For a variety of reasons, most cows have gone to town before they reach the age of 13 or 14. But that doesn’t mean ranchers should be in a hurry to get rid of them.
Brett Barham, University of Arkansas professor of animal science and Extension beef cattle breeding and genetics specialist, told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor those older cows are money in the bank. “If you look at the economics of retaining a replacement heifer,” Barham said, “it takes her about 6 years to pay off that initial investment you have in her. Once she covers those actual maintenance costs, that’s pure profit for the producer.”
That means it’s important to the bottom line to keep those cows on the farm, healthy and breeding, as long as possible. At the same time, a producer has to be mindful of the prospect of diminishing returns. “If you look at the productivity of a cow from a calf weaning weight perspective,” Barham said, “her heyday years are the 5-10 year period. When she gets over 10, typically calf weaning weights will start decreasing again.”
And an older cow is only valuable if she can care for the next calf; she may develop structural problems that would prevent her from doing that. This would make her a candidate for culling; if a cow can’t rebuild her body condition, she’s less likely to breed back quickly.
To keep a cow in good shape for future calving, Barham said a strong health program is important. He said, “The first step is to work with a veterinarian to design a health program that fits your needs. (This would include) having a decent vaccination program, having a deworming program that fits your production needs, and making sure you’re keeping certain things under control – pinkeye and foot rot, things along that line.” If left unchecked, those maladies could lead to cancer eye or unsoundness of structure, and the need to cull the animal.
But Barham said the number one way to increase the longevity of your cows is through crossbreeding. He said, “Crossbred, or even F1 cross, females tend to benefit quite a bit from heterosis in the reproductive or longevity component. There’s some research out there that shows that a crossbred female will make you about $90 more a year than a straightbred female and a large portion of that $90 is through longevity, in that she’s probably going to turn one, two, maybe even three more calves than a non-crossbred female that has not taken advantage of heterosis.”
He said there’s also a lot that can be done from a genetic standpoint to increase the herd’s longevity; selecting structurally correct females is one angle. “While you may not think about it from a young cow standpoint,” Barham said, “if they have poor structures when they’re young, as they age that’s just going to increase the likelihood that they are going to be lame at some point, and unable to become a productive member of their herd.” And one additional thing a producer can do to extend the longevity of cows is maintain a controlled calving season; that allows for more efficient and effective management, to make sure all the animals’ needs are being met.


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