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5 decision points for culling heifers

Ann Hoskins for Progressive Dairyman Published on 13 September 2017
evaluating heifer calves illustration

In this day and age, producers are great at making heifers. Reproductive and calf raising management practices have dramatically improved through the years, resulting in an abundance of replacement heifers. The benefit of that is we have plenty of animals to keep operations full and have the genetically best heifers possible.

But what do we do when we simply have too many?

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In the past, it was affordable to raise every heifer and answer that question later. Today, that’s likely not the case, which means it’s a good time to evaluate your heifer culling strategy.

1. Know your numbers

Analyze your operation and know your future goals. Is growth in the future? If not, try to dial in how many heifers you need to raise to maintain inventory. Look closely at your survival rate or the number of animals born versus the number that makes it to the milk string. That number, along with your cow culling rate, should give you an idea of how many heifers you need to raise every year to maintain cow numbers or predicted growth.

2. Evaluate your breeding strategy

The options are endless in today’s world of mating and breeding. Using genomics or mating programs to identify your best animals may be a good strategy. One option is to create a tier of your animals. For example, breed your best 25 percent to sexed semen to get more heifers from your best. Breed your middle 50 percent to conventional semen using the best bulls. Breed your lowest genetic animals to a beef breed or look at alternative markets for these animals.

3. Evaluate and cull animals based on performance

Set up parameters to monitor calf and heifer performance to make culling decisions earlier. For example, monitor weights at birth, weaning and breeding. Are they meeting your growth benchmarks? Once you’ve built your database of this information, look at the bottom performers and consider whether they’re likely to be productive animals. Slow-growing heifers may have been affected by health challenges or are simply poor performers. In most cases, these animals will be the ones you end up culling at some point throughout the raising process. Save the investment and do it sooner than later.

4. Track health events and challenges

It has been shown animals that experience multiple health challenges will not make it to lactation or will be poor performers. A calf should be evaluated if it has been treated for pneumonia two or more times prior to weaning. Whether you cull her or not, note that animal before future treatments are given. This could be an opportunity to enlist your vet to ultrasound for lungs lesions and determine the probability of future respiratory challenges.

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5. Evaluate your facilities too

On many operations, I see facilities stretched beyond the max to accommodate all the youngstock. Most are overstocked and, in some cases, stress the operation as well as the animals. This can limit bunk space, resting space, water availability, air quality, etc., which negatively affects performance and health. Reducing numbers early and using the operation at a normal capacity will likely lead to a noticeable boost in animal health and performance.

The key to all of these suggestions is to know what you need to meet your future goals. Take a deep look at your operation and evaluate your needs. Many great industry resources can help you evaluate options and determine the best strategy for your operation.  end mark

Ann Hoskins
  • Ann Hoskins

  • Calf Products Coordinator
  • Vita Plus Corp.
  • Email Ann Hoskins

PHOTO: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

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