Over the past month two good dairymen asked me about their cull rate and mentioned the desire to lower it. They both were over 40% per year. By good dairymen I mean those who have shown consistent growth in cow numbers and/or production per cow over the years while consistently paying their bills on time. Given this apparent success, maybe they shouldn’t worry about their cull rate. But I think they should, if for no other reason than the bad optics of running through their cows so fast and the resulting high replacement cost incurred by such herds. I discussed the issue with another good dairyman who I knew has a different way of achieving good. His cull rate was only 16% while his cash flow as indicated by consistent growth and prompt payment is the same as the others. Mysteriously he has higher production per cow than the others. Apparently, there is more than one way to be a good dairyman and the optics are better for the low cull rate.
I also talked to a colleague about the high cull rates. His flippant response was to “just lower the culling criteria”. At first I laughed. But then realized that may be valid. One of the high cull rate herds is culling cows at what seems to be a fairly high level of production that he says is his breakeven point. I wondered how he is calculating the breakeven point. If he uses all expenses, including replacement cost, to calculate the breakeven point it becomes a tornado like cycle. Cull more cows at all-in breakeven point, this raises the replacement cost, which then raises the all-in breakeven point. There is a theory in management accounting call contribution margin. Using the contribution margin philosophy, the breakeven point is calculated only using direct costs that change directly with the number of units produced or producing. The only thing that changes if you cull ten cows from a corral today is that you tell EZFeed to feed that corral for 10 fewer cow tomorrow. You do not pay less labor, and unfortunately the labor you have will probably fill the same time interval even with fewer cows so utilities will not change. And, if those cows were producing more income than feed cost, you lost out on 10 cows that were helping cover labor, utilities, and other indirect costs that did not change with those 10 cows leaving. Profit may decline with those 10 cows leaving. Of course, you replace those cows but then replacement cost goes up. Alternatively, maybe you only cull 5 of those cows. The remaining 5 make it to the next lactation. Older cows produce more milk. Production goes up and replacement cost goes down. This is what the guy with the 16% cull rate is doing successfully. He is milking an older, higher producing herd while incurring a lower replacement cost. Who is right, who is wrong? Hard to say any of the three dairymen are right or wrong since they achieve similar financial outcomes. But again, the optics favor the lower cull rates.
If somatic cell count is being used to cull cows, recognize that somatic cell counts varies from day to day and even from milking to milking. Base culling on at least two test days in a row with high SCC, look at SCC and PSCC before culling. Then investigate why SCC is causing cows to be culled and up your game on mastitis control. Better teat dip may be cheaper than high replacement costs due to SCC. The better teat dip will cost more, but maybe it can be targeted at the first 90 days in milk and yield a very good return on investment.
If you can cull cows on vet check day when an experienced veterinarian is on farm, have that veterinarian do a 5-minute physical exam on each cull cow. LDAs may be missed. Uterine trauma may not have been recognized. Collect samples for Leukosis, BVD, and Johnes. The results may suggest the need for more aggressive control programs for these infectious diseases that can have huge impacts on cull rates. If you do not record and evaluate the findings you may make the wrong decisions. But if you do not look you will never know. We have the tools to reduce cull rates, not just for the sake of doing so, but for the purpose of improving the health and well being of our cows, leading to higher production and dairy financial health.