by: Heather Smith Thomas

One of the largest overlooked costs for stockmen when selling cattle is shrink. For example, if you are taking calves 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 weight just getting them to market, resulting in at least eight percent shrink deducted from your paycheck.

If calves are weighed at the ranch and 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 gathering and sorting, or standing in a corral overnight. Calves that are poorly handled may lose three percent or more of their body weight while being sorted. You don't have much control over the price you get for your calves, but you can usually control the amount of shrink.

Cattle have a large digestive tract, holding many gallons of feed and fluid. The body weight of any given individual varies, 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 about two percent less than midday or evening weights when the gut is full, unless the cattle were held off feed before weighing.

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 excrete a lot of manure and urine in a short time, as when exercising or excited. You can figure a loss of 8 to 10 lbs. per defecation or urination; a gallon of fluid weighs about 8 lbs. 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 up to 18 percent can occur.

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 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 -- as 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 health.

Cattle, especially calves, may have a hard time recovering from tissue shrink (after 24 hours of being held off feed) because 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 affects the amount of shrink. The drier the feed, the less the shrink. But the biggest factor in how much a group of animals shrink at market time is how they are handled.

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 during the first 18 to 24 hours after weaning. The worst shrinks occur if calves are gathered and sorted off the cows and penned a day before being weighed and sold. Even if they have feed and water in front of them, they shrink as much as if they were being held off feed and water because they are too stressed to eat or drink.

Calves 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.

Cull cows sold right after you wean their calves are upset and stressed over losing their calves; their 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, bulls are concerned about the animals in the next pen especially if they're near other bulls. They may spend more time fighting, socializing or walking the fence than eating. Due to the social nature of cattle, it is stressful for them to be mixed with unfamiliar animals, and shrink may 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 1,130 miles), and there was a 0.61 percent shrink for each 100 miles in transit.

Cattle on lush green feed, silage, wet beet pulp or high protein alfalfa hay 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 feces to be 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 on sale day can amount to several dollars per hundredweight on each animal. For example, a 30-minute roundup into the corral may result in 1 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 1 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 (in 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 cattle, but you can do things to minimize shrink. Check 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; they 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 trucks carefully, and if you can't get the animals all on a truck comfortably, take the extra ones to the sale in your trailer. Overcrowding increases stress/nervousness and increases the risk of animals getting pushed down, unable to get up which may result in bruising, crippling or occasionally death from being trampled or smothered. Jamming those last few calves onto the truck may cost more in shrink than the cost of hauling those yourself.

The biggest mistake people make is hurrying -- not handling cattle quietly and slowly on sale day. Wild roundups and ramming/jamming cattle while sorting or loading, etc. can dramatically increase shrink. Thus it pays to have good facilities where cattle can be loaded easily. Take whatever time is needed to do it slowly and gently. Gathering should be done calmly, such as luring cattle into the corral with feed rather than chasing them.

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 time spent handling cattle on sale day, this 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 the temporary shrink from the sort and can be moved quietly onto the scales or the truck with a minimum of shrink.

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