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When Do I Cull a Cow From My Cow-Calf Herd?

Authors as Published

Peter Callan (, Extension Agent, Farm Business Management, Northern District

Culling decisions can significantly impact the bottom line for cow-calf producers.  Many producers are not sure when they should cull a cow from their herds.  Disposition, reproductive rate, feed costs, poor performance, lameness and undesirable udder traits are the important factors in making the decision to cull a cow from the herd.

As a former dairy farmer, I feel that animals with undesirable dispositions (high strung, easily excitable) are dangerous and should be immediately culled.  These animals can easily cause injury to people and animals.  Is it worth it for the owner and/or employees to risk getting injured by keeping this animal in the herd?  Disposition is a heritable trait!  Animals who do not respect electric and/or permanent fences can be a “major head ache” because they are constantly breaking out of pastures.  These animals consume significant amounts of unproductive time repairing fences and chasing the animals to get them back into the pasture.  The bottom line is that these animals should be culled ASAP from the herd.

One of the most important factors that impact the profitability in a cow calf operation is reproductive rate.  A productive cow is expected to produce a calf at least once a year.  Open (not pregnant) cows are a drain on resources.  They consume feed, forage, and other resources without producing a marketable calf to contribute to expense payments.  Cows that calve outside of a controlled calving season are also potential culls, particularly when feed and forage supplies are running short.  Late calving cows should be examined closely as well, because they have less opportunity to breed back to stay within a controlled breeding season.

Farm management economists have estimated that feed costs are approximately $400/cow/year. Cows that are open at the end of the breeding season should be at the top of the cull list.  Many producers have taken the position that “Well, if a cow does not get bred this year, I will keep her for another year and then see if we can get her bred.  If I can not get her bred next year, then I will sell her.”  Can a producer afford to spend $400 to feed an open cow for a year in hopes that the cow will get pregnant the following year? 

Cows exhibiting poor calf performance (bottom one-third of the herd for calf 205-day adjusted weaning weights) over the first and second calving seasons generally do not significantly improve performance in future calving seasons (third and subsequent calving seasons).  Poor calf performance is usually the result of inferior genetics, poor dam milk production, calf sickness or a combination of these factors.  Cows transmitting inferior genetics to their calves should be at the top of the list of animals to be culled.  However, if poor calf performance is due in large part to calf sickness and not associated with the dam, then the dam may still have a productive future in the herd.  

Herd records help provide the owner with production data that the owner may use to make informed culling decisions.  Without production records, culling decisions are based on the owner’s memory of the dam and conformation of the calf.  As a result, owners may be selling offspring from their most productive animals due to the lack of records.

Undesirable conformation characteristics can lead to culling an animal.  Poor feet and legs (broken down pasterns and lack of foot angle) cause lameness and reduced mobility which leads to reduced grazing.  This results in decreased performance, decreased reproductive efficiency (less likely to show signs of estrus), weight loss and increased veterinary costs (foot rot).  An udder that has a level floor with normal sized teats makes it easy for the calf to nurse.   Cows with abnormal teat size (long balloon shaped teats) and/or a sloping udder floor tend to have pendulous udders.  This makes it harder for the calf to nurse which may result in lower milk consumption and lower weaning weights.

The timing of selling a cull cow is a marketing decision.  Cull cow price levels and seasonal trends should be taken into consideration when deciding when to sell cull cows.  When cull cow prices are trending upward, it is often advantageous to wait to market cows if the increasing values can cover added feed expenses from holding over cull cows.  If a producer has a thin cull cow and an abundant supply of grass, he may consider keeping the cow in order that the cow will gain weight and sell for a higher price.  Conversely, if a producer is short of feed, the cull cow should be marked immediately once the cow has been determined open.  When cull cow prices are trending downward, it is advisable to market cull cows in a timely manner before more money is spent on cow maintenance.

Cow culling strategies impact calf quality and quantity and profitability of the cow-calf operation.  By making informed culling decisions, producers will be able to maintain and enhance herd performance and increase herd profitability.


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.


Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.


April 13, 2010