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Strategies to Reduce Numbers During Drought

When feed is short, there are ways to cull wisely and reduce losses.

There are several strategies that can help you get through a drought or feed shortage with the least negative impact on genetics. Travis Olson, Ole Farms, Athabasca, Alta., Canada, who owns 1,500 mostly Angus cows, says his general rule of thumb is to cull hardest in the classes of cattle that won’t hurt you in the long term.

“In our operation we take a lot of cattle to finish. If we are in a drought, the first group sold is yearling steers. The second thing we look at is the cow herd,” he says. “How you cull cows may depend on when your breeding season is. If you are breeding to calve in February or March and facing a drought this summer, you could ultrasound cows 60 days into the breeding season, identify your open cows and sell them early.”

Another thing a person can do to find the slow breeders or poor producers is to move all the cows through the chute, perhaps when doing spring vaccinations, and put heat-detection patches on them, he adds.

If you are calving in May-June and realize you are entering a massive drought, you may need to sell some cows early. The bulls won’t be turned out with the cows until late July, but if it’s getting close to the end of June, Olson suggests putting a heat patch on the cows. Then you can tell which cows have started to cycle. You can keep those and eliminate the ones that haven’t cycled yet.

This enables you to keep the fertile, healthy ones that will breed early, and these also tend to be the most productive cows.

“A heat patch is a cheap way to identify the best cows. If 30% of them are not cycling yet, pick the culls you need to get rid of from that 30% (most likely older cows, the ones with bad disposition, poor udders),” he explains.

If a cow is cycling 30 days before the bull will be turned in, she will likely breed early.

“The other thing you’ll notice when you use heat patches is that the ones that aren’t cycling yet are the late calvers. At our place, the cows with calves born the end of June are more likely to not be showing signs of estrus yet. Those cows with small young calves might be some you’d sell as pairs to someone who has more grass,” he says.

Cows that are slow to cycle are usually not your best cows.

“When we AI (artificially inseminate) breed, the ones that don’t have their patches rubbed yet have lower conception rate, and their calves aren’t nearly as good either the following year. If they don’t have enough fat and condition to cycle, they don’t have enough the following year to produce very well either. By selecting the cows that calve early, you have better calves.

“Most people don’t realize the impact on calf weights due to difference between cows that cycle early and cows that don’t. If they’re not cycling, they are not in optimum health, and won’t raise the best calf. Cows that are not cycling early are the ones I look for when making culling decisions, aside from the obvious bad udders, etc.” says Olson.

This is a simple tool — just putting a patch on every cow and waiting 20 days to see which ones have cycled.

“This is low cost, low impact. You can run 100 cows through and put a patch on them within an hour, or do it when branding and vaccinating,” he explains. “If you are putting cows through the chute anyway, just put a patch on them. This can tell you a lot about that cow that you don’t have time to observe if you are busy running a ranch.”

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Editor’s Note: Heather Smith Thomas is a cattlewoman and freelance writer from Salmon, Idaho.







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