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Pregnancy Checks and Cull Decisions

Updated: Apr 9

Spring has sprung and our schedule is busy with fall-calving beef herds ready to pregnancy check and evaluate the success of their breeding season. Pregnancy checking the beef herd is a valuable tool for making culling decisions, future breeding decisions as well as knowing what to expect in the coming calving season. Pregnancy examination soon after the bull is removed allows the most accurate staging of pregnancy (i.e. determining precise number of days pregnant). It also makes fetal sexing of the calves possible for many of the pregnant cows and maximizes the chance of identifying twins and other abnormal pregnancies. Pregnancy checking farther out from bull removal is still useful, but after 100 days gestation, due dates become more approximate and fetal sexing is not possible. Pregnancy check is a good time to update vaccines in both cows and calves. It is also a good time to assess growth in calves and body condition in cows. This can guide timing of weaning and give producers the opportunity to modify nutrition and grazing plans if needed.

One of the main reasons to pregnancy check is to identify cows that may need to be culled. A favorite client of mine always started off herd health visits by saying we would be culling cows that are “old, open or ornery” and joked that she was all three.

Indeed, with cull prices remaining strong and feed and fertilizer prices relatively high, identifying non-productive cows that should be marketed is of great value this spring. Unless she has exceptional genetic value justifying feeding her into the next breeding season, open cows should be sold at weaning. These are other categories of cows that should be considered for marketing:

  • Old cows: As cows age, they may not have adequate dentition to maintain body condition, lactation, and pregnancy. Most of these cows will turn up open or wean a below-average calf, but some cows will continue to produce. If an older cow is noted to be losing condition, she should be examined closely to assess whether she will successfully wean another calf.

  • Aggressive cows: Disposition is important in a cow-calf herd. Aggressive cows stir up the rest of the herd and pose a human safety risk, as well as endangering equipment, fencing, and other livestock.

  • Udder: Cows with broken down udders hanging below their hocks, as well as cows with extremely large teats at calving should be considered for culling. It is difficult for a calf to nurse these types of udders. Therefore, these cows pose a risk for producing a weak or sick calf, or a possible bottle baby.

  • Feet and legs: Cows with chronic lameness issues are a welfare concern, as well as less likely to be productive. Additionally, cows with corkscrewed hooves may pass their poor structure onto their calves. These cattle should be removed from the herd before they become a problem.

  • Late calvers: Cows that don’t fit into the normal calving window are less likely to breed back in the next season. They are also a management challenge as their calf will be younger and smaller than the rest of the calf crop. Consider her overall value before deciding whether she should be kept on for another season.

  • Poor mothering: Cows that have been a problem in previous calving seasons, either through poor milk production or failure to claim a calf, should be looked at hard before retaining her for another season.

There is more to spring herd work than a simple pregnant or open diagnosis. Profitability and sustainability can be maximized by working with your veterinarian to look hard at the big picture of the herd and working towards specific goals together.

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