As we take the time to discuss culling strategies on many dairies, it becomes evident that there are many opportunities to optimize profitability with more systematic, data-driven decisions. There are too many times when we let the physical attributes and/or prior history of the cow lead the decision process for culling. Granted, we need to take these things into consideration, but must also objectively decide if the cow is profitable to remain in the herd today.

The current record high price of beef, which appears will hold for some time, has allowed for a very different culling strategy. There are a few key elements that must be considered prior to implementing an objective culling program.

Do you have an excessive number of broken cows? If your involuntary cull rate is high (especially for cows less than 60 days in milk), then your ability to make objective culling decisions based on cow profitability may be limited. If this is the case, then we need to take a step back and evaluate all of the management strategies that allow for excellent transition cow management and health, cow comfort and welfare, optimal reproductive performance and milk production.

Are you rapidly expanding? This question may not be as relevant as you think, except to your banker. Don’t keep cows around to artificially reduce debt per cow. If the cow is not profitable, then there needs to be a conscious decision to remove her from the herd, even when you are in expansion mode. Granted, we may have to replace her, but, with the excellent price of beef, the differential between a market cow and springing heifer is not very significant.

Do you have accurate production data? Ranking cows on profitability relies on a number of criteria, but milk production is the most important. You will need to know your cost of production to determine which cows are profitable and which are costing you money to keep around. Reproductive status is also very important. You may make the decision to dry off a cow a bit early or keep her in the herd given her advanced pregnancy status. However, don’t let this lead you down the wrong path. If her dry period will be over 90 days, we potentially increase the risk of transition disorders and minimize productive days. Despite the resistance by many, you can sell a pregnant cow.

What is the effect of overcrowding in your herd? In a tie-stall barn, the obvious goal is to have all stalls filled with productive units. In a free-stall facility, it is easy to overcrowd — often to the detriment of performance. The degree to which you can overcrowd your facility depends on many parameters, such as stall base, feed bunk, water and holding area space, ventilation and heat abatement. Most often, barns are overcrowded, and we will not realize a drop in production (and may actually see a milk increase) when we reduce pen density.

As you can see, culling decisions are not easy and you still need to look at the cow. Performance metrics can be very useful for ranking the non-productive cows in your herd, but there is no replacement for observation. Just keep in mind that even if she is a great-looking cow, if she is dropping in milk and is open then she is costing you money. I’ll give you some leeway on your daughter’s 4H cow, but, otherwise, she should go down the road.

Mark J. Thomas is a veterinarian and partner at Countryside Veterinary Clinic, LLP in Lowville, N.Y.