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Managing Shrink

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Posted Aug. 31, 1998

Weather forecasters are predicting "hot and dry" for the rest of the fall and maybe into the winter. Washing our cars, seeding clouds, rain dances - we haven't been able to make it rain, and we can't seem to make livestock prices go up; but, by using good management techniques, we can lessen the harm done by both.

One good technique to use is the management of shrink. Shrink in the livestock business is lost weight. Consider a 600-pound steer calf that, for whatever reason, shrinks 6% at marketing. At today's price of $71 cwt, the 564 pound market weight would only net $400.44, compared to $426.00 net for the calf before shrink. That's a difference of over $25 on one calf. At $2,045 a semi-truck load, you can see the importance of managing shrink.

Shrink is most often measured from the time an animal leaves its origin until the animal is weighed at its destination and is usually the result of time off feed and water and the stress of handling and hauling. Temperature extremes, weather changes, changing environment, feed changes, and even the animal's disposition effect shrink.

For example: An $80 offer for your 600 pound steers with a 4% pencil shrink is actually worse than a $79 offer with only 2% shrink (600 x 96% x $80cwt = $460.80 while 600 x 98% x $79cwt = $464.52

There are two types of shrink: excretory shrink and tissue shrink. Excretory shrink is caused by the animal's elimination of its digestive tract contents, in the form of urine and manure. Because of the size of the animal's digestive system, these gut contents may account for as much as 10 to 25% of the liveweight of the animal.

Tissue shrink is a metabolic change that occurs when the animal begins to draw moisture and nutrients from the carcass tissue to compensate for a loss of moisture in his internal organs. It results in a decrease in the actual carcass weight. With excretory shrink, the animal's lost weight is rapidly replaced within a few hours; however, with tissue shrink, recovery takes from 10 to 36 days.

Only excretory shrink takes place early in the handling and hauling process, for about the first 12 hours. Tissue shrink becomes a factor on longer hauls. Research indicates that shrink rises rapidly in the initial handling, loading, and the first few miles of the trip and continues to increase, but at a decreasing rate, as mileage increases.

Since so many things influence shrink, it is difficult to find estimates that are applicable to a particular situation. But it is important to have some idea what to expect in certain situations. First, a rancher should realize that during an overnight stand, cattle typically drop 2% of their body weight.

Shrinkage resulting from sorting, loading, standing, and fasting cattle can range from 3% to 10%, but averages around 8% or 9%. At The Noble Research Institute we have experienced overnight shrinks ranging from 3% to 7% with bermudagrass and crabgrass stockers at various times during the spring and summer. Other researchers agree that for every half-hour you spend sorting and loading your cattle, they shrink 0.5%. Weight lost to shrink continues to rise rapidly when you add shipping to the picture. Even on a short trip of two to two and a half hours, we have measured shrink from 1.3% to 3.4%. Keep in mind that this shrink is in addition to the sorting.

The time needed to regain weight loss depends on many things, including age, condition, and whether the animal was preconditioned prior to shipment.

Older, fatter, and preconditioned animals recover faster than younger and thinner animals and those animals that haven't been preconditioned to drylots, feed bunks, and water troughs. Understandably, animals that get on feed quicker, regain quicker. Furthermore, if you retain ownership of your cattle, your recovery period should also include the time it takes the animal to resume its initial rate of gain.

In some areas, when cattle are bought directly from the ranch, it is customary to stand cattle in a drylot overnight without feed or water and weigh them in the morning, while in other areas it is more common to apply "pencil shrink". Pencil shrink is a bargained upon shrinkage taken off the top of the measured weight of the animal in an effort to fairly take into account the "fill" of the animal. Pencil shrink is usually 2 to 3%, and may go as high as 5%, depending on the area.

If you decide to use this method, remember that the amount agreed upon should take into account how the animals are handled prior to weighing and where the weighing takes place, and that these weighing conditions should be specified in the contract. If you don't have your own scales and must transport the calves to weigh them, the initial loss to shrink won't be documented and you'll have to absorb that loss. Remember this when you negotiate.

Have your calculator ready to figure pencil shrink when comparing offers for your animals. For example, an $80 offer for your 600 pound steers with a 4% pencil shrink is actually worse than a $79 offer with only 2% shrink (600 x 96% x $80cwt = $460.80 while 600 x 98% x $79cwt = $464.52).

If you sell by auction, you won't have to figure which offer is better, but you will have to decide when to transport your animals to the sale. If allowed their morning "fill" graze, cattle will weigh more when they're shipped. However, some research indicates that fuller cattle shrink more in transit. Plus the later they get there, the later they'll sell. Some ranchers swear by delivering their animals the morning of the sale. Not only do these cattle not get their morning graze period; they also won't have time to become accustomed to their surroundings and to fill back up. In addition, it's been our experience that animals that are not allowed feed and water continue to shrink up until they're weighed and possibly longer. Therefore, the feed you buy, on average, not only adds weight to the animal, it keeps the animal from losing more and more than makes up for the price of the feed.

While rain dancing and car washing hasn't had much effect on the weather, shrink can have a huge effect on the profit you make on your cattle. By being aware of what shrink is, what causes it, and how to avoid it, we can begin to be paid for every pound we raise. Looking at it that way, if we manage shrink properly, we can, in a roundabout way, have an effect on price after all.

Tips for Managing Shrink

  • Be familiar with weather forecasts and avoid working or transporting during temperature extremes.
  • Protect animals from weather while hauling.
  • Move slowly and quietly when handling and loading cattle; avoid rough handling.
  • Use help that you and the cattle are familiar with.
  • Sort at home.
  • Avoid exposing animals to a strange environment without preconditioning, i.e. moving range cattle directly to pen or mixing groups.
  • Avoid equipment breakdowns by maintaining your scales, truck, shoots, etc.
  • Don't overcrowd; gate cattle into compartments to take pressure off end animals when truck starts and stops.
  • Avoid under-loading (stressful as well).
  • Keep the trip as short as possible; allow cattle to rest.
  • Avoid rough roads; provide for good footing.
  • Provide feed and water; pay attention to its quality at rest stops and destination.
  • Avoid stressful ration changes right before shipping; however, allow free access to dry cured grass hay (dry forage stays in gut better).
  • Withhold water 2-3 hours before shipping.
  • Withhold grain and alfalfa or clover hay (laxative affect) within 12 hours of shipping.
  • If cattle are coming off succulent, green feeds, precondition to a dry feed (the moisture leads to scours and excessive urination).


About the Author

Nicole Sowinski, a native of Velma, Oklahoma is the daughter of Sonny and Aline Lyon and has served as a livestock intern this summer at the Noble Research Institute. Currently living in Lawton, Sowinski is a senior at Cameron University, studying Animal Science. She has also earned a bachelors degree in marketing (BBA)from Cameron as well as a masters degree in marketing research (MMR)from the University of Georgia. After finishing her degree in May '99, Sowinski plans on going either to OSU, TAMU, or Colorado State for graduate work in Agriculture, probably in genetics or reproduction.