Cull or Keep? That Is the Question Facing Cattle Producers

— Written By and last updated by JoAnne Gryder

Bulls-on-TrailerDeciding which cows to cull and which cows to keep in the breeding herd impacts future herd performance and profitability. There are many factors to consider when choosing which cows to put on the cull list. Production and market conditions can influence the priority that is placed on different culling criteria. It is often easy to recognize “red flags” that make cows obvious culls (e.g., cows with poor rebreeding performance or severe cancer eye), but there are other reasons to cull cows. The challenge in selecting cull cows is identifying the cows that are making the operation money and the cows that are losing the operation money.

Recognition and assessment of poor animal performance or other factors that might call for animal culling require organized data collection and record keeping. The keys to an effective record keeping system are: 1) decide what production and financial information is useful and practical to collect, 2) collect accurate information in a timely manner, 3) manage that information in a usable form and 4) use the information. Record keeping can be as simple as handwritten notes in a pocket sized record book or as advanced as data entry into a computerized record keeping system.

Identifying individual animals in the herd is an important first step in developing a recordkeeping system. Ear tags should be permanently marked and easy to read. Since cattle lose ear tags, it is useful to have a more permanent method of identification, such as ear tattoos. Calves should be tagged and tattooed at birth and matched with their dams. Calf birth date and sex should also be recorded.

One of the greatest determinants of profitability in a cow/calf operation is reproductive rate. Open (non­pregnant) cows are a drain on resources. They consume feed, forage and other resources without producing a marketable calf to contribute to expense payments. A productive cow is expected to produce a calf at least once a year. Cows that are open at the end of the breeding season should be at the top of the cull list. Cows that calve outside of a controlled calving season are also potential culls, particularly when feed and forage supplies are running short. Late calving cows should be scrutinized as well, because they have less opportunity to breed back to stay within a controlled breeding season.

Poor calf performance is usually the result of inferior genetics, poor dam milk production, calf sickness or a combination of these factors. Cows transmitting inferior genetics to their calves for economically important performance traits and cows with unacceptably low milk production are potential culls. If poor calf performance is due in large part to calf sickness and not associated with the dam, then the dam may still have a productive future in the herd. The age of the dam should also be considered when culling for low performance as first­ and second calf heifers should not be expected to perform at the same level as older cows.

The productive lifetime of a beef cow is variable. As long as teeth, udders, feet and legs are sound, many older cows are still able to perform well. Breed and production environment can play a role in longevity.

Cattle with unacceptable dispositions are dangerous, and culling them reduces the risk of injury to both cattle and people. Very excitable cattle not only are more difficult to handle, but research has indicated that calves with disagreeable dispositions do not gain as well as calmer calves.

Cow culling strategies impact both calf quantity and quality and, when designed and implemented effectively, can greatly enhance the profitability of a cow/calf operation. Making informed culling decisions helps maintain a high level of herd performance. Herd genetic improvement involves not only proper bull and replacement heifer selection, but also proper selection and timely removal of cull cows from the herd. Even favorite cows should be subject to a systematic culling process to improve cow herd profitability.

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension