Drought covering the major cow-calf states has put a halt to heifer retention and put many cull cows on the fast track to greener pastures. This year, cow-calf producers with low forage supplies may need to do some deep culling to the herd to keep feed costs in check.
The goal is to keep your operation in the black while protecting your herd genetics. Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska-Lincoln beef cattle Extension specialists, advises producers to take a structured, sequential approach to culling cows.
"Forage conditions right now are tough," Rasby says. "There is quite a bit of early weaning going on in Nebraska, producers are identifying animals to cull, and some are headed to market. Producers are securing feed options for winter. Our challenges right now is to get to corn stalks. We’ll have some corn stalks to graze in Nebraska, because but producers are trying to figure out how to get from now to corn stalks, and then secure feeds after corn stalks are fed."
"Producers should take opportunities to wean early, which takes the pressure off the cow and the grass or forage base," Rasby says. "If there were any cows you had marked down to cull at weaning, those would be the cows to target first.
"This is the time that individual cow records really come into play," he says. "Look at the last two to three years and see, based on comparable production measurements, like weaning weight, or 250-day adjusted weaning weight average. The cows that were in the bottom third for two out of those three years, they’re records tell you that the cows don’t really fit your production environment very well."
Next, look at age and condition. Mark cows that may not have very many more years of production left, or have bad udders, teeth or feet. Remember, you want the most productive animals to remain—this is the nucleus of the herd.
Tennessee cattleman, Nick Korn isn’t shy about pulling the cull card. "Any cows that give us trouble, we cull them right away. My wife and I are both in our 70s and we don’t want to fool with unruly cows," he says.
Korn culled 15 to 20 head from his 100-plus Angus-cross herd this spring, not knowing that a drought was in the wings. "I got rid of all of my 10 and 11-year-old cows—they were bringing a good price and we felt like we ought to cut back a little bit—course we had no idea that we were going to have a drought. Consequently, by cutting back all of our older cows, we’re still in pretty good shape. We rotate our pastures, so we are staying in good grass and we aren’t grazing our pastures too low that we can’t come back on a spot with in five or six weeks.
"We’re pretty strict," Korn adds. "If cows don’t raise a good calf, they don’t stay. We don’t keep a cow around and give her a second chance to get pregnant. If she misses, she goes."
"Usually we do not sell cull cows in the fall, because that’s when they are the cheapest," Korn adds. If we have an open cow, we’ll carry her into spring grazing corn stalks and wheat, and usually by spring they are in pretty good condition. When they sell, they more than pay for the cost of overwintering."
Is she bred? As early as you can after pulling the bulls from the herd, identify any non-pregnant cows, Rasby adds. "If you have any late-breds, you don’t want to cause any abortions, so wait about 40 days and preg check cows. In times of drought, you don’t want to feed expensive hay or feed to cows that don’t have a calf in them. So identify them as soon as possible and market them."
"This is what is difficult for cattle producers," Rasby explains. "They work so long and hard at putting together breed and breed combinations that fit their production area and now they have to potentially make some beef stocking decisions, but yet they want to maintain the nucleus of their cow herd."
"It’s not the first time that cattle producers have had to go through a drought," Rasby says. "How widespread it is—that is what makes this year different than droughts in the past. Our producers are pretty resilient and resourceful, so we’ll manage through this."
You have to be pretty careful how you come back to that grass resource. It depends on your area, but some grasses are on soils that fairly fragile. Like everything else, the though process is sequential, and you need to be cognizant of the fact that, depending on how severe the drought is, it make take more than one year to recover fully. That grass resources is the great resource for our cow-calf producers, and we can’t afford to damage it long-term.