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Use Strategy to Reduce a Herd

Like many other ranchers, John Maddux faces the uncertainties of starting another season with little drought relief in sight. Even if late winter and spring bring snow or rain, replenishing soil moisture and rejuvenating the health of rangelands may be a long-term process requiring continued vigilance in stocking rates and herd management.

Maddux adjusted his management practices to implement a strategic destocking plan last summer. As a result, he reduced the stocking rate on rangelands by a third. He’ll follow the same strategy if the drought continues.

Here are two changes the Wauneta, Nebraska, rancher made in order to downsize the herd and to better match stocking numbers to decreased range production.

1. Wean calves early and cull cows

“I started weaning in July, when calves were about 60 days old,” Maddux says. “At the beginning of August, I got rid of a bunch of cows – cows that had bad bags, poor dispositions, and other problems.”

This culling amounted to 100 head, or 5% of his 2,000-cow herd. Weaned calves were put in a separate pasture and supplemented with wet distillers’ grains. In the fall, calves went on cornstalks and were supplemented with wet distillers’ grains along with silage.

In general, the practice of weaning calves early can significantly stretch the stocking capacity of pastures. 

“For every two and a half days that a calf is off the cow, you can figure that you have saved enough feed to support a cow for one additional day,” says Don Adams, director of the University of Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center at North Platte.

In other words, each day that a calf is weaned conserves 10 pounds of forage per day, the equivalent of a .4 grazing day for a dry cow. Weaning early offers nutritional benefits to cows, as well. 

“During a drought, it’s natural for grass to be less nutritious,” says Adams. “By getting calves off cows, you reduce the cows’ nutritional needs to better match the nutritional status of the forage. This has the effect of conserving grass for grazing.”

2. Shorten the breeding season to carry fewer females

Because cows were not expending energy for lactation during the breeding period, Maddux was able to expose them to bulls for a shorter time and still get a good conception rate.

“After a 45-day breeding season, I had a conception rate of 92%,” he says.

Cows were pregnancy-checked by ultrasound in October, and open cows were sold. This second culling removed 8% of the herd.

Pregnant cows due to calve after the first 45 days of the calving season will be sold in late winter as bred cows. The high conception rate resulting from early weaning offers the added benefit of letting Maddux retain fewer bred heifers.

“I’ll only keep the replacement heifers that are going to calve in the first 30 days of the calving season, and I’ll sell those due to calve after that,” he says. “Next year, I’ll only keep heifers calving in the first 21 days of the calving season.”

By maintaining tight calving windows, Maddux has bred females to sell that don’t fit his calving schedule, and these command a good sales value.

“If a female is bred, she may fit someone else’s operation,” he says. “She’ll sell for a premium over and above the cull cow price. As a rule of thumb, the price of a bred cow in late winter or early spring is about double the price of a cull cow sold in the off time of the year.”

For Maddux, using a tighter breeding season as a means of guiding herd reduction serves to increase the overall efficiency of the herd.

“In my experience, fertility is the most important factor in maintaining herd efficiency,” he says. “The end result is that I invest less labor per cow and typically have more pounds of weaned calf per cow. Because the value of every cow is increased, I improve the overall economics of the herd by keeping the early-calving cows.” 

If you want to learn more, contact Don Adams at 308/696-6700 or at

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