While welcome rains have fallen over Alabama in spurts during recent weeks, the state is still in an official moisture deficit. Recent Drought Monitor information indicates nearly 60 percent of the state is still “abnormally dry.”
Producers battled severe drought during the later months of 2016. Some were forced to reduce herd size for economical reasons only, while others struggled with the ability to properly feed and water a herd in the extreme drought.
Alabama Extension Animal Science and Forage Specialist, Dr. Lisa Kriese-Anderson, shares culling strategies with producers as they prepare to enter the summer months.
“These culling strategies are not just specific to drought situations,” Kriese-Anderson said. “These strategies are applicable in operation downsizing situations as well as other life events that may require herd downsizing.”
At a minimum, Kriese-Anderson suggests two acres of pasture per cow-calf unit. On a more conservative side, plan for 2.5 – 3 acres per cow-calf unit.
Making Easy Culling Decisions
Kriese-Anderson said there are some difficult decisions to make when decreasing herd numbers, but some decisions are cut and dry.
The first easy way to cull cows is to pregnancy check the herd. If a cow is not pregnant at a specified point during the controlled breeding season—take them to market.
While the veterinarian is pregnancy checking the cows, producers can evaluate the cow’s teeth. To evaluate teeth, open the cow’s mouth and check for eight fully intact incisors. Broken or missing teeth prevent cattle from consuming the correct amounts of forage to produce milk and ensure weight gain.
Evaluating the eyes is another easy checkpoint when making culling decisions. While the cow is in the chute, check eyes for cancer. Eye cancers can start as a very small spot—almost wart-like—and grow rapidly. If caught early enough, veterinarians can take steps to remedy the cancer before it becomes a problem.
Kriese-Anderson said waiting too long to market a cow with cancer eye is the number one reason for carcass condemnations.
Utter evaluation is another option for producers who need to decrease herd size.
“This can be done when the animal calves,” Kriese-Anderson said. “Producers want udders high and tight to the body, and small, equally spaced teats.”
Producers can also evaluate feet and legs. Immediately place chronically lame cows on the cull list.
Begin with the toes. Look for claws that:
- Point forward
- Are symmetrical in size
- Are free of cracks
- No growths or corns between claws
As producers look at legs and hips, it is important to avoid cows that are:
- Pigeon toed
One important characteristic to consider is cattle disposition. Kriese-Anderson said it becomes increasingly difficult to work cattle with bad dispositions. Other members of the herd can pick up on and ultimately display similar disposition issues. Cows with bad dispositions generally pass it on to their calves.
Body Condition Scoring
Kriese-Anderson said producers should also take cattle records into consideration when making culling decisions. Find an article on cattle records here.
Beyond record-keeping, she said some producers may have to resort to using the body condition score.
“Obese cows are likely not doing a good job raising their calves,” she said. “Either they’ve been open, or they are not putting the nutrition they’re consuming into their milk. These cows may be good candidates to go on the truck.”
In the same way, consider culling very thin cows. Cows with more than four or five ribs showing may be old, or it may be a sign of a nutrition issue.
If forage or feeding supplies are in short supply, consider weaning calves early. Calves can be weaned effectively at three months of age. This reduces nutritional needs of cows and can potentially help with body condition scoring.
Culling Bull Battery or Replacements
When producers have culled all they can based on records and physical characteristics, Kriese-Anderson said they culling the entire bull battery in order to keep cows is an option.
Bulls need an acre to an acre and a half to maintain their health. In the Southeast, there are many good bulls for sale every year. In the event that producers must cull bulls, there will be more available for sale.
Kriese-Anderson also said if producers are in dire straights, they may consider selling the year’s replacement heifers or any feeder steers that may have been held back.
“If you cannot sell your herd genetics and sources of forages and feed are scarce, producers can think about contract grazing in other states,” she said. “Cows would be shipped to another location in the country not affected by drought.”
Producers would pay another producer for grazing their cattle until drought conditions dissipate in Alabama and pasture conditions improve.
For more information on culling, view the Alabama Beef Systems webinar on culling here. You may also find more detailed information on using cattle records to cull here.
Contact your local Extension office for assistance in the field. They should be able to connect you with an Extension beef or forage specialist.