Sorting cattle

Cattle being sorted in a pen. Photo Credit: Kalyn Waters

Recently I had a conversation with a vegetable farmer from the upper mid-west. Somehow we got on the topic of scales and I explained to him that many cattle producers don’t have a scale. The farmer looked at me in pure shock! “How do you know how much to feed your cows, that’s based on weight right?” he stated. I went on to try to explain how often times mature cows are not weighed on a regular basis and about half way through me making excuses for poor management practices he stopped me to say, “You’re telling me cattlemen base a huge part of their herd’s management off of your educated guess!”….Yes sir we do, and no sir, no we should not! For the cattle industry, it is common practice to use estimates or rules of thumb to guide decisions, but in other fields of agriculture, or most forms of business for that matter, precise evaluation is utilized for maximum efficiency.

Pounds are a critical measurement in the cattle industry. Cattle producers get paid by the pound, all feed and commodities are bought by the pound, and the pound is the primary indicator of performance. While cattle producers often think in “pounds” on a daily basis, mature cow weights are frequently estimated instead of determined by a scale. Taking the time to weigh your mature cows can have a significant impact on your ability to fine tune your herds management strategies. And, while many producers feel they are accurate enough at guessing mature cow weight, and some are, there is a large subset of producers who still assume they are running 1,100 pound mature cows.  Let’s face it, with today’s genetics and phenotypes those 1,100 cows are about as common as a unicorn in west Texas.

Taking the time to weigh mature cows gives producers the opportunity to fine tune their management strategies. There are a plethora of reasons why mature cows should be weighed on a regular basis, but here are three reasons to consider:

Stocking Rate

Cattle producers are working overtime to manage costs, so optimizing carrying capacity on range or pastures is critical to managing fixed costs such as land. Therefore, when calculating the lands AUM’s (Animal Unit Month = total feed required for a 1,000 lbs cow and her calf up to 6 mo. for one month) to determine the carrying capacity, over or under estimating mature cow weight can dramatically impact your stocking rate.

For example if you assume that your mature cow size is 1,100 lbs, when in fact you are running 1,300 lbs cows, you would be over stocking your grazing lands. And on the flip side, if you are underestimating by just 100 pounds, for every 11 to 12 head you could add an additional animal unit to your stocking rate.

The bottom line is that when it comes to stocking rate, having an accurate weight on your mature cow herd is critical. North Dakota State University (NSDU) has developed a great worksheet for calculating stocking rate:  Doing the Math: Calculating a Sustainable Stocking Rate

Performance Records

A majority of all performance records that are kept by cow/calf producers are based off of weight. In most cases producers are able to easily collect weight records for calves, whether these are coming from individual weights, or sale day averages. These weights are critical in determining the overall performance of your herd. However, they must be tied back to mature cow weight to determine overall efficiency.  For example, when you are looking at weaning weight, one might assume that the herd that averaged 600 pounds on their steers was superior to the herd that averaged 525 pounds. However, when you take into consideration that the 525 pound calves were weaned off of 1,200 vs. the 600 pound calves that came off of 1,600 cows (yes they are out there!), the overall efficiency of the two herds is dramatically different. Ideally individual cow weights would be collected so that percent body weight weaned can be determined, but having an accurate mature herd average is still better than an estimate.

Calculating animal performance is often what comes to mind, but having an inaccurate weight of animals also makes it difficult to track the performance of the range and pasture lands that we are managing. Knowing the total number of pounds per month that a pasture can support will allow for proper stocking and evaluation of forage production. For most herds, fertilizer and feed are the two largest annual costs. If a producer is not able to determine the total pounds of cattle that an acre is supporting per month, investments in fertilizer cannot be managed.

Drug Dosage

Whether you are treating foot rot or administering some type of parasite control (dewormer) to your herd, you are calculating your dosage based on body weight. Typically the rule of thumb for this is to guess the body weight of the animal, add 300 pounds, round up and dose accordingly (be honest we have all done it!). However, this is far from best management practices. In the case of dewormers, under dosing cattle is leading to drug resistance. The parasites are exposed to the drug, however, not at a rate high enough to kill them. This creates resistance as the most susceptible parasites are dying, while more resistant ones are surviving and reproducing. In addition, research has shown that over dosing does not result in increased control, thus is a waste of money. The same theory applies to antibiotic dosage. Just like your doctor stresses that you must take the entire bottle of antibiotics, it is critical that we are dosing our cattle for the right weight. Under dosing will allow for the pathogen that we are treating to be exposed to lower levels over a period of time, and this too can decrease the effectiveness of that treatment and result in pathogen resistances. In addition, proper dosing is critical for withdrawal times.

At the end of the day, taking the time to collect weights on your mature cow herd will be nothing but beneficial to the management of your operation. In a day and age when the profit margins in the beef industry are constantly being challenged, it is sometimes the simplest practices that can have the largest returns.

** Adapted from original article submitted to Progressive Cattlemen by Kalyn Waters

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