BEEF Daily

9 Things To Consider Before Culling A Cow


Here are nine things to think about before hauling a cull cow to town.

Last weekend, my husband Tyler and I met with some friends and fellow ranchers for an end-of-the-summer grilling party. Over burgers and a few beers, we started talking about our cowherd. My husband mentioned that we had a few 15-year-old cows that we would likely cull this year. Our companions seemed shocked that we had several cows that old in our herd and said their oldest cows were just shy of a decade.

It got me thinking about the value of a cow in a cow-calf operation. How long should a cow stay in your herd? How long is too long? Of course, this depends on the animal and her performance – is she rebreeding on schedule every year? But there’s also a school of thought that the newer genetics available in younger females allows more herd progress. At any rate, I’m sure that U.S. producers overall are sporting a younger average age of herd these days due to the past several years of herd culling.

Ron Torell, former University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist now retired, wrote a few years back that most cows pay for themselves by age six. “Thus, the longer a cow stays in the herd, the more profitable she becomes. Her production may decline after 11 years of age, so the impact of longevity on the total cost of production must be recognized. But anything beyond those six years certainly has economic significance. This supports keeping a cow in the herd as long as she is productive and breeds back provided the added cost of winter feed for these aged cows is reasonable.”

With many ranchers weaning or preparing to wean their calves already this fall, preg-checking is right around the corner. Obviously, the pregnancy status of the cow is a top factor to consider in culling decisions, but what other factors should be considered before you decide to keep or cull a female?

Jane Parish, Mississippi State University Extension beef cattle specialist, offers her thoughts on the nine factors to consider in making a cow-culling decision.

These include:

1. Pregnancy status

2. Poor performance

3. Age

4. Mouth

5. Udder

6. Structural soundness

7. Health problems

8. Disposition

9. When to cull

Parish writes, “Cull-cow receipts generally account for 15-20% of gross income in beef cow-calf operations. Cow-culling strategies impact both calf quantity and quality and, when planned and implemented effectively, can greatly enhance the profitability of a cow-calf operation. Making informed culling decisions helps maintain a high level of herd performance. Even favorite cows should be subject to a systematic culling process. ‘Ole Bessie’ may be a sweetheart, but ask yourself how much you are willing to pay to keep her.”

How do you decide which cow stays and which goes? How old are your oldest cows? When will you preg-check and cull cows this year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


You might also like:

60+ Photos That Honor The Generations On The Ranch

8 Surprising Factors That Impact Auction Prices For Beef Calves

It's Not Voodoo! Veterinary Acupuncture Can Be A Helpful Tool For Beef Producers

Temple Grandin Explains Animal Welfare Problems With Beta-Agonists

Discuss this Blog Entry 19

Jim Oltjen (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

Good discussion. The basic economic principle is to replace the cow when her current profit per year falls below the expected lifetime profit divided by expected years in the herd of a replacement. There may be some adjustments to this based on Net Present Value of the future income (not so much now with low interest rates). But a bigger concern is whether one thinks the long term profitability of cow-calf production is increasing or decreasing. If increasing the average profit per year of the replacement is higher so culling the old cow earlier is better, and conversely when the future looks less bright, keep her longer.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

I had a old cowboy tell me once that when you have a cow in your herd that has been there a long time you want to give her a good long look. You can talk all you want to about improving the genetics of your herd but that old cow that has been with you for many years has proved she can survive and produce in your environment. Are you sure some of these new genetics can say the same thing. I am all for improving our herd but I always look real hard at heifers for replacements out of our older cows.

on Sep 25, 2013

Great discussion! I recently heard a presentation that suggested with use the term "market cow" vs. "cull cow" to improve the perception of the meat quality and move away from terms that the public may feel more comfortable hearing from us.

Nkpeter (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

Yes excellent suggestion. We need all the good positive messages we can develope in this highly competitive market

W.E. (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

Congratulations on having so many old cows! Longevity is the best indicator of successful genetics adapted to your environment and management. A twelve to fifteen-year-old cow has proven herself successful and adaptable. Cows that can rebreed and raise a calf each year are assets to the genetics of the herd, and in any given environment, these are heritable traits. So we select our bulls from cow families that survive and thrive in our environment over the long term. Putting those cows with high survivability together in a pedigree is actually a better predictor of profitability than any other trait. These old cows are more likely to pass along soundness, fertility, milking ability appropriate to the environment, performance in keeping with the management of the land, and adaptability to any extremes of weather they have endured.

Ron Lemenager (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

I agree that cow longevity can increase profitability, primarily by reducing the cost of heifer development. One caution that needs to be considered in this keep/cull strategy is that the mouths of the older cows need to be checked. Make sure these older, pregnant cows have teeth that can carry them through another year of grazing.

Delos Thompson,La. (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

My daughter has a 15 yr. old registered 2 time state champion jersey cow that I told her we needed to cull because she has not bred in 2 yrs. In the spring she talked me in to holding on to her till Sept. Strawberry had a beautiful heifer calf Sept 10th. Glad I listened to her, now we have more champion genetics that may have been lost.

on Sep 25, 2013

The high price of cull cows is a big factor for us. It doesn't cost much to replace cows that have problems. The amount of beef consumed as burger keeps increasing so the demand for cull cows keeps increasing as long as you have lots of cheap grass you can make good money from cull cows and make some rapid improvements in your cow herd at the same time

A Vega (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

I believe there are other factors to consider before culling a cow.
- one is the trend in the body condition of the cow; is it stable or diminishing?
- other is that the decision to cull a cow depends not only on the cow, but also on the current conditions at the ranch. Is it overstocked or the stocking rate is low due to previous increased culling because of drought?
- There may be also financial considerations, since culling means an immediate receipt of money versus producing a calf and selling it 18 months later. Can you wait for that money? Or do you need it right now?
- Other factors, already implied in one of the comments, is the expected market conditions, not only the expected price of calves and cull cows, but also the price and availability of replacement heifers.
So, as someone already said, in the end is an economic decision and, therefore the right question to ask is: If I keep this cow, would it increase my profit?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

I would add longevity to the other nine. Price relationship between market/cull cows and steers is a consideration. I do think moving to the term market instead of cull is a good idea. With sheep, old ewes at 20-40 cwt mean keeping the ewe is more likely to happen is she is expected to lamb again.

H. Kingdon (not verified)
on Sep 25, 2013

Each year we go through all of the a cow ages and is with calf year after year, when should she be culled? We sometimes separate these older cows and don't expose them to the bulls, wean their calves early and sell them open. Otherwise the cycle seems to continue on and on.. She may be missing a tooth or her body score is slipping, but she is with calf and calf prices are up.. It is always a dilemma at our house. Being open is almost always a "sell", however on young heifers exposed to foothill- the next year they should be fine and usually are. Keeping genetics with longevity is important as well as "new" genetics- we have some nine year old angus cows who are losing teeth grazing next to full mouthed 14 year old crossbreds. Also feet in the new angus genetics seem to an issue. So each year we struggle with this issue and we appreciate this article as we realize others do as well.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 26, 2013

Having just finished our preg check for the year, we only had 6 out of 92 open two old cows each having already had 11 calves each, it was hard to let them go. In the final analysis being big cows they brought over $800 each and that is what I paid for them in 2003. As long as they are having babies they have a home, if they don't there must be a good logical explanation.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 26, 2013

Reading these comments, one that was mentioned a couple of times was about keeping a open cow. On our ranch they have to be bred to stay, period, no exceptions. Fertility is highly heritable as I understand. I think it is a big mistake for genetic reasons as well as profitability reasons to ever keep a open cow.

Doug (not verified)
on Sep 26, 2013

I have an aged cow I am going to market this fall, maybe. One of the reasons I have kept her around is she is the boss cow, top of the social order. I notice thant nothing much upsets her and so nothing much upsets the herd. I worry about losing that calming affect.

on Sep 27, 2013

Hi, Doug. I like it when your dimension and attention allow you to include cow personality and herd behavior in your culling considerations. I'm sure that kind of herdsmanship won't be making you lose money.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 30, 2013

We have kept an old dry "boss" cow as a babysitter for the last couple of years. She is 18 this year and basically lives in a 5 acre lot. Her calming attitude has helped with our weaned calves. The calves remain calm when first let out of the corral and my replacement heifers (the cow's first "class") are some of the calmest in the whole herd. I also let my bum calves in with her to take care of. This year's was an orphan who calmed down within a couple of hours of being with her. She is worth the extra feed costs for my peace of mind!

W.E. (not verified)
on Sep 26, 2013

Too many drought years have robbed our herd of some of its most productive genetics. Scared of being overstocked during severe droughts in 1999, 2002 and 2007, we sold most of our oldest cows, regardless of whether open or bred. We still regret losing many of them. Before and during the even more severe droughts of 2010 and 2012, we worked very hard to improve our management-intensive grazing techniques, water supply, shade areas and seasonal forage quality. We fed hay for one month during the worst of the 2012 drought, and we kept every cow and heifer that bred despite the drought. The herd is much better for that, with more well-adapted females going into a cow/heifer market that shows evidence of high demand for the foreseeable future.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

Personally I think if the cow is with calf every year and weans a calf that pays her feed bill year after year. Then she earns a spot in my cowherd. I do have the problem where my old cows really don't fit in with the rest of the herd. I took the farm over from my Dad ten years, and I have some 18 year old cows that have calved every year. But my Dad liked to have 1400-1500 pound cows, while I am breeding for 1100-1200 pound cows. So I have some really old big cows, but they still wean a calf big enough to buy their bills. So I keep them.

I have my cows calf in the fall, and one of my biggest concerns is getting the 1st calf heifers to rebred the next year. I really need to watch their Body Condition. But with all the extra care that I do give them. I still have a couple that don't rebred every year. Which can really put me in a pickle. While my older cows I don't need to worry about, because they do it year after year. When that old 18 year old cow finally comes open, I don't think twice about selling her. So I say if she is with calf and weans a nice calf keep her in the herd.

TexasLadyinCA (not verified)
on May 29, 2014

We use AI on all the herd, so we have 50-70% AI calves. There is no question that the younger cows have heavier calves. And then, as a cow ages, she often does not produce as big of a calf as she did when she was younger. This then makes for a big dilemma--do we cull her because we have others that produce more weight or do we keep her because she has been a consistent producer and her genetics are worth keeping--same genetics but a mama that isn't quite as capable.

We have kept a 14 year old cow that has had 12 calves. It seems she might be bred this year again. (She actually had two calves 11 months apart and didn't calve last year because I had a semen issue--2/3 of the cows bred with that particular semen miscarried). If she is not bred, she will go down the road. However, I don't really think I can replace those genetics that breed every year and bring back a calf every year. Her daughters are worth much more than daughters from a cow that got culled at 6 or 7 or 8 (just when she is beginning to pay back her costs). And actually her sons are better for my environment because SHE kept producing all that time. So either way, even if her son isn't as big at weaning, he will produce his mama.

And we always ask ourselves if we want cows that are guaranteed to produce a calf every year or cows that grow big calves? We'd like both, but an open cow is costly--although she pays for herself by being sold, she doesn't pay the cost of her replacement. But a cow producing yearly keeps paying her way. And her daughters and son's daughter do the same.

I too have cows that will breed year 1 on time, but they fail to breed on time year 2, 3 or even 4, and I cull them first. A young cow that can't bring home a calf on time is worth far less than an old cow that has brought home calves on time for 12 years. And her genetics are far less likely to be kept even she I breed her to the son of the 14 year old cow. We don't think she can be trusted like one that keeps producing on through age 8 or more.

We're going to shorten our calving season to 60 days cutting off every cow that isn't in that 60 day season. Since we test our cows at 30 days AI, we know which ones will produce AI calves. And then we test the remainder to see when they will calve, so it is easy for us to know which ones will calve within 60 days.

We're considering shortening our calving season to 45 days--one AI, two bull breedings, and if they are not in that group, they are going away. We find that being able to sell calves that are about the same age just works better. Even 45 days is more of a spread than we would like but it is do-able. In a 60 day cycle, comparing calves that are 4 months to calves that are 6 months is a big stretch, and we wean early. If they were 6 and 8 months, it wouldn't matter as much, but our situation requires us to wean early, so we need those calves to be born in a shorter gestation period. If we cull those that don't want to calve in that period, eventually we will have heifers and cows that want to calve as soon as they can, and in the long run, we feel this will be better for our operation.

Please or Register to post comments.

What's BEEF Daily?

BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×