Producers must make many decisions when culling cows

It’s the time of year for pregnancy checking and herd processing.

It is also a good time to consider culling, especially for non-pregnant cows, but others as well. Then you need to make a plan to market those animals.

Producers need to make a lot of decisions regarding how and where to move the cull cows. Some animals may be marketed, others fed and there may be a well-bred aged cow that is kept to be a calf bearer in following years. There is often a need during calving season for a reliable cow that can adopt an extra calf.

In a normal year, reproductive culls run about five to 10 percent of the herd. These cows are generally in good health and body condition. However, sometimes a concurrent disease causes the infertility issues, or sometimes culls can be old cows (usually 10 years and older) with poor teeth. Producers should monitor the ages of their animals, and cows close to 10 years old should be considered for culling.

By monitoring weight, producers can see older cows that are not maintaining weight.

Many producers can find the age of their animals through their tagging systems, but if the age is unknown, mouthing the cattle may help. This requires animal restraint and carefully pulling down the lower lip, while watching for a head butt and standing to the side to observe the incisor teeth. Peg-like front teeth or missing teeth indicate the animal is quite old.

It is often better to ship older animals rather than keep failing animals that can’t properly chew.

Older cows generally start to develop issues with arthritis or foot problems, as well as numerous internal conditions. Timely shipping is the key to getting maximum value from a cull before animal welfare issues arise.

Other cull candidates include those with obvious feet and leg issues (lameness), especially if they are reoccurring or chronic. Some lameness issues can be corrected or hoofs can be trimmed to help some animals get through another calving season. Producers have to balance the risk of keeping them versus the reward in determining their best course of action.

Animals with previous medical issues, such as mastitis, suspected kidney problems and other physical problems should be on the cull hit list.

Animals with previous medical conditions, even if they have responded well to treatments and regained condition, could be timebombs waiting to go off, in my mind.

However, with some mastitis cases, if the infected quarter completely dried up and the cow becomes a three-teater, it may be safe to keep it. It has been found that milk production the following year may increase in the other three teats to compensate.

As well, animal temperament is an important consideration at culling.

Once the cull cows are pulled out, a marketing decision must be made.

From a producer’s standpoint, there are three factors to consider:

  • The cows that should be immediately shipped, provided they are transportable.
  • The younger cows that may do better if they are fed more before being shipped.
  • Animals that are too ill to make the trip and should be butchered on farm or euthanized.

I would check with cow buyers or the local auction market to determine the best course of action.

The route you go on marketing may be determined by the time of year, number of cows you have, body condition score and a myriad of other factors.

If you do ship directly from home to a packing facility and the truck ride will be longer than four hours, consider a nutritional supplement. I am most familiar with a product called DeStress. If it is fed at about 1.5 kilograms per cow on the last day before shipping, shrinkage on both the live animal and carcass is greatly reduced. It could reduce shrinkage to four to six percent, down from eight to 10 percent, which would pay for the product many times over.

This results in less shrink loss in both live weight and carcass weight, and it minimizes the stress of transport because DeStress contains a natural calming amino acid. It is like rewarding the cow for the productive life she has given to your farm — a win-win situation.

There is lots to think about this fall and winter. As an industry we need to think of animal welfare and make our management decisions accordingly.

Here’s to a successful fall pregnancy check and marketing of the open and other cull cows.

Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.

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