Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Heather Smith Thomas

One of the largest overlooked costs to the stockman is shrink, when selling cattle. For example, if you have 100 calves you are taking to a feeder calf sale, to be weighed off the truck and a two percent pencil shrink taken, those calves may have already lost six percent or more of their actual weight just in the process of getting them to market, resulting in at least an eight percent shrink deducted from your paycheck. Or, if calves are weighed at the ranch when sold to an order buyer, he may take a three to four percent pencil shrink when they are weighed, even though the animals have already experienced a shrink of two percent or more just by gathering and sorting, or by standing in a corral overnight. Calves that are poorly handled may lose three percent of their body weight just while being sorted. The number of actual pounds involved may be more important than the price you are receiving for your animals. You don't have much control over the price you get for your calves but you can usually control the amount of shrink loss.

Cattle have a large digestive tract, holding many gallons of feed and fluid. The body weight of any given individual may vary, depending on whether the tract is full or relatively empty. This will depend on time of day, how much the animal has eaten or exercised, or how far it has been hauled. Morning weights, when cattle are relatively empty because they've been resting during the night instead of eating, are generally less than mid-day or evening weights when the gut is full, unless the cattle were held off feed before weighing. Morning weights, when cattle have feed and water available free choice, are usually about two percent less than evening weights.

Mature cattle may carry nearly 30 percent of their weight in the gut (and bladder), and may lose a lot of weight quickly if held off feed and water for 24 hours or if they pass a lot of manure and urine in a short time, as when exercising or excited. You can figure a loss of 8 to 10 pounds per defecation or urination; a gallon of fluid weighs about 8 pounds. This type of weight loss is called excretory shrink. Shrink losses of up to 10 percent of body weight are not uncommon in cattle held off feed and water for 24 hours, and in some circumstances shrinks of up to 18 percent can occur. Research has shown that about 60 percent of total excretory shrink loss during marketing procedures is due to manure passage and about 40 percent is due to urine secretion.

There are two types of shrink—excretory shrink, which is loss of belly fill, and tissue shrink. Animals that don't eat or drink for up to 12 hours usually experience just excretory shrink. A small amount of excretory shrink (two to six percent) is not detrimental to the long-term performance of the animal. A short time on feed and water will refill the gut and bring the weight back to normal.

Tissue shrink involves decrease in carcass weight (actual muscle loss). This occurs after the digestive tract and bladder are empty and the animal's body becomes dehydrated. This can occur on a long truck haul or during long periods without feed. It takes longer for the animal to recover from this type of weight loss, and it can be detrimental to the health of the animal. One reason why cattle, and especially calves, may have a hard time recovering from tissue shrink is that within 24 hours of being held off feed, some of the important microbes in the rumen die off, making it difficult for the animal to digest feed when it does start eating again. The stress involved with this type of shrink also has a negative effect on the immune system.

Shrink can vary greatly from one group of cattle to another, but a general rule of thumb is that cattle will lose at least two percent of their body weight overnight, young calves shrink more than older, weaned calves, and the type of feed the cattle are on will affect the amount of shrink. In general, the drier the feed, the less the shrink. But one of the biggest factors in how much a group of animals shrink at market time is how they are handled.

Most cattle buyers walk among a group of calves on sale day to look at them, evaluate and sort them, cutting back some, etc. and this serves to stir the cattle and move them around. Thus they shrink more before being weighed, costing the seller money. Some buyers insist that cattle be held in a corral overnight without feed before weighing, or be gathered from pasture early in the morning before they have a chance to graze and drink. If cattle are brought off pasture and weighed at the ranch or won't be hauled very far for weighing, the buyer may insist on a certain amount of shrink being subtracted at weighing, before the price per pound is calculated. This is called pencil shrink, and is deducted from the actual weight.

Calves sold directly off their mothers are best sold at home rather than after a truck haul to a sale, because they won't eat much at all during the first 18 to 24 hours after weaning. The worst shrinks occur if the cattle are gathered and sorted off the cows, and penned a day before being weighed and sold. Even if those calves have feed and water in front of them, they will shrink as much as if they were being held off feed and water because they are too stressed to eat or drink much.

Calves sell better if weaned a few weeks ahead of selling, giving them time to adjust to weaning—especially if they are held long enough to start gaining weight again. Selling them only a week or two after weaning may result in a loss of actual body weight. But if they are sold after being fully weaned, they're not stressed and will shrink less if they have to be in a corral very long or hauled before weighing. Calves that are weaned and shipped at the same time always shrink more than those already weaned and accustomed to eating hay. Other stresses that increase shrink include hot weather, stormy wet weather or high humidity, etc. since cattle won't eat well during these times.

Cull cows sold right after you wean their calves may not eat much because they are stressed over losing their calves—and the gut will be relatively empty when you weigh them. Weaned calves or yearling cattle generally don't shrink as much. Cull bulls sold and weighed directly off the ranch don't shrink as much as bulls hauled to sales. When taken to new surroundings and held overnight, some bulls are more concerned about the animals in the next pen—especially if they're near other bulls or penned with strange animals. They may spend more time fighting or socializing or walking the fence than eating, and any extra activity results in more shrink. Any emotionally upset animal will shrink. Due to the social nature of cattle, it is very stressful for them to be mixed with unfamiliar animals, and you can expect shrink to double when you mix groups of cattle during marketing.

An Iowa study involving 4,685 feeder cattle found that cattle purchased from ranchers averaged a 7.2 percent shrink, compared with a 9.1 percent shrink on cattle purchased from sale yards. The cattle in the study were shipped varying distances (from 150 to 1130 miles), and there was a 0.61 percent shrink for each 100 miles in transit.

Range cattle that are not accustomed to being in a corral will often shrink more than five percent when held in a drylot overnight, since they are more nervous and upset. Calves sorted off their mothers and corralled for the first time will also shrink excessively. Cattle put into a strange pen shrink more than if they are in familiar surroundings.

Cattle on lush green feed, silage, wet beet pulp or high protein alfalfa hay will shrink more than cattle on drier grass pasture, grass hay, or other low moisture feeds. The lush, high moisture feed or high quality alfalfa goes through the tract faster and causes the feces to be more loose and runny. One study showed that cattle from dry pasture had a 3.5 percent shrink after a two hour haul, compared to a 5.3 percent shrink for cattle off lush green forage. Another study showed that cattle on wet feeds shrink about 4 percent after an overnight or 12 hour fast, while fat cattle on concentrates shrink about 2.5 to 3 percent during a 12 hour fast.

Shrink can cost you a lot of money on sale day, amounting to several dollars per hundredweight on each animal. For example, a 30 minute roundup into the corral may result in one percent shrink. Loading, hauling (less than 100 miles), unloading and weighing will generally create an additional 2.5 percent shrink, sorting or waiting an extra hour before weighing will mean another one percent, 12 or more hours without feed or water before weighing will be an additional 2.5 percent, etc. Cattle that have been sold and held by an order buyer or for resale often recapture their shrink and weigh significantly more the second time even if it's just been a few days, due to the poor handling that resulted in a large shrink prior to the first weighing. There is often a great deal of money lost to the producer because of shrink during the original handling and hauling to market.

You may not be able to do much about the price you get for your cattle, but you can do things to minimize shrink. Sorting, loading, hauling to a sale, standing without feed and water can result in body weight loss of 15 percent or more, and this loss is not recovered, even with higher prices. Check the weather forecasts and try not to sell during bad weather. Avoid rough handling, poor feed, dirty water in a corral where cattle are held before selling—since cattle may refuse to drink—delays in transport or weighing after cattle are gathered, overloading or underloading trucks, etc. Crowded cattle are more stressed and nervous and will urinate and defecate more. Underloading can also increase shrink since it allows cattle to move around a lot during transport. Any time cattle are moving they tend to urinate and defecate more often.

Load the trucks carefully, and if you can't get the animals all on the truck comfortably, take the extra ones to the sale in your trailer. Overcrowding not only increases stress and nervousness, but increases the risk of animals getting pushed down on the floor, unable to get up—which may result in bruising, crippling, or occasionally death of an animal from being trampled or smothered. Jamming those last few calves onto the truck may cost you more in shrink than the cost of your hauling those yourself. Also it pays to have all your paperwork done ahead of time so that once the truck is loaded it can leave.

The biggest mistake people make is hurrying—not handling cattle quietly and slowly on sale day. Wild roundups, ramming and jamming the cattle while sorting or loading, etc. can dramatically increase shrink. Thus it pays to have good facilities where cattle can be worked through and loaded very easily. Well designed facilities are a big help, whereas forcing cattle to do something unnatural to them will always raise their stress level and increase the shrink. Take whatever time is needed to do it slowly and gently. If you add another person for the gathering, use a gentle lead animal that will come readily into the corral, or create a better loading facility that saves time and problems, this will more than pay off in less shrink for the animals. Gathering should be done calmly, such as luring cattle into the corral with feed rather than chasing them in.

Cattle shrink every time they are moved. They can very easily shrink 0.5 to 1 percent for every 30 minutes they are moved around a corral. The more quickly and quietly they can be sorted, the less shrink, so it pays to plan ahead and do your sorting ahead of sale day. If you can reduce the number of sorts and the time spent handling cattle on sale day, this really pays off. If calves are already weaned and sorted (separating steers and heifers, sorting by size, etc.) or if your cull cows are already in a separate pen or pasture from the rest of the herd, they will have regained their temporary shrink from the sort and can be moved quietly onto the scales or the truck with a minimum of shrink.

If you are taking cattle to a sale, keep in mind that hauling time and conditions will affect shrink. Usually the first few miles are the worst, but if the truck is properly loaded and conditions are ideal for hauling, the shrink rate per mile after that will be less, as the cattle adjust to the trip and settle down.

If you are receiving cattle, keep them separate from others for the first few days, to minimize stress. Stress and shrink are cumulative, and the more stress factors, the more the shrink. If cattle must be hauled long distances to market or to a feed yard, it often pays to give them a rest stop where they can be fed. This may cut the shrink back to about 7.5 percent instead of 9 or 10 percent or higher. Giving cattle time to fill up again pays off most for cattle that have to be traveling for more than 10 hours.

Make sure incoming cattle have a chance to rest and regain their shrink loss before you mix them with others. Calves that are not allowed to rest (in their familiar group) may have shrink levels 15 to 25 percent higher than rested animals. Any advantage you might have had from compensatory gain can be lost due to poor performance and increased sickness or mortality if the calves experience a high rate of shrink.

SIDEBAR: MORE STUDIES – There have been a number of studies looking at shrink in cattle, and they all confirm the reality that shrink is like a death loss: it is an immediate subtraction from your profit.

A study at the University of Wyoming showed that feeder steers standing for eight hours in drylot shrank 3.3 percent, a 16 hour stand resulted in 6.2 percent shrink, and a 24 hour drylot stand resulted in 6.6 percent shrink. Feeder steers spending eight hours in a moving truck shrank 5.5 percent, 16 hours on the truck resulted in 7.9 percent shrink and traveling for 24 hours produced 8.9 percent shrink. You can easily see that standing in a corral overnight and then shipping the calves to market can result in a huge amount of shrink.

Studies have found no differences in shrinkage between breeds, but there can be differences in shrink between steers and heifers, depending on the conditions.

A study in Iowa looked at the time it takes for calves and yearlings to regain in-transit weight loss after arriving at a feedlot. The cattle were purchased in seven states and hauled an average of 660 miles. At point of departure the yearlings averaged 673 pounds and the calves averaged 504 pounds. During shipment the yearlings lost 9.62 percent of pre-shipment weight and the calves lost 9.46 percent. The yearlings required 16 days and the calves 13 days to recover the weight loss.

In another study, yearlings were trucked from Texas to Iowa, with in-transit weight loss of 8.83 percent. About 47 percent of this loss was excretory shrink and 53 percent was carcass (tissue) weight shrink.


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