With feed expensive and supplies tight, more cows are ‘heading to town

Your culling criteria will depend on your operation — and your cows

Alberta cattle producers may need to make some tough choices when it comes to culling this fall and winter.

“There are a number of reasons for culling, and they all relate to profitability,” said provincial business management specialist Ted Nibourg.

“If the herd isn’t profitable, if the cows aren’t making you money, it might be time to send them to town.”

Over the past year and a half, feed costs have largely been driving the decision to cull on Alberta farms, Nibourg said in a webinar earlier this month.

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“Eight cents a pound for hay is about the breakeven for profitability for a cow herd in this province, and we certainly saw hay prices higher than that last year,” he said. “It’s definitely affected the bottom line of a lot of producers.”

And that’s been reflected in the diminishing size of Alberta’s cow herd over the past year. Between January 2018 and January 2019, cow numbers dropped 1.4 per cent, while replacement heifer numbers dropped by 2.3 per cent. That decline is even more pronounced in the recent release of July 1 numbers, with cow numbers down 2.8 per cent from the previous July and replacement heifer numbers down by nearly seven per cent.

“That tells me that we’re not in the expansion phase — we’re in the contraction phase,” Nibourg said. “That’s going to have some bearing on feed costs. If the demand is down and supply is static, price will usually go down with it.”

Feed expenses often account for two-thirds of production costs, and so culling is a way to drop those costs even further and stretch out the feed supply, said provincial livestock extension specialist Andrea Hanson.

But it needs to be done strategically.

“If you’ve decided you need to reduce your herd size this fall to match your feed supply, developing a culling strategy would be wise,” said Hanson, who also spoke in the webinar.

Open cows

Culling the open cows — “those freeloaders” — is a given.

Andrea Hanson.
photo: Supplied

“In a commercial cattle operation, the pounds of calf weaned to the cows exposed to the bull are the benchmark,” she said. “Any cow that is not pulling her weight by raising a calf needs to be culled so she isn’t eating up the profits of that operation.”

So the first step is pregnancy-checking the herd, and depending on when the bull was turned out with the cows, “you may be able to check as soon as now.”

“Vets who use ultrasounds can usually detect a pregnancy earlier than doing manual palpitations, which should be able to be done as soon as 40 days,” said Hanson, adding the minimum number of days depends on the veterinarian’s experience and comfort level.

“Knowing sooner than later gives you the most flexibility when it comes to market decisions.”

Preg-checking and then selling soon after means that the cows aren’t eating any additional feed, but you might be selling into low fall prices.

“Culling cows is impacted by price seasonality, just like any other marketing decision,” Nibourg said. “D1 and D2 prices typically drop from about the first part of September to mid-November. That drop averages about 15 per cent.

“On the plus side, prices tend to increase from mid-November to about the end of March, and that increase averages about 27 per cent.”

Producers who can avoid selling into that low fall market could also add additional weight to the open cows they plan to sell in the spring.

“Open cows don’t require the same level of nutrition as their pregnant counterparts, so often, you can utilize cheaper alternative feeds to add that weight,” Hanson said. “This could be an important step if the cows are thinner and you want to put some extra weight on them.”

In that case, open cows should also be separated from the rest of the herd and fed differently, she added.

G.O.L.D. management indicators

But the economics of deciding when to cull and which cows to send comes down to each operation and, ultimately, each cow. Age is a consideration, as is length of calving and the growth of the calves.

“For any commercial cattle producer, profitability of the operation depends on the ‘G.O.L.D.’ management indicators,” Hanson said.

In this common benchmarking system, G is for growth (measured as a percentage of pounds weaned per mature cow weight), O is for the open rate of cows. L is for the length of the calving season, and D is for the death loss of calves.

The benchmark target for growth is 43 per cent or better, the open cow rate should be less than seven per cent, the length of calving should be 63 days or less, and the death loss should be less than seven per cent.

Beyond that, Hanson prioritizes her culling order by looking at things such as disposition, health issues, conformation, performance, vigour and age.

“If further culling is needed, there are a number of criteria to choose from, and developing a prioritized list will ensure a strategic process is followed,” she said.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to determining the order, she added.

“This is the way I would prioritize culling standards, but someone else might have a completely different list in a different order or with different criteria,” she said.

“There’s no right or wrong. It just depends on your objectives.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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