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Livestock scales: Are they worth the cost?

Jamie Hawley for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 November 2017
Livestock scale

When considering the purchase of livestock scales, producers should put a sharp pencil to whether or not knowing the accurate dosage for vaccines and dewormers, and benchmarking prices at the sale barn, is justifiable for their operation.

Weight is an important factor in beef production. The right number on the scale will eventually connect to the right number in your pocket. But ask yourself: How often do you need to know that number? Livestock scales are necessary during shipping time. But is the piece of equipment essential enough to invest in and have around all the time? You decide.

Efficient herd treatment

Carole Knight, University of Georgia extension agent, says to really be a serious cattleman, purchasing scales is the first step.

“If you’re really wanting to seriously market animals,” Knight says. “It can be such a valuable tool to be able to know what you’re weighing.”

For vaccines and medicines to work efficiently, knowing the weight of the animal, or an estimate of the weight, is a plus. Knight has a commercial herd of her own in southeastern Georgia, and she owns a set of scales. Each time they administer something, they run the calves over the portable scales.

“It’s helpful to know where your cow herd is sitting,” Knight says. “So you’re dosing correctly.”

With a deworming program, knowing the weight of an animal is necessary to ensure the correct amount is being applied. Once a year, Knight runs the whole herd across the scales as well, even the mature cows. They do this just so they know where the herd stands, around 75 head total.

“We find knowing what our calves weigh to be beneficial,” Knight says.

There is not a limit on herd size to purchase a scale. It all depends on whether the scales are going to be used enough, which will outweigh the large up-front investment in the equipment.

Knight believes it’s worth it, especially for commercial producers who just take their cattle to the sale barn. This way they know what position they are in with their calves.

“I hate to put a number to it – 50 head, 100 head to make it worth your while,” Knight says. “The folks that just take them to the sale barn, it’s their best guess.”

Livestock scales range from $500 to $3,000. They are not a cheap piece of equipment, and there are a lot of different options to consider.

“They are not cheap,” Knight says. “But you have to look at it like anything in the cattle business, as an investment.”

Prepare easily for shipping time

Owning livestock scales may not be a necessity, but at least having some access to some may be a good idea. Across the country, there are various sizes of cattleman and marketing associations that have a universal set of scales members can use.

“Some county groups or associations purchase a set of scales and set it up like you are renting them,” Knight says. “A good many of them sell in load lots or are a part of a marketing association.”

David Cromley produces beef in southeast Georgia and uses the scales from the Southeast Georgia Cattle Marketing Association. The association owns a couple of sets of scales that are free to use by any of their members.

“It’s not bad as far as trying to line up when each person gets to use them,” Cromley says. “We can normally get the cattle weighed in an afternoon and take them back that night.”

Cromley’s father helped organize the association so producers would be able to put loads together that were like in color, weight and vaccination program, etc. The dues the members pay help pay for the scales.

“I think every producer should at least have access to scales,” Cromley says. “Whether it’s something they own by themselves or own cooperatively with neighbors or something.”

Cromley operates a 400-head commercial operation and, on average, he runs his calves across the scale three or four times before market. He has made adaptations to his chutes specifically for the portable scales. Each time, right before they reach the headgate, they have run across the scale.

“It gives us a benchmark so we know kind of where those calves are as far as weight goes,” Cromley says. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s better to know what your cattle are doing instead of just going in the dark, as far as not knowing how they are performing.”

Cromley is able to predict what the calves will weigh because he estimates their average daily gain. He explains that looking at those numbers gives him the view of his herd he can’t get while driving the truck through the pasture. He conducts a birthweight, benchmark weight and weaning weight. Knowing the weights allow him to sort his calves into similar loads during shipping time.

“We’ll know who the standout calves are and be able to put them in better loads,” Cromley says. “I think from the buyer’s standpoint, they’d rather see more uniform loads of cattle, so it’s helped us be able to do that.”

Cromley and his father were actually thinking about buying their own scales because of all the handy synching technology that goes along with them now.

“It’s some neat stuff, something that could be valuable to cattle producers,” Cromley says. “It easily gives you the real numbers you can work with, and it helps you become a more efficient manager.”

But is it really a necessity?

Alan Armstrong, a cattle producer from southwest Indiana, says he has been in the cattle business long enough and he doesn’t need a scale. He operates 450 mother cows and 700 feeder calves. According to him, it’s not worth the investment.

“If you have a conservative mindset, you don’t need a scale,” Armstrong says. “The easiest money you make is the money you don’t spend.”

His operation is spread out over 2,800 wooded acres. He agrees it is probably a good idea to have a set of scales, but he wants to keep his overhead low. It’s not worth it to him to spend the time on operating the scales and transporting them.

“It’s a timely thing,” Armstrong says. “I don’t want to have to set up and hook up every time.”

When it comes to administering vaccines or deworming, Armstrong says it may cost a little more to not know the exact dosage, but they are not far off. Armstrong says he has been around cattle enough he can guess within 20 pounds of their weight. A scale is simply not a necessity to him.

“You have to have a headgate,” Armstrong says. “Not a scale.”  end mark

PHOTO: Paying $500 to $3,000 on livestock scales only pencils out when knowing the weight of the animal betters the operation significantly. Photo by Jamie Hawley.

Jamie Hawley is a freelance writer based in Ohio. Email Jamie Hawley