Determining How Long to Keep Older Cattle in Your Herd

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One of the trickiest decisions a farmer has to make is keeping older cattle in their herd. How long should you keep older cattle?

Older cattle are usually kept to various ages depending on their purpose and usefulness. Generally, dairy cows can live up to 20 years, with milk production declining after about four to six years. In cow-calf operations, beef cows can live up to 20 years, but reproduction begins to decline at around 10 years. Beef feeders are sent to slaughter when they reach an average weight of 1,200 pounds, at about 18 months. For miniature cattle, their usefulness would come down to the cow’s purpose—productivity or amusement.

When a farmer culls too often, he or she may spend too much on animal replacements. Culling not often enough means that lower-producing cows are kept in the herd too long and eat up costly feed. A farmer needs to ask this question when facing the issue of culling an aged cow. “Is this cow producing more income for me than what I’m putting into her?” Or, “Is she costing me more compared to what she’s producing?” 

It’s important to keep good records. Farmers who keep good production and health records find those record-keeping tools essential when determining how long to keep older cattle in their herd. 

The reasons for keeping or culling a cow vary but ultimately, it depends on that cow’s usefulness and health (or projected health) and external factors like the current asking price for cull cows.

Culling cattle also factors into your whole-farm income. “Cull sales equate to 15 to 20 percent of [beef] cow herd income, so don’t overlook this opportunity to market high-value cull cows at the right time,” according to a Michigan State University Extension publication. 

Here’s a rundown of reasons for knowing when to cull older cows in dairy, beef, and miniature cattle herds.

When to Cull Dairy Cows

Dairy cows are usually kept in a herd as long as they are profitable. Many factors affect the decision to cull, but dairy cows are usually culled when their milk production decreases, their reproduction starts to lag, or they cost the farmer in other ways. Additionally, when milk prices decline, dairy cow culling generally increases because the margin for profit is lower. 

By checking a middle-aged cow’s productivity and health records over three or four years, farmers can determine a cow’s usefulness and health. 

According to Michigan State University, good record-keeping can answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of calf has the cow produced over the past few years? 
  2. What did they weigh at weaning? 
  3. Did the dam supply 100 percent of its calf’s milk, or did the calf have to steal from other cows?
  4. How has their health been? 
  5. What was their body type and overall condition?

They further report that; “Each year, it’s helpful to record for each calf how they performed. Which calves make up the bottom 20 percent of the calf crop? … The cows to cull are those that produce calves that don’t perform as well… If this cow produced calves at the lower end of the list for two years in a row, she ought to be on your cull list.“

Of the following concerns, a middle-aged cow should have at least one or more conditions before culling. 

Determining the Usefulness of a Dairy Cow

The usefulness of a dairy cow in the herd depends on its positive economic contributions, like good milk production, efficient breeding rate, and lower cost to keep.

  • Milk production—The average dairy cow produces around eight gallons of milk per day. Culling cows too early represents an economic loss. 
  • Fertility—Dairy cows should be bred back within 45 to 60 days after calving, with a pregnancy check 30 days after breeding. If an older cow is taking too long to breed back, consider culling.
  • Ill-tempered disposition—Each farmer knows his or her definition for this.
  • Physical attention—Is this particular cow taking too much of my time during calving or when I need to help its calf to nurse (rare but a real hassle)? 

Health Factors That Affect Culling Decisions

Several health factors can affect the decision to cull a dairy cow. Farmers need to examine a cow’s physical health, including any diseases or detrimental living conditions.

  • Disease—Diseased cattle rarely come back to total capacity. Time spent on disease prevention is less expensive than treating disease. 
  • Housing—Because of the concrete and getting in and out of the stalls, the bodies of dairy animals housed in free-stall barns tend to break down faster when compared to grazing animals.
  • Physical problems—Prevent as many physical problems as possible to lessen involuntary culling. Cows 10 years and older who lose teeth may eat less and lose weight. Examine udders after calving. Examine the feet and legs of your cows. Cows with weaker feet and legs will get up to feed less often, be less able to stand for breeding should a bull be in the herd, and be less able to stand to nurse a calf.

External Factors That Affect Culling Older Cows

Several external factors affect whether to send a dairy cow to market. These include:

  • Size of the herd—Deciding to decrease, maintain, or increase the herd affects how many cows you cull.
  • Costs of keeping an older cow—These costs include housing, feed, vet costs, and barn space that healthier cows might need. But, feeding a cull cow may increase the price it brings when sold.
  • Demand for milk—Culling decreases when milk prices are high.
  • Feed price—Culling increases when feed prices are high.
  • Cost and availability of replacement heifers—If replacement heifer prices are high, it might be better to keep more cows in your milk production line.
  • Markets—Watch the yearly cattle markets to learn the best time to cull cows.
  • Cash flow and risk management—What will buying or selling cattle mean to your overall income and cash flow? What risks are involved?
  • Feeding cull cows—The Ohio Dairy Industry Resources Center research indicates that “…additional feeding of market cull cows can increase the body condition score, carcass value, and carcass characteristics. A 1997 study at Colorado State University revealed that average daily gain in market cows was less efficient for the first 14 days on feed; however, average daily gains increased consistently from 28 to 56 days in market dairy and beef cows. … Market cull cows with moderate body conditions yield higher quality carcasses that can be further processed into boneless primal cuts. It is a common misconception that cull cows are used solely for ground beef. Because approximately 33% of beef production in the U.S. is from market dairy cows, beef from these animals is often used as entrée items in family steakhouses, on airline meals, and in sliced beef sandwiches in fast food restaurants.”

How long to keep older cattle (1)

How Long Should You Keep Beef Cattle?

Beef cows are generally kept in a herd longer than beef bulls. Cows can often continue to calve every year for up to 10 or 12 years. Bulls are typically kept for about six years until their ability to breed cows successfully starts to decline. Additional health issues with specific cows or bulls will affect how long they stay in a herd because the more significant health issues, or issues among offspring, impacts their usefulness to the farmer. 

North Dakota State University Extension research shows “…an average beef cow cull rate of 13.2 percent or 6 or 7 of every 50 cows. Choosing those animals wisely can help improve your herd.” Culling cows have an impact on a farm’s bottom line. Jane Parish, Mississippi State University Extension beef cattle specialist, writes, “Cull-cow receipts generally account for 15-20% of gross income in beef cow-calf operations. 

How to Determine the Usefulness of Beef Cattle

The usefulness of beef cattle centers around their ability to rebreed efficiently.

  • Age—Rebreeding starts to drop off in cows in cow-calf operations at about ages eight to 10. This declines even further between ages 10 and 12. If a cow has no health problems at age 12, consider culling her before she develops issues.

The Health of Beef Cattle Affects Early Culling

Deciding to cull an older beef cow depends on its fertility, health, calf replacement efficiency, and disposition.

  • Fertility—Accuracy in pregnancy checks is essential. Check as soon after breeding as possible using ultrasound (on a 30- to 35-day old fetus) or rectal palpaters (on a fetus between 45 and 60 days). You do not want to sell a pregnant cow.
  • Unsound physical features—Cull cows with less-than-optimal udders, teats, feet, and legs. Check the mouths of older cows.
  • Nasty disposition—Each farmer has their own level of tolerance. 
  • Calf placement—Which cows constantly produce calves that rank at the bottom of your herd? Cull these, if possible.

External Factors That Affect the Herd’s Age

The projected availability of food is an essential external factor when deciding to cull beef cattle.

  • Availability of food—Do I have enough acreage for pasturing or making hay? Is a drought expected? Are any grain shortages expected? If so, consider culling cows before everyone else does.

Miniature Cattle: How Old To Keep Them

Miniature cattle breeds generally live for 20 to 25 years. The importance of usefulness, health, and market factors stated earlier for other bovines would still apply, at a lower rate.

According to Rural Living Today, “Midsize miniature cows measure from 42 to 48 inches at the hip. Standard miniature cows range from 36 to 42 inches. Micro-miniature cows are all less than 36 inches in height at the hip. So generally, miniature cattle breeds range anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 the size of normal cattle.”

Miniature breeds need up to one acre per cow. They’re more docile than full-sized cows, which makes them easier to handle. Their housing and confinement (including fencing) costs are less. And they hurt less when they tramp on your foot!

Usefulness: The Purpose of Miniature Cattle

Miniature cattle usefulness lies in the eye of the beholder. If a miniature cow is providing milk, meat, or education per the owner, it would be considered valuable.

  • Milk—The milk breeds produce more manageable amounts of milk for a family. Miniature milk producers give 2 to 4 gallons per day while full-sized cows produce, on average, six to 10 gallons of milk per day. 
  • Meat—Miniatures raised for beef provide smaller cuts of meat, suitable for those who want smaller portion sizes. A 500- to 700-pound miniature cow can provide a family of four with beef for four to six months.
  • Ag-tourism and education—Most breeds do well in ag-tourism and for educational purposes.
  • Less feed—Compared to a full-sized cow, miniatures need 1/3 the amount of feed.

Health Concerns of Miniature Cattle

The most alarming health concerns of miniature cattle center around inbreeding.

  • Inbreeding—This is discouraged because it increases genetic abnormalities, among other things.
  • Bulldog gene—This genetic defect causes aborted fetuses (around seven months of gestation) with shortened vertebras and large heads.

Related Questions

How long should you keep a herd bull?
Bulls can be of service in a herd for an average of four to five years. Bulls can remain in service up to 10 to 12 years of age but don’t usually because of health problems. Bulls produce semen at about one year of age. Their ability to reproduce declines with age, which means that more bulls are needed for a herd of cows as the bull’s age

How much does it cost to cull a cow?
Production animals become market animals when they no longer produce more income than they’re costing. Generally, the cost of culling a beef cow ranges from $200 to $400 per head. Dairy cow culling costs range from $500 to $1,000 per cow. Costs of culling can include the animal replacement, lost production, transportation, and sale fees.

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Gail Strock

As a correspondent for Lancaster Farming for 12 years, Gail covered many stories about farm families, animals, and events. She has since been published in several Chicken Soup for the Soul books and regional magazines and edited for Penn State. She now writes and edits for clients in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. To view her résumé, visit Linkedin.com/in/gstrock.

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