Are you culling for the right reasons?

Are you culling for the right reasons?

Dairy farmers are losing thousands of pounds through excessive culling of cows, according to DairyCo.

Replacement rates vary from 11.5% to over 35% per year, a difference of £25,000 for an average 144-cow herd.  "Business turnover is the biggest driver of farm profit, and herd size is a major part of that," says Kate Cross, extension officer for Scotland.  "Maintaining herd size is a major cost, second only to the feed bill, and it is within your control."

The biggest barrier to managing cull cow numbers is a lack of proper recording, including reasons for those culls, she says.  "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.  I estimate that the majority of producers don't keep a true record of what they have culled and why."

The first step to reducing culling rates is therefore to compile a culling record for the past three years, looking at the number of cows culled and the reasons for each one.  "Enter your results into a spreadsheet and compare them to national figures," says Kate.  "Work out the actual culling rate in the herd - is it too high?  Is it consistently high or does it vary year on year?  Also, what are the main reasons for culling and how do they compare with national figures?"

Farmers should assess whether the culling rate has been affected by other factors, such as a TB outbreak or partial herd sale.  Importantly, they should also consider the causes behind culling decisions - such as lameness or mastitis.  They can then take proper action to address these problem areas.

"For example, lameness culls can be reduced by changes to building layout or introducing routine preventative foot trimming.  Mastitis levels can be cut by using cleaner bedding and implementing a careful teat cleaning regime before and after milking.  Develop plans to tackle the significant problems, and review them in a year's time."

The main reasons for culling are: infertility, at 24% of culls; mortality and casualties, also at 24%; mastitis at 19%; age at 16%; yield at 9%; and lameness at 8%.  "The predominant reason for culling is cow health," Kate confirms.  "But often poor health can be improved through better management, improving not only milk yields but also culling rate, and therefore bottom line figures."

Active herd health planning is a good investment, says Kate.  "Farmers should speak to their vet and develop a plan to address problem areas."

The average herd replacement rate is 26%, costing more than 2.6p/litre, says Kate.  "But replacement costs range from as high as 4.2p/litre to below 2p/litre."  Included in that calculation are the cost of the replacement, the value of the cow it replaces, the rate of herd turnover and the yield of milk sold to spread the cost over.

Kate estimates the cost of simply breeding a heifer calf is £242, taking into account extra semen costs and the opportunity cost of selling one Friesian/Holstein bull calf at £30 compared with a beef crossbred bull and heifer calf at £135 and £85/head, respectively.

"Add on top of that your mortality, bedding, forage, feed and other variable costs, and costs are likely to tot up to around £630, and then your fixed costs at about £460, and you will find that the full cost of breeding and rearing one replacement is about £1090."

Lowering your culling rate will obviously mean fewer replacements are required, freeing up land and buildings and opening up opportunities for greater income from beef crossbred calves, finishes Kate.  "So not only are you cutting costs in the dairy herd, you are also developing new prospects to boost your income from beef crossbred calves or selling surplus heifers."

Download a copy of Strategies to reduce culling rates here or call DairyCo publications on 02476 478695.

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