Culling requires a strategy

Backgrounding calves is especially important if they are weaned early. Earlier than normal weaning is one way producers can reduce feed needs for the cow herd.  |  File photo

A shortage of quality feed in parts of Western Canada this year may force some cattle producers to make hard decisions. Culling unproductive cows and weaning calves early are two ways they can manage the situation.

Andrea Hanson, beef extension specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said the first step in culling decisions is to develop a strategy, which is the criteria under which cows will be sold out of the herd.

Open cows are the first targets and Hanson said that depending on time of breeding, cows could be pregnancy checked as early as 40 days from that date if ultrasound is used.

“Knowing sooner than later gives you the most flexibility when it comes to market decisions.”

Market conditions will dictate whether it’s best to sell open cows immediately or feed them to higher weight and sell later. If that’s the case, they can be given lower quality feed than the breeding herd when fed separately.

Ted Nibourg, business management specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said market patterns tend to support a strategy of selling cows after mid-November.

His data indicates prices for D1 and D2 cows typically drop by an average of 15 percent from Sept. 1 to mid-November. Prices then increase by an average of 27 percent from mid-November to the end of March.

Nibourg also reminded producers to consider the tax implications of selling cull cows in fall rather than spring. He quoted Canfax research showing about 55 percent of producers sell cull cows at weaning, 15 percent feed them and market in March or April, 10 percent cull after calving and the rest cull at other times for various reasons.

After a strategy for open cows is decided, the next target might be culling based on temperament, said Hanson.

“Invariably, I swear the cows who are the most difficult to deal with will never be the ones that are open. And I’m being a little bit facetious with that,” she said during an Alberta Agriculture webinar.

Her suggested list for culling decisions includes disposition, health, conformation, performance, vigour and age, though the priority assigned to those cow qualities will vary with each rancher.

Weaning calves early reduces the cows’ feed requirements, which can also conserve supplies. Hanson deemed weaning at 132 days as early and 72 days as very early, while 192 days is the normal approximate weaning date.

She quoted previous research stating that “as long as proper management and nutritional needs of the calf are met, early weaning did not increase the morbidity or mortality rates in the calves.”

However, success is predicated on preconditioning the calves before early weaning. That includes vaccination before weaning and a booster at separation from the cow, using a low-stress weaning method and ensuring calves are eating and drinking well once they’re on their own.

If very early weaning is necessary, calves will need higher energy and protein levels in their feed and will likely have to be fed together in a confined space.

As for the cows, “very early and early weaning on the calves reduces the grazing pressure and the needs of the cows by 25 percent and reduces the nutritional needs for energy and protein by 30 percent or more.

“I think it is something that you should consider, especially if your pastures are getting to be a little bit lower in condition now,” Hanson said.

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