As the drought drags on, cattle producers are faced with the prospect of deeper and deeper culling of their herds. Making those hard decisions may be eased somewhat by following a logical culling protocol.

Clay Wright, a livestock specialist at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., suggests a seven-step method adapted from recommendations made by Oklahoma State University beef cattle specialists. Wright’s program is based on a spring-calving herd.

“Remember, this is just one culling order out there, but it is logical. The first two steps should be automatic culls in any year. After pregnancy checking, start with all open females. Then, go to cows with unsound mouths, eyes, feet, legs or bags. Cows with poor dispositions — the dummies and the crazies — should be culled with this second group,” he says.

The third group to be considered is thin (body condition score 4 or lower) older cows.

“The meaning of ‘old’ cows varies between ranches, and tooth wear and breed type can affect longevity,” Wright explains. “But, with hay running 75 to 100 dollars a bale, it is going to take a lot of money to get these older cows up to a BCS where their performance is acceptable.”

Late-bred first-calf heifers should be the next to go, Wright says, because it takes first-calf heifers longer to rebreed anyway. Late-bred first-calf heifers rarely get up to speed.

If the situation becomes so dire it’s necessary to cull healthy, bred cows, start with the oldest ones, then the two- to three-year olds and finally the four- to seven-year olds.

“These cows are the heart of the herd’s production. They are at their peak of performance and, since they are in the herd at this time, have done what they need to do,” Wright says. “Older cows have less time to repay their ‘drought debt.’ First- and second-calf heifers are usually still not in peak production [lactation], so their weaned calves will be lighter, which means a smaller paycheck to pay down their drought debt.”

Wright says if a producer must cull bred cows, past performance records are invaluable. Adjusted 205-day indices can be used to calculate most probable producing ability, which is an indication of the within-herd rank of the cow’s ability to wean calves with high weaning ratios, taking into account the number of calves produced.

“Performance records take the guess work out of it at this point, but not many producers have the kind of records that enable this level of discernment,” Wright says.