Selecting and Culling for Efficient Cows

One of the most important decisions in a cow-calf operation is the selection of heifers to retain as replacements. Whether selection is at weaning or some time later, picking the keepers will impact the future profitability of your cowherd. In years when calves are selling for high prices, it is difficult to rationalize keeping many heifers. However, a year in which calf prices are low is a good time to both retain a number of heifers and consider culling deep into the cowherd.

Cows are usually culled due to functional reasons: they are open, have bad feet, bad udders, poor condition or a "disagreeable" temperament. Cattlemen need to look harder at the efficiency of their cows and uniformity of the herd. In most herds, there is great variation in type and size of cows. It is estimated that 70% or more of the costs in calf production are in the feed required just for maintenance of the cowherd. Having efficient cows is critical to the financial success of a cow-calf operation. Running efficient, easy-keeping cows would seem a logical approach to keep input costs down.

When was the last time you weighed your cows? Most cattlemen underestimate the mature weight of their cows. Generally, bigger cows cost more to maintain … they have higher feed requirements and require more supplementation, and so simply cost more. Take a look at the larger cows in your herd and ask these three questions:

  1. Are they weaning the biggest calves?
  2. Are their calves big enough to offset the additional feed required for that cow?
  3. Do these calves sell for a significant premium over lighter calves in the herd?

One study at North Dakota State University found that bigger cows (1600lbs) not only weaned a much lower percentage of their body weight, but in fact weaned lighter calves than smaller (1200 lb) cows. An interesting study by John Lawrence at Iowa State showed that calves from lowest cost cows actually provided a higher feedlot return.

Economies of scale are a solution to reducing costs per cow and can lead to greater profitability. So consider how many more 1200 lb cows you could keep with the same amount of feed, if you had fewer 1600 lb cows.

When you consider the importance of mature cow size to economic productivity, selecting efficient, moderate sized replacements can be paramount to the success of a cowherd. Producing superior replacement heifers requires a specialized breeding program, which may not be practical on many cow-calf operations. A good alternative is to source heifers from breeders who specialize in their production. There are herds in Ontario that are in the business of producing maternal line heifers. For many producers, especially those with smaller herds, obtaining replacement females from these herds is the simplest and most cost effective means of selecting replacements for their herd.

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