Culling the Brahman Cow Herd

The goal of every beef cattle operation should be to have a cow produce a calf every year.  If she cannot do that, then she is costing you money and should be culled.  But yearly calf production should not be the only factor you consider when culling, others include physical defects, age, and disposition, just to name a few.

Culling cows can be both an easy and a hard operation to undertake at times, but it is essential to keeping your herd at a manageable and profitable level.  By determining how many keeper cows you want to run from year to year, you can then decide how many you need to cull each year to maintain your herd.  This management tool will come in very handy when factors such as drought come about and force culling down to fewer than the average number cows you would keep in a normal year.

Pregnancy status is the number one priority for culling cows.  If a cow doesn’t produce a calf, she should be culled immediately.  This would usually include replacement heifers that have been exposed to a bull, but do not become pregnant.  However, in the case of Brahman heifers, the timetable is a little different, since they don’t come into their first true estrus cycle or heat, until they are at least 18 months old.  If they are exposed to a bull at 18 to 19 months old and don’t breed, then you should keep them for another breeding season or until they are at least 27 months old and if they are still not bred by that time, then cull them.  At the same time, if you have defined calving seasons and a cow or two, calve late or out of your window, you should think about culling them as well, if you are culling deep; these cows could come up open or have a lightweight calf, but you could also try to breed them and then sell them to another operation that fits their calving schedule.

Udders are one of the most important parts of a cow, and a good reason to cull if they are not producing enough milk for the calf, or they limit consumption in any way.  A good udder should have four properly formed teats that are proportional to body size.  If they are pendulous or balloon shaped, not only will it be difficult for the calf to nurse, it will also cause lighter weaning weights.  Those cows that constantly produce calves with very low weaning weights due to bad udders or any other reason should also be culled.  These cows probably won’t improve over time, and their calves will consistently bring in less money.

Major defects that should influence culling include structural problems that can cause excessive wear and stress on joints and lead to chronic lameness.  If a cow can’t get around the pasture to graze, then it is likely that she will not become pregnant and even if she did, there is no guarantee that she would produce a quality calf or be able to nurse it.  Structural problems can be due to foot rot, laminitis, joint injury and fescue toxicosis.  And while it is not common in Brahman cattle, eye problems or early signs of cancer eye, which mainly affect white faced/non-pigmented cattle, still need to be monitored.  Disposition is also one of the most important traits to cull for, especially when the cattle are dangerous and could possibly injure both cattle and people. Bad dispositions can be passed on to calves genetically and they can also pick up bad habits from their dams during nursing.

Studies have shown that excitable cattle often sacrifice growth performance, have lower quality grades, and can produce dark cutter carcasses, which bring heavy discounts.

Finally, the reason most often by ranchers to cull cows is due to old age.  The best way to determine this is to inspect their teeth for wear.  Teeth will wear down with normal use over time, but a number of things can affect tooth wear, including coarse feeds and forages.  Those animals that have excessively worn or broken teeth, also known as “Smooth-mouthed” (usually older cows) will not be able to graze adequately and will have a hard time consuming adequate quantities of feed or forage.  Besides old age, cows can lose teeth from other cows kicking them in the mouth or from gum disease or infection.  As a result these cows will have a lower body condition score and produce less milk for their calves.  It is important to inspect cows teeth yearly and use this tool to help determine which cows to cull.

Cull cattle supply about 15 to 20% of the total U.S. beef production every year.  Because of this, it is critical to effectively market your culls at the right time of the year and try to capture as much salvage value out of each animal as possible.  As a general rule of thumb, you need to make sure that the animal can still load in the trailer and not be considered a downer once you reach the sell barn, they will turn you way every time.  With this being the case, you don’t want to get rid of an old cow that is still producing quality calves, but at the same time you have to cull her before she starts to break down.  Most producers end up selling their culls during the peak marketing period of October and November, only to receive low prices because of the market becoming flooded.  But if you sold them earlier, say mid August into September, it is possible that you could receive 10% more per pound, due to the seasonal price difference.  You may also want to hold on to any culls that could stand to have some weight put on them and improve their body condition, but only if the market is not going down.  However, the more time and maintenance you invest in the cow may not be realized if you wait too long to sell her.  In general, keep an eye on your local markets to determine when the best time to sell your culls would be.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rules.  There will be times when cows that have produced quality calves for years, suddenly don’t bred one year, or you could have an outstanding cow that produces heavy weaned calves with only three good teats.  These animals shouldn’t be culled for those reasons.  Instead take a look at all of the factors mentioned earlier and use them as your basis for culling cows.  Keep good records on every cow to help you determine if they are still efficient producers and deserve to stay in the herd.  Cow efficiency is an important aspect that defines a profitable operation and the best way to accomplish this is to cull your cattle effectively.  Quality culling tactics will not only improve the quality of your calf crop, it will also increase your numbers and enhance your bottom line.