January 20, 2006
Rules for culling cows
The persistent drought that has held on for months now has cattle producers over a barrel. Pastures are bare, a shortage of hay, and high fuel costs for trucking it in, along with the high cost of alternative feed, leave few options. Add to that low supplies of surface water and you have a real crisis in the making.
Shan Ingram, Education & Special Projects Manager for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., says producers in Texas and southern Oklahoma should always be prepared for drought conditions. Unfortunately, several mistakes are common for those facing a drought, he says.
"They do nothing in hopes that conditions (rain or leased pastures) will improve. When the decision is made to destock, calves are early weaned in hopes that no cows will have to be sold. And young cows (less than 4) are kept at the expense of more productive (4-7 year-old) cows when culling is finally started," says Ingram.
Instead, he says producers should observe four primary rules for destocking: 1) The sooner the problem is identified, the sooner appropriate actions can be taken; 2) The sooner stocking adjustments are made, the less severe the herd reductions will need to be; 3) Maximize available options and minimize long-term negative impacts on the forage resource; and 4) Maximize the effective use of precipitation by having enough residual forage to capture and utilize limited precipitation and reduce evaporative losses.
Ingram outlined the most logical order to use when culling during a drought: a) Cull any spring or summer calving cow that does not have a calf at side. This would include fall and winter calvers that didn't raise a calf. This will reduce many herds by 5-15 percent; b) Cull replacement heifers (either raised or purchased) that are not in production (raising a calf); and c) First-calf heifers typically wean smaller calves and rebreed at lower percentages than mature cows during a drought. This makes them the next logical choice to be culled.
"By culling in the order outlined above, we have not significantly affected this year's calf crop, but we have reduced our supplemental feed needs, and more importantly are giving the remaining available forage to the cows that are contributing to the income of the operation," he advises.
If further reductions are needed, Ingram suggests culling short bred fall and winter calving cows as well as long bred spring or summer calvers. Then, inspect all cows and consult records.
"Look at feet, legs, udders, and current calf at side. Cull marginal producers. If records reveal that questionable producers exist, cull them," he suggests.
Additional culling beyond this point will significantly impact the current year's calf crop.
"This is quite difficult for most producers to implement, but it may be necessary," he adds, recommending the following culling order: "Sell the short and broken mouth cows. These cows are somewhat handicapped in a drought. Then sell cows that are genetically inferior.
"Now all the easy and logical decisions have been made and implemented. Notice that the wholesale selling of calves has not been suggested," he points out. "During a drought, to destock, we need to eliminate cows because they consume the bulk of the forage."
With that in mind, the cattle specialist says the next move would be to cull 8-10 year-old cows regardless of production status. Then cull on uniformity. Sell the smallest and the largest cows, he says.
Beyond the earlier outlined steps, Ingram says the cattle operation would now be down to 4-7 year-old cows, which will probably represent 10-30 percent of the original herd.
"You should sell them if they cannot be sustained in an economic fashion. It is probably a small consolation, but it is better to completely destock than to sell a few cows, buy expensive hay and feed and lose the ranch in the end," he suggests.