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Culling Dairy Cows

Deciding when to cull a dairy cow is sometimes not an easy task. Each dairyman, either consciously or unconsciously, has certain criteria that he uses in making this decision. Sometimes the decision is based upon the cow that was the latest problem to the dairyman. This may be a valid reason, especially if the cow has had a history of being a problem animal.

Dairymen should develop a checklist of culling reasons to use in their decision making process. The following list of 10 questions is one that could be used for each cow before deciding her future in the herd.

  1. Is her yearly production 20 percent or more below the herd's DHI rolling average? Another way of evaluating her milk production ranking in the herd is to compare her daily production amount with the average for the herd. Is her daily production 50 percent or more below the average produced daily per milking cow in the herd?
  2. Is she a chronic mastitis case? Check this one closely, because a cow with chronic mastitis is producing below her capability and, in addtion, could be spreading mastitis to other cows in the herd through the milking equipment.
  3. Will she be dry four months or more? Long dry periods are costly to the dairyman and may indicate the cow has a problem of becoming pregnant, a trait not desired.
  4. Is she a hard milker? Is her udder shape or teat structure such that she is a nuisance to milk?
  5. Does she have a history of calving difficulties or post calving illnesses such as retained placenta, metritis, or milk fever? Cows that cause problems at calving time are not pleasant to have and are costly to keep in the herd.
  6. Does she have an undesirable disposition? Is she a nervous cow or does she kick whenever her udder is touched? These are undesirable traits that should be noted along with production and calving problems.
  7. Is she below the herd's average body type? Check body confirmation to see if it comes up to specifications for the herd.
  8. Is she a timid cow? With the type of drylot housing systems most dairymen have today, timid cows usually will not get the amount of feed required to be high producing animals.
  9. Is the price of beef favorable? Check the market prices of beef animals and what the price would probably be for a cow sold for beef purposes.
  10. Is she an old cow, and is the available barn space needed for freshening heifers? In other words, should the old make way for the young? Fresh heifers usually have a higher genetic potential for milk production than older cows, especially if a progressive A.I. program is used in the herd.

A yes answer should probably be given to at least two questions before making the cow a strong candidate for culling. In many cases, though, one reason may be enough justification to base a culling decision.

Besides using a checklist in making culling decisions, other facts should be considered.

First-calf heifers:

In evaluating first calf heifers, consider the size of the heifers. Undersized heifers will probably produce less milk the first lactation because of their size. This situation is an indictment of the dairyman's heifer feeding program and not necessarily the producing potential of the heifer. So, among possible culls of equal performance, preference should probably be given to the younger, undersized heifer, especially if she improved during her lactation.

Stage of gestation:

Extremely long calving intervals can be costly. With other factors being equal, cows in mid-lactation with several months to go before freshening are better prospects for culling than cows that will freshen sooner and return to peak production sooner.


Mastitis CMT (California Mastitis Test) scores, somatic cell counts or DHI SCC scores should be checked carefully. Cows with CMT scores of 2, somatic cell counts of 1.2 million or greater, or DHI SCC scores of 6 or greater should be culled before other potential culls because they are potential sources of intramammary infections of other cows.


Other factors being equal, cull older cows before younger cows of comparable relative value. The genetic potential of younger animals should be greater than that of older animals, so keeping the younger cows in the herd longer should be a sound practice.

Past performance:

Given two cows with the same relative value and other factors equal, cull the cow first that has the lowest previous production records. Past performance can be suggestive of future potential. Management errors in the current lactation could adversely affect a cow's performance.

Dairymen participating in the Ohio production testing program (DHI) have another tool to use in deciding which cows to cull. This is the "potential culls" management report that is received each month. On this report are listed cows that meet certain criteria. Most of the checklist questions are considered in the culling criteria.

The first criteria is that the cow must be producing below the cull level the dairyman establishes. The cull level should probably be about 20 percent above the daily production amount needed to break even. This cushion of 20 percent allows time to make culling decisions and dispose of animals before they become a financial liability. To determine the cull level to use, calculate the daily expenses per animal, both feed and other expenses, and how much milk a cow must produce to cover those expenses. Feed costs are only about 60 percent of the total costs of production.

Besides producing below the cull level, the cow must also meet one of the following criteria:

  1. Low production—the cow's estimated lactation production level is less than 80 percent of the herd average the previous month.
  2. Reproductive problems—the cow is still not bred by 21 days beyond the dairyman's goal for days open and her estimated lactation production level is below 90 percent of the herd average the previous month.
  3. Mastitis—the cow had a CMT score of 3 or a DHI SCC score of 6 or greater at the most recent check.

The computer develops the cull list from data supplied by the dairyman and testing supervisor. It does not have a bias for or against certain cows that the dairyman sometimes has. Thus, certain "sacred" cows may appear on the list, if they fall within the culling criteria. If such cows appear on the list, dairymen should consider the possibility of culling them.

With the average dairyman culling about 32-percent of his cows each year, sound reasons must be used in deciding which cows to cull. Using a checklist and the DHI management report give the dairyman a good basis for his decisions.

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This page was last updated on November 16, 2002