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Culling Strategy: Should She Stay or Go?

Culling – as boring of a subject it may be, your culling strategy is an important factor in the health and future of your herd.  Culling “strategy” is something that is highly variable from farm-to-farm.  First, having a culling strategy implies that you have a choice, and we all know that, far too often, these choices seem to make themselves.  Animals that are injured to the point where they can move around, eat and drink, but won’t make a full recovery are difficult to justify keeping around.  Open cows, sub-fertile bulls, and animals that have been treated multiple times for diseases are likewise unlikely to return any profits to the farm, and should be sold before any further economic losses are incurred.  These examples are all very common, and the decisions require almost no thought, but they are all examples of the basics of culling strategies.

Culling strategies become much more complex during certain times of the market cycles, farm expansions, or other circumstances that may be very specific to an individual farm.  For example, if you want to add cows to your beef or dairy herd, you can purchase cows or heifers and/or retain more of your own heifers as replacements.  In addition, you can alter your culling parameters to keep more cows around that may have been told to “hit the road” in other times.  Hanging on to an old cow whose udder swings low and has teats pointing in four different directions, but is otherwise healthy, or extending your breeding period will allow some of the less fertile cows one more cycle with the bull or one more chance at an AI conception.

Conversely, there are times when having strategies in place to cull more aggressively can be of benefit.  For example, when cull prices are very high, or your facilities have reached their capacity, or the cost of raising replacements is a limiting factor.  These are often referred to as “voluntary culls” because we have more say in the decisions.  You can go the opposite direction and cull a cow with a suspect udder before she gets mastitis or her calf has difficulty feeding.  You can sharpen your production or reproductive parameters and give those cows one less cycle with the bull or one less chance at an AI conception.  You may even have the chance to sell some young, healthy cows or pairs that would be great producers on your farm at a significant profit.  The best, a favorite of farmers, farmers’ wives, and also veterinarians, is to cull cows or replacement heifers based on their less-than-sunny disposition!

Below is a basic list of culling criteria that can be adapted to beef and dairy herds, and customized and prioritized for individual farms:

  1. Low production.  (A highly heritable trait.)
    • Dairy: The break-even production is a number that should be known, and cows that have production levels below this are losing you money and should be sold or dried-off early if possible.
    • Beef:  This is typically realized as a cow that raises a poor-performing, poor-growing calf.
  1. Sub-fertile cows or heifers.  (This is also highly heritable.)
    • Dairy:  Cows that have been diagnosed open after being in milk for 8+ months.
    • Beef:  Cows that continually get bred and calve later in the seasons each year, but do eventually become pregnant.


    1. Poor Health History.  Cows that are prone to mastitis (or have bad udder conformation), lameness, have a history of being treated for disease or need assistance with calving.  Though it can be argued how much of this is hereditary, it is well-accepted that there is a genetic component to these problems.


    1. Diagnosed Open.  Cows or heifers that are either diagnosed open late in pregnancy or are found to be open at the end of calving season.  Most of these would have been diagnosed pregnant, and then aborted, which is also heritable.  Beef cows diagnosed open at preg-check should already have been culled (or re-exposed and sold as fall-calving cows if the market is favorable to that).


    1. Poor Adaptation.  Animals that don’t adapt to farm facilities or handling practices.  Frequently, this is seen as dairy heifers that don’t learn to use head-locks, cows that lie in alleys instead of in stalls, but beef examples exist as well.


  1. Disposition.  A wise man once taught me that wild cattle exist for three reasons: 1) they learn it from their handlers, 2) they learn it from herd mates, and 3) they inherit it.  Culling based on disposition eliminates the last two, and I’m sure none of us will claim responsibility for the first one!

The key is to have a strategy and to be consistent, as difficult as that may be. If you have to opportunity to cull aggressively, or you’re in a situation where you have to reduce your herd size, you don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation down the road by making hasty decisions.  Your herd is a long-term investment, and having a healthy mixture of mature cows, younger cows, and replacements full of genetic potential is crucial, so culling strategies must match.  In general, you should find that defining your culling criteria and sticking to the for a few years will lead to fewer “involuntary culls” in the future, which is a testament to how heritable lameness, udder conformation, and production ability are.

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