Cull cows are a part of every dairy, and knowing how to handle cull cows can make a big difference to the bottom line of a dairy.

Scherer robyn
Freelance Writer
Robyn Scherer-Carlson is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

“Cull cows are really talking about our failures. Animals that we sell are ones we failed to get pregnant or keep healthy, or they have been injured,” says Jon Slutsky, owner of La Luna Dairy in Wellington, Colorado.

He continues, “Production is part of it. Cull cows are the ones that are not producing well enough to be profitable. We need to market them before they become unprofitable.”

Dairy culls make up a pretty large part of the beef supply, with 3.125 million harvested in 2013, which equaled out to 9.8 percent of all animals harvested for beef, according to Dr. Noa Roman-Muniz, a dairy specialist and professor at Colorado State University.

“Our main culls are the ones we thought were pregnant and are now open: 74.3 percent culled are in late lactation, being more than 200 days in lactation. Then 12.5 percent are culled in early lactation, being less than 50 days in milk. Many times these are the sick cows. The metabolic demand goes way up, and that’s when health issues may occur. Finally, 12.7 percent are culled in mid-lactation, between 50 and 200 days in milk,” she explains.


Some animals are easier to market than others. “Cows that have failed to conceive or lost their calf, those are the animals that are in good shape and are easy to market. There are others we sell that may be pregnant but not far along enough to be worth it,” Slutsky says.

The majority of these cull cows are sent to a market, auction or stockyard, and a small percentage are direct-marketed to a processor. “This is important to note because lameness in dairy cows can vary from 20 to 55 percent, and lame cows have a lot more trouble dealing with being on a trailer, auction market or slaughter facilities,” Roman-Muniz states.

She stated that 82 to 86 percent are a locomotion score 1 or 2, and that 90.2 percent were sound according to a national USDA study. “That brings me hope. We are addressing the problem and doing things for these cows,” she says.

Lame cows can be a challenge for any producer and can be hard to make culling decisions on. “The unsound animals are the challenge. Making the decision not to euthanize, but to sell before an animal becomes a problem, is the key,” says Slutsky.

He continues, “A lot of them are a time bomb. They are older, have been milking a long time, and if you don’t take the opportunity to sell them before that bomb goes off, you may have to euthanize them.”

An animal that cannot be transported through a sale barn could be marketed directly to a packer or euthanized on the farm and composted. “Where I am, I can take cows directly to slaughter. Not everyone has that option.

If they are lame or injured and cannot be cured but can be loaded on a trailer and stand, we take them right to slaughter. If they go the auction house, they need to be sound. If the yard doesn’t handle the animals well, it can hurt you,” he says.

Slutsky believes that if an animal cannot be transported, it is not humane to force that cow into a stressful situation. “I owe them respect and dignity, and for them to be treated poorly in their last days, I don’t appreciate that. If it is not sound, you don’t want to put them on a truck. They go directly to slaughter. If we didn’t have that option, they would stay on the farm until they would be able to be transported,” he states.

Body condition scoring (BCS) can have a big effect on an animal’s well-being and their ability to be transported. “BCS is affected by where she is in lactation. In the few weeks before she calves and a few weeks after, you want between a 2.5 and 3.5 BCS on a 1-to-5 system. When it comes to downers, those with less than a 2.5 BCS have a smaller chance of recovering,” Roman-Muniz explains.

She adds, “In the first 10 to 12 weeks of lactation, they lose a lot of weight. They are milking 80 to 100 pounds of milk a day. That’s when health issues happen.”

Employees are a key component when looking at which cows to cull. “The employee part of it is very important. We have 1,500 cows. I walk the pens every day, but I do not see every cow. I depend on my employees to tell me if we have a cow that is sick or injured. We have the culture that my employees can tell me if a cow is not fit for transport,” Slutsky explains.

Roman-Muniz agrees, “You need to have a system where you have early identification and marketing of cull cows, and to do so in a timely manner to market those cows to avoid BQA issues. Identify cows that are at risk to becoming downers. Education does make a difference. We need to educate the people who are dealing with these cows every single day.” PD

Robyn Scherer is a freelance writer based in Kiowa, Colorado.