Gathering stocker cattle for shipping early in the day can make plenty of sense: You beat the heat, you're ready for the trucks, and just maybe such a gather is stipulated in the buyer contract. But this traditional routine may cost producers more than they realize.

“For years everyone thought that to reduce shrink you needed to gather the cattle and get them penned early while it was still cool. We didn't understand that from the time we're moving cattle, shrink begins,” says Frank Brazle, a livestock Extension specialist at Kansas State University (KSU). Brazle is also a long-time stocker operator.

“All told, I might be able to add 9 to 12 lbs. per head to a set of cattle,” says Brazle, describing the potential difference of gathering cattle at daybreak, versus two to three hours after sun up.

In fact, based on years of personal experience and a growing body of research, gathering cattle when the rooster crows, rather than waiting an hour or two, can take two helpings of shrink before cattle reach the scale, he explains.

First, there could be more weight heading into the pens. As an example, in one multi-year, KSU study evaluating steers grazing Smooth Bromegrass pastures (Table 1), steers gathered three hours after daybreak shrunk at a rate of 0.5%/hour compared to 0.69%/hour for steers gathered at daybreak. Steers shrunk 0.71% and 0.67%/hour when gathered one or two hours after dawn, respectively.

Brazle says part of the time element has to do with cattle grazing patterns. Depending on factors such as forage type and environment, cattle will typically graze during two to four distinct periods throughout the day, he explains. The primary grazing period is often during the early morning. As a result, trapping cattle at first light robs them of their main meal of the day.

All told, Brazle says producers can pick up about 3 lbs./head/hour for every hour after daylight calves are allowed to graze, until 9 a.m. or so. Quick math says that's a 9-lb. difference/head between gathering cattle at 6 a.m. versus 9 a.m.

Table 1. Shrink relative to gathering time*
Gathering timesa
Periodb Daybreak Daybreak + 1 Daybreak + 2 Daybreak + 3
Shrink (%/hr.) 1c 1.25 1.19 1.05 0.39
Shrink (%/hr.) 2g 0.61 0.96 0.17 0.94
Shrink (%/hr.) 1-2j 0.89 1.08 0.71 0.64
Shrink (%/hr.) 3h 0.16 0.02 0.59 0.15
Shrink (%/hr.) 1-3k 0.67 0.72 0.67 0.50
Total shrink (%) to 1,500hm 6.2 5.9 5.0 3.3
Total shrink (%/hr.) to 1,500h 0.69 0.71 0.67 0.50
aGathering times are at daybreak, one hour after daybreak, two hours after daybreak or three hours after daybreak.
b Periods are designations for times following gathering steers from pasture.
cPeriod 1 is the first 2.2-2.6 hours following gathering from pasture, except steers gathered at T2, which was 3.4 hours.
gPeriod 2 is the next 1.9-2.7 hours following Period 1
hPeriod 3 is the next 1.9-2.2 hours following Period 2
jCumulative rate of shrink across periods 1 and 2
kCumulative rate of shrink across the first three periods
mTotal percent shrink is based on the weight measured immediately upon gathering steers from pasture and a weight measured at approximately 1,500 hours.
*steers grazing Smooth Bromegrass pastures
Source: Kansas State University

“The cattle we allowed to graze for a few hours before shipping didn't shrink at a faster rate than those we brought in earlier. We haven't accelerated shrink because we put a little fill into them,” Brazle says.

Next, along with getting more weight to the pen, delivering cattle just in time to load means there are more of the pounds you gathered climbing onto the truck (Table 2).

Shrink due to feed deprivation and transportation comes in both the loss of fill, excretion of feces and urine, as well as potential fluid loss from animal tissue, Brazle says.

“Cattle begin to lose body weight at the time they are moved,” he emphasizes. “The greatest proportion of body weight loss occurs during the early hours of feed and water deprivation.”

Table 2. Shrink relative to time off feed and water
Cattle type Fasting environment Animal weight (lbs.) Length of fast in hours Shrink rate (% of body weight/hour)
stockers drylot 825 0-2 1.25
stockers drylot 825 2.4-4.7 0.61
stockers drylot 825 4.7-6.8 0.16
stockers drylot 825 6.8-9 0.74
stockers drylot 782 0-2.5 0.91
stockers drylot 782 2.5-5 1.06
stockers drylot 782 5-7.5 0.90
stockers drylot 782 7.5-10 0.75
stockers drylot 862 0-2 0.76
stockers drylot 862 2-4 0.48
stockers drylot 862 4-6 0.55
stockers drylot 862 6-8 0.65
stockers drylot 694 0-2 1.41
stockers drylot 694 2-4 0.87
stockers drylot 694 4-6 1.12
stockers drylot 694 6-8 0.62
stockers drylot 694 10 0.34
stockers transit 914 0-5 0.92
stockers transit 914 5-10 0.38
stockers transit 914 0-15 0.11
Source: Kansas State University

For perspective, based on multiple research studies, Brazle says cattle shrink at approximately 1%/hour for the first three to four hours of food and water deprivation. That rate then declines to as little as 0.1%/hour up through 10 hours.

“It all has a lot to do with how good your facilities are and if you can sort and load cattle quickly. Good facilities will make you money, otherwise you're running a lot of shrink off of them,” says Austin Brown of the Brown Ranch at Beeville, TX. “I've bought a lot of ranch calves where the rancher brings pairs in and sorts calves off the cows. You get a pretty good weigh-up in that kind of situation.”

Table 3. Adjusting price for shrink ($/cwt.)
Buyer offers 2% 3% 4% 6% 8%
90.00 88.20 87.30 86.40 84.60 82.80
89.00 87.22 86.33 85.44 83.66 81.88
88.00 86.24 85.36 84.48 82.72 80.98
87.00 85.26 84.39 83.52 81.78 80.04
86.00 84.28 83.42 82.56 80.84 79.12
85.00 83.30 82.45 81.60 79.90 78.20
84.00 82.32 81.48 80.64 78.96 77.28
83.00 81.34 80.51 79.68 78.02 76.36
82.00 80.36 79.54 78.72 77.08 75.44
81.00 79.38 78.57 77.76 76.14 74.52
80.00 78.40 77.50 76.80 75.20 73.60
79.00 77.42 76.63 75.84 74.26 72.68
78.00 76.44 75.66 74.88 73.32 71.76
77.00 75.46 74.69 73.92 72.38 70.84
76.00 74.48 73.72 72.96 71.44 69.92
75.00 73.50 72.75 72.00 70.50 69.00
74.00 72.52 71.78 71.04 69.56 68.08
73.00 71.54 70.81 70.08 68.62 67.16
72.00 70.56 69.84 69.12 67.68 66.24
71.00 69.58 68.87 68.16 66.74 65.32
70.00 68.60 67.90 67.20 65.80 64.40
69.00 67.62 66.93 66.24 64.86 63.48
68.00 66.64 65.96 65.28 63.92 62.56
67.00 65.66 64.99 64.32 62.98 61.64
66.00 64.68 64.02 63.36 62.04 60.72
65.00 63.70 63.05 62.40 61.10 59.80
64.00 62.72 62.08 61.44 60.16 58.88
63.00 61.74 61.11 60.48 59.22 57.96
62.00 60.76 60.14 59.52 58.28 57.04
61.00 59.78 59.17 58.56 57.34 56.12
60.00 58.80 58.20 56.60 56.40 55.20
Data compiled by Montana State University

The Brown family covers every production segment — buying and selling cattle, including commercial and seedstock, cow-calf, their own and custom backgrounding, stockering and retained ownership feeding.

With that in mind, Brown points out length of ownership in the cattle has plenty to do with whether or not shrink — the industry's inherent overhead of gathering and shipping cattle — actually changes hands. In the Browns' case, for instance, Austin says, “On our cattle that we raise, background, stocker and feed, I don't worry about shrink. You lose it in one enterprise and gain it in another, but at the end you wind up with the same amount of money.”

Split ownership between any of those phases, though, and buyers and sellers are trading plenty of pounds that may be reflected in adjusted prices but are never paid for directly (see Table 3).

“On the day of shipment, I need to do a better job of execution so cattle don't have to stand and wait any longer than necessary,” says Brazle. “If you know the truck isn't going to be there until 8:30, then you want to execute it so you deliver cattle to the loading pen as close to 8:30 as possible. My management needs to be good enough that I can execute having my cattle delivered to the pen within 15 minutes of the trucks being there.”

Table 4. Shrink impact of ambient temperature
3-21°F 64-93°F
Weight (lb.) 597 720
Lost body weight 46 68
Percent shrink (%) 7.7 9.5
Source: Kansas State University

Shrinking Losses

Of course, there are other common contributors to more or less shrink.

For instance, both research and reality corroborate the fact that cattle melt more in warmer weather than cool. For an example, in one study during a 40-hour fast and transit, cattle hauled at temperatures of 3-21° F shrunk at 7.7% compared to 9.5% on cattle hauled when the thermometer read 64-93° F (see Table 4).

Moreover, no matter the temperature, proper handling goes a long way in protecting gains. Across eight pastures and nine years, Brazle says he's seen rough handling increase shrink by as much as 5% compared to similar weight calves in the same geographic area.

“If we're taking 30 lbs. off an eight-weight steer because we weren't prepared to gather them properly, maybe we need to go back and take a look at the economics of gathering the cattle,” says Brazle.

Likewise, it pays to spend time reviewing and negotiating the contract's weighing conditions. As Brown explains, standard pencil shrink, at least in the southern tier of states, runs 2% if cattle are weighed on the truck and 3% if they're weighed on the ground. But the actual conditions for weighing — such as an early morning gather, no feed or water, etc., — are as diverse as folks doing the trading and are open to negotiation.

“Shrink is just something we have to deal with,” says Brown. “It balances the playing field as long as it isn't abused.”

Still, when all is said and done, Brazle believes keeping an eye on the clock when it is time to gather and load cattle might be the most powerful way to manage shrink.

He says, “Producers have to understand time and what it means to shrink.”

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