequate. The combination of abnormally high temperatures, high winds, and low humidity; along with abundant solar radiation is magnifying the drought’s affect on plant production. If relief does not arrive soon, many ranchers are going to have to either begin supplemental feeding or look at removing cattle from the operation. It can be a very difficult decision to make. So I have to ask, “Have you thought about culling cows from your herd?”
Range management is a balancing act between grass production and grazing consumption. If we severely overgraze during drought, we can do long term damage to the grasslands that we rely on for a sustainable ranching operation. It may take five, ten, or even twenty years to heal this type of rangeland damage. A drought influenced herd reduction should be approached with a certain degree of strategy and planning. I’m talking about serious culling that may reach deep into the productive herd. This is a case where the ranch is sacrificing current herd/cattle resources that are replaceable to protect the fragile rangeland resources that are responsive, not replaceable. It is best to consider how you would approach a herd reduction before you actually reach that point. (As you read the through the levels of culling listed below, please remember that different ranches utilize different management strategies. Some readers may feel that certain animals described should have been culled prior to the arrival of the drought, but I have to write this article from the perspective of visiting with the least management intensive of operations.)
The obvious cull is the cow that didn’t have a calf or lost her calf. This cow is only costing the ranch this year, so she should be the first on the trailer.
Next, the animal that is going to require the most nutrition through the drought period with the least return should be culled. In most cases this is going to be virgin heifers. This group of animals has a requirement for the highest level of nutrition within the cow herd. They are growing and will be for the next two years. Replacement heifers are typically the hardest cattle in the herd to get bred and often have the lightest calves at weaning time. In other words, they carry some of the greatest expenses with some of the least returns. The ranch can worry about replacement heifers after the drought, when there is active forage growth taking place.
Now take a serious look at what you have left in the herd and score the cows. Many people will disagree with me, but I say that this is a great time to get rid of any mean cows or those that have a tendency to ignore fences. Current pregnancy status can be a useful decision tool, depending on how your calving/breeding cycle lines up with your culling time. Cattle that are not pregnant or are dramatically short bred compared to others may be candidates for culling. Score structure of the cattle. How are the legs and feet? You may consider walking them along an ally way one at a time to evaluate how they walk. Do they have all or most of their teeth? How do their udders look? Cow’s that are no longer able to perform and produce at the herd average should be considered potential culls. Remember, we sometimes get emotionally connected to the herd we have built and taken care of for years. It can be helpful to ask a couple of your trusted friends or neighbors to spend an afternoon with you scoring the herd.
Hopefully, this can get you to a point that available forage, supplemental feed, and/or hay can get you through the drought. However, we are not always that fortunate. If culling needs to continue, the ranch needs to evaluate their herd records at this point. On paper split out the cattle that have outperformed others and plan to keep this group. Likewise, sort out those that have performed poorly and add them to the cull list. Records that are good to use for these decisions can be pounds of calf weaned (205 day adjusted), cost of production per cow, and dollars per cow returned. If your ranch does not currently have a strong record program, body condition score (BCS) can be used instead. Cull all cows that are at a BCS 3 or lower. Then come back and cull those old cows and young cows that are at a BCS of 4.
The next step in a deep cull can be very difficult. At this point you are likely far into a productive set of cows. The standing recommendation, if you get this far into a culling situation, is to remove those cows that are 8 years old and older. Next, look at those cows younger than 4 years of age. In theory, what remain should be the most productive cows in your original herd.
Nobody wants to get this extreme in their culling of a cow herd. Ranchers spend years building a herd, increasing genetic potential, and developing a set of animals that provide the necessary cash flow for the operation. An established herd also has the advantage of cattle that know the terrain and local plant communities, allowing established cows to coach calves and new heifers. It can be devastating to disassemble that in the manner that I have laid out in the preceding paragraphs. However, in a drought emergency drastic measures may be necessary; especially when you consider the current cost of hay and supplemental feeds. Plus, today’s price of cull cows is more favorable than typical cow markets have been in the past. If you are concerned that continued drought may force you to sell part of your cow herd; sit down with your records and develop a strategy for how you may face that. Utilize some of the strategies that I have laid out here. Also consider visiting with your banker and/or accountant about how selling cows would affect your financial and tax situation. Watch for state or federal declarations to be made as a result of the drought. Sometimes these can allow for limited options that can help with the financial aspects of having to sell many cows unexpectedly. (Capital gains tax deferrals, low interest replacement loans, etc.) A drought influenced herd reduction may not be a pleasant thing to face, but developing a plan can help take some of the emotion and stress out of the decisions that have to be made when a deep culling is required.