Which animals should stay and which should go?

No matter the type of livestock operation, at some point, a part of a producer’s herd must go. Culling cattle helps to optimize productivity and profitability. “This should be looked at as an income stream from the beef cattle operation rather than just the practice of getting rid of cows,” Johnny Gunsaulis, county extension agent with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said. 

Determining which cows should stay and which should move on to other pastures is not always an easy task. 

Disposition is one of the first factors producers should consider in the culling process. Animals should be evaluated on how they act in the pasture and in the pen. A cow may react differently when being worked in a confined area, like a corral. If the animal won’t come in or comes after a producer, it’s time to cull it. 

An animal’s disposition should be taken into consideration for the producer’s safety. “Think what medical expenses are today and what it means for most beef operations if a principal operator is out of duty for any period of time,” Gunsaulis stated. “So, considering those factors besides unnecessary fence repair, busted corrals, frustration, and other factors – temperament is definitely something to consider.”

When analyzing a herd for potential animals to cull, open females should rise to the top of the list. If a female doesn’t breed back in a timely manner or skips a calving season, she still requires inputs and hurts the operation’s bottom line. “If an animal doesn’t get bred in our breeding season that we have defined for her, then we need to get rid of her because she isn’t doing her job,” Andy McCorkill, livestock field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said. “We need to look at her as an employee from that standpoint.”

Livestock experts recommend maintaining reproduction records to help guide culling decisions. When culling based on economic factors, thorough records will assist producers in determining which animals are the most profitable.

 Producers may find the culling decision making process easier if they implement a defined 60 to 90 day calving season. “If you don’t hold your cows to that, it’s just going to be a lot easier for them to slip by even if they’re weaning a calf every 15 months, instead of every year,” Gunsaulis explained.

Livestock specialists recommend keeping the cows that calve on a 365-day calving interval. “Meaning they are going to calve basically the same day every year. And if they are not within tolerance on that, then we certainly need to look at those,” McCorkill added.

Evaluating breeding age animals once a year can also benefit producers when it comes to determining which cows to sell. Gunsaulis recommends preg checking in the fall to identify females that failed to get bred during the regular breeding season. 

Though an open cow may seem like an automatic cull, livestock specialists advise evaluating all the options first. “It’s convenient to sell those open cows as soon as they are identified as open, especially if they are older,” Gunsaulis said. “But that might not always be the best option given economics.”

A multi-year study conducted by the Arkansas Extension Service, tracked profit margin in relation to the timing of the sale of cattle. “For several years, the Extension Service in Arkansas looked at selling thin cows in the fall compared to fleshy cows in early spring,” Gunsaulis explained. “Almost every year it’s profitable to keep that thin cow through the winter and sell her in better flesh in the spring.”

Livestock experts state cows and bulls are the one animal from a slaughter standpoint, that as they gain weight, they gain value per pound as well. “If we have extra grass that we can put some cheap gain on those animals, then we can make them worth more money before we sell them,” McCorkill said. “That’s not always the case but it is something to consider.” This management tool gives producers the potential to optimize the value of their culls instead of simply getting rid of them. 

Additionally, if producers decide to hold on to the animal for a bit longer, they may want to cull them out of the breeding herd and manage them separately. That keeps producers from being enticed to keep them for the long haul. 

Other important factors to consider fall in the category of soundness. Evaluate animals on the condition of their udder, feet and body condition. An animal’s age can also be a factor to consider. “I wouldn’t necessarily say any set age is the criteria there, but if productivity is being affected or they are losing condition where they can’t get around, or they are starting to lose teeth so they can’t consume as much, then that is something that needs to be considered,” McCorkill stated. 

Some livestock specialists with the University of Missouri Extension use what they call the four O’s of culling to remind producers of potential culling criteria. The four O’s are – Old, Open, Onery and Other. Lastly, Gunsaulis may have the most important culling advice of all, “And you always remember that we have to keep the wife’s favorite cow no matter if she only raises a calf every 15 months,” Gunsaulis advised.


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