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Cull Cow Considerations

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Like many things in the world right now, the annual costs of maintaining a beef cow is much higher than normal. Sources indicate it takes at least $750 per year for most cow/calf operations to “keep a cow.” 

This number may seem ridiculously high; however, once the many expenses required to maintain her such as feed, equipment, labor, vet expenses, etc. is considered, costs can add up quickly. Producers should consider the elevated impacts of decision-making for culling cows this year. While the market for feeder cattle may be out of producers’ control, the decisions made within cowherds are controllable.

Impactful decisions

Most cow/calf producers (including myself) are probably guilty of keeping one of their favorite cows for “one more year” after she comes up open. Most times, these decisions are made because of sentimental reasons. Many of these operations also have cows 13 plus years old and even though they are still productive, they are starting to show signs of aging.

These decisions can be impactful when studied from a business perspective. Receipts from cull cows make up about 15 to 20 percent of gross income for cow/calf operations; however, the costs of maintaining a nonproductive cow can be the real difference maker. Culling decisions directly affect the quantity and quality of calf production and, ultimately, influence profitability.

The truth is, putting cows on the truck with sentimental attachments and/or have been some of our most productive herd members in the past is hard. But knowing when it’s time to make these tough decisions can be very impactful to genetic progress and producers’ bottom line. 

How do producers know when? With profitability in mind, here are a few key things to consider when developing a systematic process for culling cows all members of the herd should be exposed to.

Pregnancy status 

Pregnancy status is probably the most obvious factor when determining whether to keep a cow or not. It’s recommended producers determine how long they want their breeding and calving periods to last.

Forty-five to 60 days is usually ideal. It is recommended to cull cows that aren’t pregnant after the 45 to 60 day timeframe. 

If she’s not producing a calf, she is costing hundreds of dollars per year to keep her around. It’s important to ask the question, how much are producers willing to pay to keep an open cow?

Structural soundness

Many producers in Wyoming have high expectations for cows to graze and perform in harsh, vast environments. Cows remaining sound enough on their feet to maintain body condition, calve and rebreed every year is imperative.  

Structure issues tend to only get worse with time and eventually will catch up with them. Identifying structure problems early should always be a priority.

Body condition

Body condition is a huge indicator of reproductive success. Cows lacking body condition have higher probabilities of being open cows. Additionally, thin cows have greater chances for calving difficulty.  

Even if thin cows are getting bred during the breeding season, it may be possible she is calving a few days later each year, her calf weights are declining and she will eventually fall out of the 365-day ideal calving window. 

Udder quality

Not only is milk production important for calf growth, but so is the structure and quality of the udder. It’s important to consider if her udder is still adequate to meet the needs of her calves going forward.  

Does she have four good productive udders with good teat attachments? Will her calves be able to easily access the milk they need? Selection for udder quality is a moderately heritable trait, so maintaining dams with good udder attachment should be included in the selection criteria.


The cow needs to have enough teeth to graze and ruminate effectively. Aged cows may lose teeth or wear them down enough to negatively impact their ability to maintain the demands of pregnancy and her environment. A bad mouth can affect digestibility and intake, putting her at risk of being an open cow.


It always seems the meanest cows breed back every year and raise some of the best calves. However, maintaining cows with attitude problems will likely mean future generations with attitude problems.  

Even if these crazy calves do well in a range setting where they are not handled much, they will likely struggle to gain as much in the feedlot compared to their gentle herd mates. Additionally, meat quality in temperamental cattle is often less desirable.

Other health issues

A cow’s history of various health issues can cost producers money and may cost more in the future. Cows with incidences of retained placentas or prolapses are at risk for reoccurring issues and should be strong culling candidates.  

Also, cows having dealt with infections, lump jaw and other issues are also at risk. Consider selling these females while they are recovered, more valuable and before they are sick again.

Making the reasonable decisions to cull cows is not easy, but these decisions are an important piece of the profitable production puzzle. Hopefully these considerations will make those decisions a little bit easier.

Chance Marshall is a University of Wyoming Extension educator based in Fremont County. He can be reached at or 307-332-2363. 

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