Tough Decisions

Two weeks ago, I pulled up to the barn before I headed out the driveway to work. I spotted number 1106 and couldn’t help but shed quite a few tears as I quietly said goodbye. She didn’t notice me; she never was a “people cow”.  Her name was Crazy, and she was the first second generation AI heifer calf born on our farm.  Her dam (mom) is an above average cow, and ever since she hit the ground, we had extremely high hopes for Crazy.

She got her name honestly. Before she was weaned, every day she would try to jump out of her hut while we tried to pour milk into her bucket. If you were quick enough, she would start drinking, but if you weren’t, you got to chase her around the yard before she ate.  As she grew, Crazy continued to be one of the most active and aggressive calves in any group. She bred fairly quickly and had her first calf at just over 2 years old (a Froggy heifer – our first 3rd generation AI calf, now breeding age).  She didn’t really have any complications, but her production during her first lactation wasn’t very high.  We still had high hopes.

Crazy had her second calf, which was stillborn, last September.  Having a stillborn calf is hard on a cow, and we did what we could for her, but something just wasn’t right.  Crazy wasn’t milking like we needed her to, and she wasn’t bred back. David and I talked it over and made one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make – we had to cull Crazy.  There are a lot of reasons we cull cows – chronic illness, reproductive problems, and low production are among them.  There are also often reasons, like emotional attachment, that we keep cows longer than we should.

We invest a lot more than money into our cattle, and we get attached.  We literally put it all out there – blood, sweat, and tears – for our girls.  We know that our cattle are not pets, no one can afford that.  If you think you spend a lot on dog food (I know we do), you should see the feed bill for our cows.  In order for us to properly care for them, dairy cows have to produce enough milk to cover the feed, facilities, and labor costs associated with that care.  Both farmers and consumers like to romanticize farming and the rural lifestyle, but the fact is that farming is still a business.  Sometimes in business, you have to put aside your emotions and make tough decisions.  Hope doesn’t pay the bills.

I don’t know if something happened during her development, or if Motif x Norski is a terrible mating, or if Crazy just lost the genetic lottery. Regardless, unfortunately, she was not a profitable milk cow, and we could only keep hoping her situation would improve for so long. Financially, we lost money, but that happens in business, too.  David and I will always appreciate her 3.5 years of service and the memories we made chasing her through the yard.  We miss you, Crazy cow.

Crazy at about 1 month old – she also liked to try to eat her neighbor when she finished with her milk.

18 thoughts on “Tough Decisions

  1. With all due respect, isn’t it bad enough that mankind has manipulated breeding to force cows to produce massive quantities of milk, which they weren’t meant to do? This is one of those rare times when I ‘get’ what animal rights activists are saying.

    1. Rosie,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. Cattle have been domestic for about 10000 years, and I believe that producing milk is exactly what dairy cattle are meant to do. While selecting for certain traits in breeding has contributed to higher milk production, significant progress has also been made through improvements in feed, facilities and care of these animals. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer.

    2. Yes, cows have been mated to produce milk, but what a lot of the general public doesn’t know is that cows are also mated for longevity, which makes them tougher and gives cows, as a whole, strong legs/body and good feet. Cows, like all ruminants (deer, goats, etc.) are meant to have babies every year. This keeps their internal organs from getting fatty by lactating, it mobilizes excess energy or fat.
      In nature, it is in the spring, that they have babies for the simple fact they will more likely survive summer than winter as a young calf (or fawn, or kid). Farmers are able to breed cows and heifers according to how nature has intended. Although, farmers [usually] breed year round, for business purposes, and can do so because they have facilities to keep cows and calves healthy through the cold weather. And unfortunately, some cows have to be culled because it is too expensive to meet their needs if they are not milking decent. Cow most likely have to be culled due to reproductive issues because a.) if they don’t reproduce they don’t milk and b.) if they don’t milk, they become fat and unhealthy.

      1. Thanks for your comment Julie! We put a lot of thought into our breeding decisions, and we certainly pay attention to more than production. We also cull for many reasons, as I said in the post. Often low production is also related to some other underlying issue. All we can do is try to make decisions that are beneficial for our business, our herd and the animal.

  2. When you say “cull” does that mean you’re putting the cow down or does it just mean you’re removing the cow from your herd, which can include options like selling?

    1. Kristin – We use the term “cull” in place of the word “sell”. The animals we cull are sold at a nearby auction and are generally used for beef. We only put a cow down if that’s our last reasonable option. Thanks for asking!

  3. I work a lot with dairy producers in GA as a state extension specialist. I wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. Dairy farming is a business but so much more. Thank you for all you do to provide a safe nutritious food products to me.

  4. I’m a retired dairy farmer. Culling cows (selling them at auction probably for slaughter) was a
    Was always a hard decision. In the end it comes down to the bottom line, is that cow making money. If I had a heifer to replace her it helped to make the decision

    1. Thanks for reading, Eddie! Cullng decisions are difficult, but also important. As you know we always try to do what’s best for our herd and the cow.

  5. We still have my daughter’s first Grand Champion show cow. The daughter is 24 and the cow is 15 years old. She hasn’t been profitable for some time but then again neither was my horse. Sometimes it isn’t about the $.

  6. A well written article on a tough subject. After spending hours on decisions of genetics, waiting possible months to get a pregnancy , hoping for a heifer, assisting a birth, nursing a sick calf, making memories in the hutches, pastures, barns and show pen, and assisting with her labor, a decision to cull is never easy. The heifer given to my daughter on her birth to start her own herd, the same heifer that grew to be my favorite cow (and every male employee’s biggest headache) and also the alpha of the herd, died at 15 in my arms. I can’t do that with every animal on my farm and still pay the bills. These animals that I cared for as carefully as I did my children were sold while still healthy and able to be productive in another role. Farmers care for their animals because they are compassionate and love the earth and the animals. Yes, we do sell our animals at times, and yes we shed many a tear when we make that decision. If we did not, maybe that would make the job easier, but then again, we wouldn’t be as great a farmer!

    1. Freda, thanks for sharing! I think everyone with livestock has had those special animals that are hard to let go of, but sometimes we have to let go. We can only afford so many pets.

  7. I recently wrote a post similar to this, too! Culling cows is never an easy thing to do, but it is part of farm life and part of the business. Its tough when it is your favorite cow’s time to go. At the end of the day, farmers have bills to pay and mouths to feed just like other families. We cannot afford to house and feed a cow that is no longer an asset to the farm. This doesn’t mean the cow is waste, she just enters another area of the food chain. As a dairy farmer, we have the opportunity to provide not only dairy products, but also beef to a hungry and growing population! Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. Thanks for sharing. I’m not a dairy farmer, but also have animals that need to pay their way. Today is a day of tough decisions for two of those animals that have, unfortunately, almost attained pet status. This is a great reminder to not let the memories and emotions get in the way of making the best decision. (And that sometimes the best decision can result in sad emotions.)

  9. I thought that was a well written and heartfelt article. If there is anything I find despicable in my fellow man, (Woman) it is how we judge others without walking in their shoes. You seem like a knowledgeable and very conscientious Dairy rancher. Of the negative comments you received… Try not to pay any attention….. They’re idiots.

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