What happens when a rancher has to cull deep

Selling off cattle isn't just reducing inventory and it isn't just a business decision. By selling off good cows, ranchers often are selling their work and planning, and they can't just buy new cows to replace the old.

The accumulation of a herd of cattle is a painstaking process. To have to sell out due to drought is painful. (Shelby Chesnut / Grand Vale Creative LLC)
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The news out of northern and central North Dakota is bad.

Really bad. And other parts of the region aren't a lot better.

The drought continues in that part of North Dakota, largely unabated by occasional rains, and it certainly is spreading into other parts, too. The forage didn't grow and, at this point, it's too late for it to catch up. That means the pastures can't feed cattle now and the hay crop can't feed them later. And for many of the ranchers in northern and central North Dakota, this is year two or three or four of dry conditions, so there is no stockpile of feed to fall back on.

That means they're selling down or selling out.

If you're not closely acquainted with the cattle business, selling cows in a drought might seem like just a business decision that has to be made. To an extent, it is. The feed isn't there, and it's expensive to buy feed, so if you're trying to pencil out a profit, selling the cows is sometimes the best decision.


But selling cows is so much more than a lesson in economics.

Most ranchers cull most years. If a cow comes up open, loses a calf, doesn't have milk, raises poor calves, gets hurt, gets mean or gets out a lot, she might find her way onto a trailer. It's not profitable to keep a bad cow. But a rancher keeps his good cows and his great cows around, year after year, to raise their calves.

When there isn't feed and ranchers start talking about culling deeper, they mean they're selling cows that are profitable. They're selling their good cows. And sometimes they're selling their great cows.

Getting a good herd is not something that just happens. It takes years of careful breeding and keeping track of who raises a good calf and who doesn't. It means keeping one replacement heifer over another because that heifer's mama was a good cow. It means reading bull sale or semen catalogs to find the right genetic partnership for one's cows.

After years and years of that trial-and-error process, a rancher may finally have the herd he or she wants it. To have to watch those carefully selected and cared-for cows go through a sale ring is painful.

Yes, a ranch can buy new cows. But they won't be those carefully selected cows. The rancher won't know who likes to hide in the north corner of the pasture when they calve, who rebreeds quickly, who calves quickly and who looks a little rough but raises a great calf. Genetics can only tell so much, and even the best cows or heifers purchased won't be anywhere close to the herd that was.

Some of the ranchers who sell out this year will never buy new cattle. Their herd is gone, and they'll move on. That's hard to take, too.

It's not that crop farmers have it good up in those drought-stricken areas. Crop insurance, too, only covers so much. But a bad year in the fields won't mean getting rid of their years of accumulated knowledge and work.


So say a little prayer for the ranchers who are making these decisions. It's stressful and emotional and difficult, and I'm sure they can use all the support they can get.

To read more of Jenny Schlecht's The Sorting Pen columns, click here.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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