by: Clay Wright
Noble Foundation

A railroad claims official once said that trains have done more harm to the genetic quality of America's cow herds than anything else. He said every cow that ever met her doom on a rural track was invariably the best, most productive cow in the plaintiff's herd. Often, the deceased cow was "nursing twins and close to calving again" just before her demise. It makes you wonder how much better our industry would be today if it hadn't been for this accidental culling over the last century and a half. I guess we're still making up for this lost genetic ground in our breeding and selection programs.

Seriously, commercial cow-calf producers often ask about culling protocols for their cow herds. Selection is the process of deciding which animals stay in the herd another year and is based on defined criteria for reproduction, functionality and production within the herd. Culling is simply passing out the pink slips or removing cows that no longer have a place in an operation. Routine criteria vary from ranch to ranch, depending on producers' goals and objectives, and from year to year, depending on economic factors.

One culling criterion that I consider etched in stone addresses the most important economic trait in a cow herd: reproduction (fertility). Assuming you have given the cow an adequate environment (such as for health, reproduction and nutrition), you should demand that she conceive a calf every 365 days. If she is open at pregnancy check, she should be culled. The only decision to be made is when to sell her.

Then there are those cows that are pregnant, but failed to raise a calf to weaning. Most of the time, these calves die within 14 days of birth. From a long-term, hard-nosed production perspective, this loss usually reflects a lack of mothering ability, and these cows should be removed. At certain points in the cattle cycle, agricultural economists may suggest that you relax this criterion, especially for those cows that are historically good producers and are bred to calve early in the next calving season. If you do allow any of these cows to stay in the herd, they should be identified and given only one reprieve. Note: If calf losses are excessive, you should evaluate your management practices for potential problems.

Another culling criterion I consider imperative is poor disposition, a subjective evaluation. For some, a couple of crazy cows just make things more interesting. For my money, a cow not only has to breed on schedule, but also has to act civilly. In any situation, a wild animal can harm the attitude of the herd around her and can hurt herself, other cattle or the working crew. When you have the chance to get her in a trailer, ship her.

At culling time, cows should be examined for functionality. As a rule of thumb, if a physical problem interferes with a cow's production potential, she should be culled. Permanent lameness, bad udders, so-called hardware disease and blindness are just a few of these problems. Cow age is in this category. Badly worn or missing teeth can reduce a cow's production and even her ability to survive. Longevity in a cow herd is a desirable trait, but consider culling a cow while she still has acceptable salvage value.

Besides culling for reproduction and functionality, many operations have set production criteria for their cows. The most common culling criterion in these herds is based on the weaning weight of the calves. Weaning weight is a measure of mothering ability of the cow and growth potential of the calf. Actual weaning weights for all calves can be standardized to 205 days of age and adjusted for the age of the dam. The adjusted 205-day weight of each calf is compared with the average weight of its sex and contemporary group. This ratio yields a relative comparison of production between cows for that calf crop. Using adjusted 205s, a producer can identify cows with high, average and low production capability, and make accurate culling decisions on cow performance.

Whether you call it culling or selection, the result should be the same. The cows that meet your criteria get to stay. Those that don't, go to town.

And whatever you do, keep the railroad right-of-way fences mended.


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