Clever cattle culling decisions bolster calf production, profits

As weaning time and pregnancy checking approaches, many cow-calf producers have to make decisions about which cows should be offered the early retirement option.

Longevity in cows is not a trait that we talk about a great deal, but it is an important one in economic terms.

We end up with more calves to sell if we need fewer replacement heifers. As well, more calves per cow’s lifetime will usually mean more dollars in a producer’s pocket.

Fifteen percent of cows are usually replaced annually in most cow herds, and approximately half of all beef cow culling is done because of a failure to become pregnant within the prescribed breeding period. Cows that don’t get pregnant are often in poor body condition at breeding time.

In many herds, the second calvers are often the most common cows found open.

When heifers calve for the first time, they typically take longer to come back into heat than do older cows.

This means that if the heifers are calving at the same time as the rest of the herd, a higher percentage of them will not get pregnant in the next breeding period and will show up as open cows.

It is important to give heifers a head start on the rest of the herd to allow them extra time to come back into heat after they calve.

First calf heifers also have higher nutritional demands because they are still growing while raising a calf for the first time. They may need special attention in terms of increased nutrients so they don’t make an early exit from the herd because of poor body condition.

About another quarter of all the cows we cull leave the herd because of calving problems or calf survival issues.

Most producers are doing a much better job of reducing losses because of calving problems.

Many veterinarians report that they are doing fewer calvings and caesarean sections, partly because of better management and the use of easy-calving and low birthweight sires.

However, we also need to pay attention to mothering ability and temperament in our cows when making choices about which ones to keep.

Making sure that each cow raises its calf through to weaning is a vitally important economic trait. Mismothering of calves can be a frustrating problem at calving time, and these cows will often continue to be a problem in future years.

Their calves are less likely to get up immediately and suck, which often means they don’t get adequate colostrum.

It may be possible to foster the calf onto another cow, but in many cases these calves are more likely to get sick and die.

Cows that have poor mothering ability are a major detriment to a producer’s calf crop percentage and should definitely have a major strike against them when it comes to making culling decisions.

Another 25 percent of culled cows leave the herd because of physical reasons such as lameness and udder problems.

Udder conformation is another important trait for calf survival. Cows with pendulous teats and blind quarters make it difficult for newborn calves to suck and receive adequate colostrum.

It’s important to make a note of these cows during calving time and place them on the culling list. We often don’t notice a cow’s udder conformation by the time weaning comes around.

Cows with fewer than four functional teats will usually produce less milk, which will have a detrimental effect on the weaning weight of their calves.

Lameness is another common cause of culling in older cows. We can prevent premature culling by selecting heifers and bulls with good conformation of feet and legs.

Most of the culling reasons that we’ve discussed so far would be classified as non-voluntary culling. We have to cull these cows because they have significant problems that affect their production.

Ideally, we would like to leave some room for voluntary culling. However, there is often no room left for culling for poor weaning weights and genetics if our reproductive management is not ideal.

It is really through voluntary culling that we can make our most significant genetic gains. All too commonly, these voluntary culling decisions are made with inadequate data.

Weaning weights and cow lifetime histories allow us to make much more intelligent culling decisions. Talk to your veterinarian about the options for cow-calf software programs that will help you make these culling decisions.

Having the ability to link cow productivity with weaning weights and carcass data will allow cow-calf producers to make huge productivity gains through genetic selection and intelligent culling.



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