Years ago, wayyyy back in the early 2000s, when we began raising cattle, we heard rumors of something called ‘culling’. Being typical novices, however, and convinced in our own knowledge, we paid it little mind. Of course, we agreed that if you had a bad animal in your herd you should get rid of it, but really? Our herd? Come on! We had ornery animals, maybe a dimwitted or stubborn one here and there, but cows we needed to cull? I don’t think so.
Lesson 1: How Not to Cull
Knowing nothing about cattle, other than what we’d read (part of which came from sales brochures) we’d purchased a herd of bovines designed to thrive in a climate as far removed ours as Buckingham Palace is from East St. Louis. This is no exaggeration. Looking back, the only less-adapted bovines for our environment would have been musk oxen, but we weren’t sure they’d stay behind electric fence. Still, it wasn’t all bad.
We purchased Scottish Highland cattle, known for their hardiness. Bred throughout the centuries in Scotland, where often winter was simply a time of slow starvation for animals, these cows could handle a lot. And we put them to the test. From birthing small calves to making their way on poor forage, the Highlands lived, bred and survived our Southern summers. But did they thrive? Honestly, we didn’t know enough to answer that question. Well, not for about 13 years. But we’ll get to that later.
After a few years, surprise, surprise, the cattle had numerous calves and we needed to sell some heifers. And sell them we did. Other novice farmers came out of the woodwork to purchase nice heifers from our mob and, after a years of selling, we took a good look at our herd and realized we had culled – in reverse! That’s right. We’d spent two years selling off all of our nice, replacement heifers and cows and held onto everything dumpy!
Lesson 2: Pay Attention to the Pigs
Shortly after de-citying ourselves, and mid new-animal-procurement phase, one of our youngest family members insisted on buying a breeding pair of pigs. And breed they did! Before we knew it, we had piglets everywhere and the pork flowed like wine. But there was a problem with our boar – Houdini – he had a limp. He and his mate – Princess – had ‘released themselves on their own recognizance’ when young and we couldn’t find them. Then, after a week or so, both suddenly re-appeared in the front yard and seemed awfully eager to return to their pen and two squares a day. Both had been hurt, though. Coyotes were rampant here then and, from the bite marks on both pigs, Princess and big H had barely escaped a vicious pack.
After a few weeks, the pigs mostly healed up. Houdini had suffered a deep cut on his scrotum, though, and, forever after limped. Somehow, several years down the road, we determined that cut damaged his fertility and we had him castrated.
Even a blind hog finds an acorn every now and then.
Once cut, the limp disappeared. So too, however, did future Houdini progeny. Houdini was our first cull.
Nelson was our second.
Nelson – named after the Rockefeller – was our next boar. Like his namesake, sadly, he spread disease and malformation through those that followed him. Nelson carried a gene for something called a ‘hydroseal’ which, lacking a detailed description, is bad. After a year or so, Nelson was our second cull. Nobody, not even the sows, missed him.
Lesson 3: Sheep cull easily
Somewhere along the way we picked up a few sheep. Troublesome from the beginning a bearded fellow here kept saying “There’s money in sheep,” so we kept them around. Honestly it may have been the cute lambs and delicious chops too, but who’s arguing? Sheep, we found are definitive animals. There are garlic-milkshake-strong characteristics that set sheep apart from other four legged grass-eaters. First, sheep are terribly stupid. Scared, they will run right through a fence that itself genuinely terrifies them. Calm, they won’t remember you since yesterday as the person that fed them and not the dog that wants to eat them. Second, sheep are a special-needs animal when it comes to fencing. They won’t stay behind barbed wire and will strangle themselves in that electric woven wire netting. Third, sheep are extremely susceptible to worms. You can worm them regularly, but that won’t necessarily solve your problem. As an experienced vet once said, “Everything – except moving sheep regularly – is a band aid for their parasite problems.” This fact taught us the cull, even more than pigs did.
That same vet from Georgia introduced into the US a terribly simple method of testing sheep for worms. Of course, all those folks that delight in scooping sheep poop and staring at it under a microscope were terribly disappointed with this innovation. The rest of us, however, now had our Saturdays free. Armed with the extra time and knowledge we began pulling down the eyelids on the sheep in our ever-expanding herd and, periodically, sending a batch with a bad worm load, poor twinning capability, or other problems off to the sale barn. We were burgeoning cullers by now.
Lesson 4: Winter Cattle in a Forever Summer
At some point during this odyssey we actually ate some of those Highland cattle. But not often. The ground beef was great. The steaks? Unpredictable at best. Maybe it was the cattle. Maybe it was the grass. Regardless, we wanted to eat beef, so we started buying in young steers of another breed and finishing them off alongside the Highlands. All of their steaks were good. Every one of them.
After about five years of this, it dawned on us that we were raising cows for beef that we didn’t actually want to eat and we weren’t raising the cows that we did want to eat. This led to the big cull – all of the Highlands – in favor of a breed developed for our seemingly-endless heat and humidity.
Lesson 5: Sometimes We Need to Be Reminded
Fast-forward to this winter.
In 2016, we simply didn’t get around to our yearly sheep culling. Mid-winter of 2017-18 I realized we didn’t have enough hay for all those dang sheep out there. So, we decided to cull heavily. After a year of not culling there were more than a few obvious losers running around. But that wasn’t all. For several years we mixed black-headed Dorpers into our herd to add mass to our lambs. The problem was they were terribly flighty and often did not respect the electric fence. If a sheep was out, it had a black head. If the fence was broken, there was a guilty look on a black head. After a while some of those ewes came awfully close to eating a .22. There’s only so much you can take, after all. When you spend day after day pulling and placing and fixing fence, only to have it broken over and over, you reach a breaking point. The Great Cull of 2018 was the result. But it was so hard! Some of those rogue ewes had gorgeous ewe lambs by their sides. They were truly beautiful animals. They were healthy and well-muscled. The lambs were growing quickly. The only problem was that a lot of that growth was actually taking place on the wrong side of the fence. So I told myself I had to do it for my sanity. Not sure such a thing still existed, I stuck to my guns and carried a BIG load to the sale in early March. The check for them helped ease the pain, but it wasn’t until grazing began that I really saw the benefits.
In our best pasture, we have always been able to graze our sheep for about two weeks. If we made their electric paddocks smaller, they’d simply break out. This year, though, we will graze this same pasture for six weeks! That’s right. By culling we have basically tripled our feed. Yes, we got a lot of rain this spring, but not that much.
My point is this – culling is simply removing problems and it is absolutely necessary. Culling involves animals here. Sometimes it’s people, or habits, or jobs. Every time I’ve culled, though, I’ve never missed those animals we booted. The only ones I regret are the ones I’m not courageous enough to let go.