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To cull or keep a dairy herd? How to make decision

Friday May 5 2017

Elizabeth Kathure with some heifers in a farm in Meru.

Elizabeth Kathure with some heifers in a farm in Meru. Replacing older and poor livestock in the farm ensures improvement on returns from your livestock. PHOTO | CAROLINE WAMBUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Culling decisions have a significant influence on the economic performance of dairy farms. Often, the decision is made in a non-fashioned way based partly on intuition and experience of the farmer.

As a tool in farm management, culling can be of benefit or very costly if a thorough formal economic analysis is not properly done.

Today, we share what should influence the decision on whether to keep or replace that cow without hitting your profits.

Broadly, cow factors such as health status, age, reproductive performance, milk yield and stage of lactation help in making the decision.

In one way or another, they all contribute to farm economics, as you know culling is all about maximising profits and minimising losses.

Thus, before culling, analyse major farm financial components such as income vs expenses.


In this case, it will be beneficial to calculate the future possible revenue vis a vis costs you associate with the victim cow(s), taking into account all relevant opportunities and risks.

Here is what will help you make the decision:

Milk yield

With good milk yield, a farm is able to put a balance between inputs and outputs. It, therefore, means that any cow that is not able to break even despite all factors remaining constant is not fit for to stay.

Some owners can keep the cow with low milk yield for good fertility reasons, to complete the lactation cycle and then cull her to benefit from their calves.

But the good option is that you need to consider the value of that cow first, which is the expected profits, before you make decision of whether to keep her or not.

Reproductive efficiency

One of the greatest determinants of profits in a dairy production operation is herd reproductive soundness. Open (non-pregnant) cows are a drain on resources.

They consume a lot of feeds and other resources without producing a marketable calf to repay the expenses. When a cow delays giving you a calf, it subsequently means you’re losing milk.

However, give the cow time to confirm that it is poor at conceiving before dropping the cruel axe.

Repeated number of inseminations per conception is also a sign of poor reproduction, all these cost money.

If only you confirm that your management is not a contributor to the cow’s reproductive inefficiency, then you can replace her.


The production efficiency of a dairy cow is best felt when it is in her early ages. Producers, due to varied reasons, prefer to keep cows up to a certain number of years before selling.

As farmers, the production environment we provide plays a role in a cow’s longevity. To some, as long as teeth, udders, feet, and legs are sound, they still fit within the farm production period.

It is not strange to find farms where farmers keep a cow until she has completely worn out teeth due to old age. Old cows hardly eat enough and are very susceptible to harsh conditions.

They are always the first to succumb to diseases. This results to poor body conditions and eventual low milk production.

At this point, an economic analysis will reveal why you should dispose the cow.

Poor health conditions

Repeated diseases in a cow is a sign of poor health. If this is due to poor production environment, do not hurry to punish (cull) the cow, instead, make necessary adjustments.

Poor management in most circumstances result to unhealthy conditions associated with mastitis and lameness, among others.

Elizabeth Kathure with some calves born in the
Elizabeth Kathure with some calves born in the farm. PHOTO | CAROLINE WAMBUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Again, it is obvious that structural defects can decrease the market appeal of an animal. An infection may occur in the teat lesions and increase the risk of bacterial diseases leading to clinical and subclinical mastitis complicating production of that cow.

If this leads to an irreversible significant reduction in milk production, consider culling.

Lameness and other serious injuries are detrimental to health. Lameness compromises performance, reproductive efficiency, causes weight loss and increases treatment costs.

Cows can also be culled if they develop eye problems. It is common to find a cow with one dead eye or just blind due to complications. This is a good candidate for culling.

In many circumstances, poor health conditions and injuries lead to involuntary culling. Some health issues require a veterinary doctor to confirm recovery.

If very severe and not treatable or recovery doesn’t make economic sense, then cull immediately. Involuntary culling is necessary to reduce suffering of affected animals, but a high proportion of it could be an indicator of welfare problems in a herd.

Udder conditions

Udder soundness affects milk production, calf feeding programme and weaning weights. Proper udder attachment is important for a long, efficient and productive life.

A sound udder should be firmly attached with a strong, four properly formed teats proportional to body size. Weak suspension results in pendulous udders that are difficult to suckle and susceptible to infections.

If udder issues repeatedly affect calf milk consumptions, hence weaning weights, and often infected, the longevity of that cow could be put into question.

Production conditions

Sometimes production conditions such as drought influence the best time to cull. If you have a large herd and you experience management constraints such as availability of feed resources, why not voluntarily sell off some animals?

All said, culling is an important herd management principle farmers need to embrace with the main reason being to improve efficiencies.

The above factors should not be analysed independently as it may be necessary to make combination analysis to arrive at decisions with substantial benefits.

Opinya is based at the Department of Animal Sciences, Egerton University.