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Herd Management: To Keep or Cull During a Drought?

With drought conditions impacting much of the Upper Midwest and Dakotas, management practices on the cow/calf operation are being adjusted to compensate for the shortage of forage and other resources. One of the adjustments started back in May for some producers was choosing to reduce herd size or purchasing more feed to make it through the summer and into winter. Depending on the going price for cattle, feed price and location, this choice varied from producer to producer. My colleague compares those options in Buying feed or selling the herd? That is the struggle.

Things to Consider

As we get near the end of August and conditions have improved some but have not reversed, producers face the decision on how to manage tackle weaning and prepare for next spring. Early weaning has been implemented in many cases to save pasture yet this fall. No to keep and feed or sell weaned calves is the next big decision in the near future. Weaned heifer calves and bred heifers become a particular concern as replacement female programs may not follow the traditional system this year if feed is in short supply to get through the winter. Ask yourself these questions: can I afford not to develop replacement heifers for next year? Should I sell heifer calves and buy back bred heifers or cows? Heifers or cows; which will make best use of feed resources available? Adding up the dollars and cents will ultimately be the best way to make this decision.

While recent rains may delay some of these decisions, applying some intensive selection and management can assist you in keeping the “right” females this year, and sell the rest to ultimately improve the herd. These can be a key step to success, regardless if you are experiencing a drought or even during normal years.

Replacement Heifers

  • Keep the oldest heifers and feed the youngest.
  • Females born earlier in the calving season are more likely to reach puberty and breed earlier. Furthermore, by breeding early their first year, they are more likely to breed back early each year, thus, returning more dollars to the operation due to larger calves each weaning.
  • Cull any heifers from cows you have or will likely cull.
  • Some traits can pass on more than others. Disposition and udder quality being some of those more highly heritable traits. Therefore, if her mom caused you trouble before she paid herself off on the ranch, it’s likely that any daughters kept as replacements may follow in the same path.
  • Feed to 55% of mature body weight by breeding.
  • The debate to feed to 65% vs. 55% mature body weight can vary from operation to operation. Yet, when feed resources are short, planning to develop them only to 55% will likely get you farther down the road. Yes, less heifers will breed during the designated time, but more emphasis would be placed on heifers that can get bred on the resources they have. Ultimately, they maintain themselves on less resources and saves the farm money on feed costs by the time they enter the mature cow herd.

Bred Heifers

  • Shorten the breeding season.
  • Second to feed costs, fertility is a large component driving profitability on the ranch. Placing emphasis on fertility by shortening the breeding season, or only keeping heifers that breed early in the season is one way to separate the pack, so to speak. These females that breed early are more likely to remain in the herd longer than counterparts that conceive on their second or third cycles.
  • Eliminate poor doers.
  • Heifers that aren’t keeping up with the pack, or are taking in extra feed compared to the rest, may need to be eliminated. Find heifers that are ahead of the game on less resources and are bred early, and have greater chances to stick around until spring.
  • Feed to 85% of mature body weight by calving.
  • Anything that is hard doing get rid of, before she becomes a 2-year old. If she is struggling to keep up with the pack as a yearling, her 2nd calving experience will likely require extra feed inputs also.

Mature Cows

  • Eliminate any aged cows that will need extra feed this winter.
  • Market them early before the flood of cull cows comes to town or feed them through the winter on cheaper feedstuffs, while adding white fat to create a more marketable product come early New Year.
  • Composition.
  • Bad feet, legs, udder, teeth, lumps will make it hard for cows to successfully make it through the winter. Furthermore, come calving time these problems will not get better and make for more sleepless nights.
  • Compare cow size to weaning weight.
  • If cows are not weaning calves near 40% of their mature body weight, they may need to be evaluated before staying around. Also, if a cow has been late calving consistently and also weaned a light calf, it’s likely that she is not covering her costs and her spot could be replaced with a more profitable female.

The Bottom Line

Each operation is unique and will change from year to year. However, drought forces unexpected changes so it’s critical to have a strategy to keep only the “right” females that will benefit the operation. Always consult your management team of lenders, nutrition and health professionals and SDSU Extension specialists to assist you in making the best decision for short and long term plans of the operation.

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