Dairy cows green pasture

Many dairies utilize a strict culling rate but production, breeding and marketing options play a role in the decision process.  

There are several pieces to the puzzle when it comes to culling dairy cows.

Fred Hall, Iowa State University Extension dairy specialist in Orange City, says the first factor is production.

“Right now, cull cows are selling in the mid-$30s to low-$40s,” he says. “If she has a high somatic cell count or is having some leg problems, regardless of the cull cow price, she needs to be culled right away.

“Some are going to look at their break-evens and think if they wait two weeks they will get a better price, but they need go ahead and cull her.”

Many dairies utilize a strict culling rate, Hall says, but older cows generally produce more milk than younger cows.

“If you have a 20% cull rate, you are going to have more older cows in the herd,” he says. “If she’s functional and breeds back, you might want to think twice about culling her.”

Changing genetics to reach specific production goals may result in culling cows, Hall says.

“We always pushed high amounts of butterfat, but in the last decade, we have realized protein is pretty important,” he says. “Right now, it has a higher value than butterfat. Ultimately we want to sell 6 to 7 pounds of solids. With an average of 90 pounds per day, that’s a good target.”

There continues to be a strong demand for dairy beef, says Larry Tranel, Iowa State University Extension dairy specialist in Dubuque. He says some producers will place culled cows in a feedlot for 30 days to add some weight.

“If she’s in better condition, you’re going to get more for her,” Tranel says, adding culled cows should be fed separately from other feedlot cattle to allow them to benefit from the higher nutrition levels.

“Maybe that extra 40 to 50 pounds will be worthwhile,” Hall adds.

Tranel says with some packing plants operating at a decreased capacity, there may be fewer marketing options for producers.

Hall says despite a rough couple of years for milk prices, he has not seen a great deal of reduction in cow numbers.

“Some herds have left, but those that have stayed in really haven’t changed much,” he says. “Some have reduced production at the requests of the co-ops, but in our area in northwest Iowa, some guys have added cows. For the most part, the numbers have been pretty consistent.”

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.