Ruth Correll

Steven Covey coined a phrase “begin with the end in mind.” This principle applies to the cattle industry just as any other business.  

Most business owners are in business to optimize profit. The owner is motivated by things they can do which increase their “bottom line.” 

A research project conducted at Auburn University by Dr. Darrell Rankin, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, was to determine if pre-weaning and starting calves on feed as well as following a recommended health program would have any impact on the “shrinkage” during the marketing phase and thereby increase the value of the calves. 

Shrinkage is defined as the weight cattle lose from the time they leave the farm until they complete the marketing process and arrive at their intended destination such as the stocker/feeder operation in the case of feeder calves

It is true there is going to be some shrinkage during the marketing process, but according to the study, it is possible to decrease shrinkage by pre-conditioning, weaning and following a good health protocol. Rankin’s study actually showed that as much as 50 percent of the expected shrinkage could be reduced by adopting the pre-conditioning practice. This practice can improve the value of feeder calves both to the producer and the buyer.

Most of the calf crop in Tennessee is weaned and marketed the same day. Dr. Jim Neel, retired UT Extension Beef Specialist, referred to this method of weaning as the “Peterbilt” method of weaning. The calves are rounded up, loaded onto a trailer and hauled to the local auction market.  This process causes a great deal of stress on the calves and results in a large amount of weight loss and actually costs the producer a good sum of money.

The buyer of the calves always figures in the expected amount of weight loss and possible health costs when he determines the maximum price he can afford. Again, research data has shown time and again that calves that have not been pre-weaned and gone through a recommended health program are more likely to get sick during travel or when at they arrive at the stockering location.

What does the loss of weight, due to shrink cost the typical Tennessee producer? Let‘s assume a 25 cow herd with 20 calves to sell. Calves weigh an average of 500 pounds when removed from their mamas. Various studies have reported feeder calf shrink to range between 10-15 percent during the marketing of unweaned calves. 

With 500-pound feeder calves, this could total 50-75 pounds per calf. Producers probably do not think about this loss, but the shrink would result in more than 40 pounds loss per calf. With 20 calves, that would add up to 800 pounds or a loss or at $1.25 per pound this would be $1,000. This would be a large negative impact on the income from the cow-calf operation 

Preconditioned feeder calves would also experience some shrink but, not as great as those not weaned prior to marketing. The estimated shrink for weaned, preconditioned calves is in the 5-10 percent range.  They would experience some shrink due to loading and transportation but are already prepared to eat and drink from a trough and eat hay when they reach their destination. Research also shows that preconditioned calves are not as likely to get sick because they are not as stressed as those being pulled directly from their dam.

The take home message is that weaned and preconditioned calves are going to get to market with more weight and be of greater value than “Peterbilt” weaned calves.   This means more money in the producers’ pocket and this makes business sense. Again, “beginning with the end in mind” when making management decisions sounds like a good business strategy.

Ruth Correll is a UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County. She can be reached at (615) 444-9584 or

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