To weigh or not: Linking profits, nutrition and pasture condition

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

At Jingeri, we actively use cattle weights as an important and adaptive management tool. In early 2013 we urgently needed to upgrade our stock yards and cattle run. The existing run down infrastructure was not only difficult to use, but more critically was dangerous for our cattle and the team handling them.

The decision was made to include weigh bars with the new crush as it was a small cost in terms of the overall investment for the future. Plus we believe that we will see a rapid return on investment because it takes the guess work of general cattle management.

The cattle run and crush after adding a shed, roofing for shade, new crush with weigh bars and repairs to the rails of the run itself. This piece of original infrastructure was built in the 1960’s and was desperately in need of upgrading.

Relating weights to profits:

The beauty of weighing your cattle each time you handle them, is that just like the canary in the coal mine’, it will tell you very quickly when things are going wrong. Weight fluctuation and trends in your cattle can tell you a number of things.

Maintaining body condition scores in breeders:

Are your breeders with calves at foot getting enough protein in their diet? By calculating and recording average daily weight gains (ADG) over time, even small weight losses become obvious when you are recording weights at every muster. This allows for early intervention with things such as vitamin supplements, lick blocks, early weaning and supplementary feeding. At Jingeri we have avoided severe body condition loss in our cows by using these strategies earlier, rather than later, when body condition loss becomes visible. This has proven an enormously beneficial tool during the extreme dry conditions that we have been experiencing over the past couple of years.

Example of our recording system. We use a freely available software product called Stockbooks©, but a simple excel spreadsheet could suffice. Some of the losses shown are skewed because the cows had recently calved. These reports however can be customised to account for these kinds of management factors.

By avoiding extreme body condition loss, we prevent problems in the future such as reduced fertility, low calf weights, calving difficulty and shortened breeding lifespan. This all amounts to reduced financial loss in the future and greater control of input costs in the short term.

Pasture Performance:

Something that has become very obvious to us at Jingeri is that weighing your cattle can tell you an awful lot about the pastures the cattle have been grazing. I was astounded when we started to monitor cattle weights and the differences in ADG depending on the paddock the cattle were in. Whilst I recognise that most experienced cattle farmers are able to instinctively make these connections, having the weights recorded has allowed us to definitively identify serious pasture deficiencies in certain paddocks. We are now in the process of instigating a pasture improvement plan as part of an overall Grazing BMP. This involves using cattle to strategically graze specific areas, slashing and weed treatments, applications of trace minerals and chicken manure, adding more than 12 new pasture species (seed) and live soil microbes. All of these treatments are guided by a regime of soil testing, so that we are treating the specific deficiencies in our pastures. Ultimately we are very confident that by using these scientifically supported methods (Liddell Grazing Trial, 2014; More Beef from Pastures, 2013Grazing BMP, 2013) we will see within five years:

  • Improved nitrogen availability and uptake within our pastures.

  • Better response to rain events.

  • Greater resilience during dry spells.

  • Improved nutrient cycling and humus production.

  • Improved soil biodiversity.

  • Return of native pasture species – especially nitrogen fixing legumes.

  • Low input costs producing significant financial benefits over time.

Taking the guess work out of when to turn off:

One of the most obvious advantages to weighing our cattle at every muster was the increased accuracy in determining the weight gains in our calves and fattening steers. Having made a significant investment in a mob of high quality Brangus yearling steers in July 2013, it was crucial that despite the drought, we would be able to fatten them quickly ready for market. Weighing them every six weeks or so provided several advantages:

  • Regular handling meant that they all met MSA criteria for temperament. This is critical for meat quality and fat cover as well as ossification levels in the growing steers. Mustering these boys was really a pleasure, they came when called and many could be hand fed. Ultimately this means reduced cortisol levels (a stress hormone) over time which is the enemy when trying to grow out MSA eligible beef.

  • We could see quickly when pasture health was declining as this was reflected in reduced ADG. Our decisions to move cattle to new grazing areas is based on this factor, rather than relying on how the pasture looks. This gave us the freedom to better spell less productive paddocks and ensure that the boys were always given access to the best available pasture at any time. As the dry weather continued and soils dried out, this became an invaluable method for maintaining positive weight gains in these fattening steers, whilst preventing pasture and soil degradation.

  • Recording the ADG over time allowed us to see exactly how we were doing in terms of reaching our weight gain targets. It also allowed us to accurately predict when they would be ready for market.

Yearling Brangus steers on arrival at Jingeri – July 2013. At that point in time they averaged around 220kgs. At turn off they averaged 420kgs empty.

The result of all of this? Well it took us around 13 months to reach our target sale weights. These steers were wholly grass fed with only trace mineral supplementation and averaged a total gain of 200kgs per head. We sold them on to a Feedlot operation at an above market price (for that time), where they would go onto grain for 100 days and then be sold into the MSA/Jap market. Whilst this is not an extraordinary outcome generally, it occurred at a time when high quality grass fed cattle were in extremely short supply due to widespread long-term drought conditions.

And yes we made a significant profit with a greater than 50% margin after costs!!!

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