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By Robert Fears

Use of livestock scales on cow-calf operations grew slowly until rising input costs and flat cattle prices began to narrow profit margins. Then it became important to measure and improve herd production efficiency to stay in business.

Measuring and collecting data on pregnancy percentage, calving intervals, calving percentage, weaned calf percentage, weaning weights, and pounds weaned per exposed female have become standard practices for many ranches.

Cattle weights at various stages of life provide evaluations of nutrition, genetic, health and other management programs.

Cattle weights are important for determining the proper feed quantity and medication dosage. The proper doses of dewormers and antibiotics are based on an animal's weight for dosage calculation. For average large cow-calf producers, a good set of scales can save a producer dollars that would have been wasted in improper dosage, or losses due to underdosing.

"The ability to measure performance is a key component in all beef cow operations," write John Arthington and James Stice in University of Florida IFAS Extension bulletin number AN129. "Regardless of size, producers must be able to identify the current status of their operation in order to make adjustments toward improvement. Cow culling is a key management tool for herd improvement. Being able to identify the poorer producing cows within a herd is essential. The old adage, ‘You can't get where you're going unless you already know where you are,' certainly holds true in beef cattle management."

Animal weights are a measure of cow herd performance

"It is a good idea to weigh cattle every time they are worked, but the most important weights are birth, weaning and yearling," says Dr. Joe Paschal with Texas Agri-Life Extension Service at Corpus Christi.

"Birth weight is one of the factors that determines calving ease, but, more importantly, birth weight is the starting point for measuring growth. The difference between birth and weaning weights is a measure of the cow's ability to raise a good calf. These weights help identify cows for culling and indicate whether calves have received the right amount of nutrition. Weaning weights may indicate a need for creep feeding calves or improving genetics in the cow herd. If calves are sold at weaning, their weight is important at this production stage because it determines their market value."

"Weaning weight is one of the most important, although most abused, measurement of cow herd performance," write Arthington and Stice. "Weaning weight can be calculated in many ways; therefore, it is essential that a producer understand the method of calculation when attempting to estimate his or her production efficiency.

"Calf age is an important consideration when calculating weaning weight. Significant variation in weaning age or breeding season can affect the reliability of using weaning weight to measure cow herd productivity. One method of accounting for this variation is adjusting weaning weight to a constant age. A commonly used weaning age adjustment is 205 days. To adjust, simply calculate calf gain by subtracting the calf's birth weight from its actual weaning weight. Now, divide calf gain by calf age in days. This will be the average daily gain (ADG). Now, multiply ADG by 205 days for a uniform adjustment based on age of the calf. To do this, it is important to know the birth date of each calf."

"It is recommended to weigh cows at the same time calves are weighed," write Tom Troxel and Bill Wallace in Cow Herd Performance Testing Program. "The cow weight is used to identify which cows wean a high percentage of their body weight. Generally, cows that wean a high percentage of their body weight are more efficient and profitable than cows that wean a low percentage.
"Weaning percentage is the calculation of the calf's adjusted 205-day weight divided by the cow weight times 100 (for example: 525/110 X 100 = 47.7 percent).

Mature cows should wean 50 percent of their body weight when their calves are 205 days of age. As cows have increased in size, it has become harder to accomplish that goal. A 1,000-pound cow will more likely wean a 500-pound calf than a 1,400-pound cow weaning a 700-pound calf (205-day adjusted weight)."

"Most of the time as cow size increases, the efficiency percent decreases," write Troxel and Wallace. "There also is a negative relationship between efficiency percent and calf break-even. As efficiency percent goes down, calf break-even (cost of producing a pound of beef) goes up. The efficiency percent calculation is very important. A cattle producer would more likely want to keep a replacement heifer from a cow that weaned 50 percent of her body weight rather than 38 percent of her body weight."

The measuring system

"Livestock scales are part of a herd performance measurement system," says Terrell Miller of Cattlesoft, Inc. "The other parts of the system are animal identification and record keeping. Identification numbers are placed on individual animals through ear tags, tattoos, fire brands or freeze brands."

One of the most advanced ways of numbering cattle is with radio frequency identification (RFID) or electronic identification (EID) ear tags. Numbers on these tags can be recorded with a hand reader and downloaded directly into cattle management software on a computer.

"As cattle EIDs are scanned, you can automatically add the animal's number to an existing record, add a new record or view a record that already has the recorded value," says Miller. "Some electronic readers include a memory capability that allows for storing of scanned electronic ID values without the need for a connected computer. This is a good option if a computer is not available or is not practical at chute-side. After working cattle, you can download the list of EIDs, and even record events such as medical treatments or update pasture locations."

Scales are of many types

"Like animal identification and record-keeping formats, platform scales for weighing cattle come in various degrees of sophistication," Miller continues. "Basically there are 3 price categories of digital indicators for platform scales. The most economical, currently costing between $700 and $800, are read manually. Weights are taken from the indicator and recorded on a pad, spreadsheet or notebook. They can also be entered manually into a computer."

Miller usually recommends an indicator from the middle price range and sells the most units from this group. These indicators, costing between $1,200 and $1,500, are ideal for basic weighing with electronic identification reader integration. They have internal memory that can be downloaded into a computer format for additional analysis.

Indicators ranging in price from $2,000 to $5,000 are the most expensive and comprehensive. They allow recording and viewing complete animal history while cattle are being weighed. Reports and graphs can be designed right on the indicators.

Additional parts of platform scales include a weighing platform and load bars. Weighing platforms are usually made of aluminum with skid-resistant surfaces. The aluminum makes them durable, lightweight and easy to clean.

If a producer doesn't mount their load bars under a squeeze chute, a weighing platform is needed which adds another $500 to $700 to the scale price. Load bars, containing sensors, are designed for use with platforms, crates, cages, in alleyways or in squeeze chutes. They cost between $1,100 and $1,800.

Regardless of where it is used, a platform scale should be animal friendly. It should have a low profile that makes it easy for cattle to step on and off. A cage or crate ensures that the animal stays on the scale while weighing. A rubber mat on the platform offers additional comfort to the animal and is easily hosed down after use. Scales should be water resistant and the display or indicator should be protected from moisture. Load cells should be completely enclosed within the load bars.

For weighing calves lighter than 200 pounds, a hanging-type scale is normally used. They generally cost less than platform scales and are more portable and lightweight. A sling is placed around the calf's belly and then attached to the scales. The sling holds the calf while it is weighed.

The most popular type of hanging scale has a 220-pound capacity and is reliable and accurate. An "S" hook at the top allows the scales to be hung to a tree or structure, and the sling is attached to a hook at the bottom.

Platform livestock scales are beneficial technology for cow-calf operations. The purchase price must fit the ranch budget and the scale must enhance profits for it to be a wise buying decision.