Hay Bales: Proper cow culling important to bottom line

Mike Trammell
Pottawatomie County ag educator and multi-county agronomist

Cull cows represent approximately 10-20% of the gross income of any commercial cow operation. Cull beef cows also represent about 15% of the beef that is consumed in the United States. Therefore, ranchers need to make certain that cow culling is done properly and in a profitable manner. Selling cull cows when they will return the most income to the ranching operation requires knowledge about cow health and body condition. Proper cow culling will reduce the chance that a cow carcass is condemned at the packing plant and becoming a money drain for the entire beef industry.

At culling time, producers often face some tough decisions. Basically, you are asking the question is she good for another year. For some producers, optimum culling of the herd seems to require a crystal ball that can help see into the cow’s future. Will she keep enough body condition score through the winter to breed back next year? How old is she? Is her mouth sound so she can harvest forage and be nutritionally strong enough to reproduce and raise a big calf? At what age will she start to become less productive?

There is great variability in the longevity of beef cows. Data from large ranches in Florida would indicate that most cows are consistent in rebreeding performance through about 8 years of age. A small decline was noted as cows aged from 8 to 10 years of age. However, a consistent decline in reproductive performance was noted after cows reached 10 years of age. A steeper decline in reproductive performance was found after cows reached 12 years of age. In other words, once cows reach 8 years of age, begin to watch for reasons to cull the cow. By the time the cow reaches 10 years old, look at her even closer and consider culling; as she reaches her 12th year, plan to cull her before she develops health problems, or her body condition score begins to decline.

Other reasons to consider culling:

Examine the eye health of the cow

The number one cause of condemned beef carcasses is still "cancer-eye" cows. Although the producers are doing a much better job in recent years of culling cows before "cancer-eye" takes its toll, every cow manager should watch their cows closely for potentially dangerous eye tumors. Watch for small pinkish growths on the upper, lower, or corner eye lids. Also notice growths on the eyeball in the region where the “dark” of the eye meets with the "white" of the eyeball. Small growths in any of these areas are very likely to become cancerous lesions if left unchecked. Likewise, be aware of cows with heavy wart infestations around the eye as well. Many of these growths become cancerous over time. Culling these types of cows will allow the cow carcass to be utilized normally. However, if cancer engulfs the eyeball and gets into the lymph nodes around the head, the entire carcass will likely be condemned.

Check the feet and legs

Beef cows must travel over pastures and fields to consume forages and reach water tanks and ponds. Cows with bad stifle joints, severe foot rot infections, or arthritic joints may be subject to substantial carcass trimming when they reach the packing plant. They will be poor producers if allowed to stay on the ranch while severely lame. They may lose body condition, weigh less, and be discounted at the livestock market by the packer buyers. Culling them soon after injury will help reduce the loss of sale price that may be suffered later. If the cow has been treated for infection, be certain to market the cow AFTER the required withdrawal time of the medicine used to treat her infection.

Bad udders should be culled

One criterion for culling cows that should be examined is udder quality. Beef cattle producers are not as likely to think about udder health and shape as are dairy producers, but this attribute affects cow productivity and should be considered. OSU studied the effect that bad udders had on cow productivity. They found that cows with one or two dry quarters had calves with severely reduced weaning weights (50 - 60 pounds) compared to cows with no dry quarters. Plus, cows with bad udders tend to pass that trait along to their daughters that may be kept as replacement heifers. Two key types of "bad" udder traits to cull are the large funnel-shaped teats and udders with weak suspension. The large funnel-shaped teats may be indicative of a previous case of mastitis and cause the quarter to be incapable of producing milk. In addition, large teats may be difficult for the newborn calf to get its mouth around and receive nourishment and colostrum essential very early in life.

Cull cows when in moderate body condition

Send older cows to market before they become too thin. Generally, severely emaciated cattle have lightly muscled carcasses with extremely small ribeyes and poor red-meat yield. This greatly lessens the salvage value of such animals. Just as importantly, emaciated cattle are most often those which "go down" in transit, as they lack sufficient energy to remain standing for long periods of time. Severe bruising, excessive carcass trim, increased condemnations, and even death are the net results of emaciation.   

Cull wild cattle

They are hard on you and your equipment and they raise wild calves. Wild calves are poor performers in the feedlot and are more prone to producing dark cutting carcasses as they reach the packing plant. "Dark cutters" are discounted about $20-30 per cwt on the rail.

Cull open cows

Why feed a cow all winter that will not have a calf next spring? Call your veterinarian to schedule a pregnancy exam and find which cows have not bred back. Cull them while they are still in good shape after summer pasture and before you spend several hundred dollars for their winter feed bill.

If you have questions concerning this topic or related topics, please contact the Pottawatomie County OSU Extension Center at 273-7683, stop by the office, or visit our website: http://www.oces.okstate.edu/pottawatomie/

Oklahoma State University, in compliance with Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 11246 as amended, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and other federal laws and regulations, does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, age, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, or status as a veteran in any of its policies, practices or procedures. This includes but is not limited to admissions, employment, financial aid, and educational services.