Sorting and Grading Cattle

It may be a little known fact that I grew up on a large cattle ranch. I handled and sorted thousands of cattle before I started working at the Veteran Auction Market at Veteran Alberta. I thought I was an experienced cattleman when I walked into the market for my first day of work. I had a lot to learn. I learned more about the cattle market and how to sort cattle according to other people’s orders in the first six months I was there, than I did in twenty five years of riding the range. That was twenty five years ago and close to two million cattle ago. I have been learning ever since.

Lots of people feel qualified to sort and grade cattle until it comes time to do it for someone else. That is, the order buyers who are buying for, and sending the cattle to, a third party. Then the skill testing begins.

If you are sorting cattle for yourself, such as replacement heifers, how can you go wrong? You know what you want. What anyone else thinks does not matter. It is kind of like eating your own cooking. If you mistakenly put in way too much pepper, who else is going to know, or care?

If you are sorting for your neighbor and he or she is there running the gates, you can’t go too far wrong because they will question you, as you call “in” or “by”. You can explain why or change your mind then.

When it comes time to sort cattle professionally you have to know what the orders are. For example, the top cut white cattle sell well, and so do the top cut tan cattle. There is nothing wrong with either one. They are mainly the same breed and grow out much the same. When you listen to the orders though, some of the finishing lots (outfits we seldom hear from or talk to) do not want to feed any white ones. Some prefer the whites over the tans. Others do not care. They will feed whites and tans together. How do you please them all? You sort the good whites into one pen and the good tans into another. That way the order buyers, depending on their orders that day, can buy each pen, at a premium, and send them to the same feedlot, if it is okay, or send them different directions if that is what their orders are.

Now it gets much more complicated than that simple little demonstration when the blacks, black baldies, reds, red baldies, three shades of grays, brindles, red white faced, yellows, line backs, spotted, browns, horns on, no horns, slick haired, thick haired, shaggy haired, frozen eared and more come into play. Consider that all of these colors and types come in as many different shapes as people do and they all finish at different rates of gain and different grades. Steers have to be sorted from bulls and both have to be sorted from heifers.

In addition to this, these feedlots and backgrounders want these cattle arriving in uniform groups. That is, within fifty pounds of each other or less.

Occasionally, someone questions us as to why we split their cattle into so many different pens. A Charolais herd is almost self explanatory even if they are all steers.

Let’s go through it with a one hundred head group. They will most likely range from 400 to 650 pounds and, most often, even more. When we split them into fifty pound weight breaks we get five different groups. Some are tans, some are whites, some are gray, and some are spotted or lined backed. Some are good, long, thick steers, some are short bodied that won’t grow the same as the thick long ones. A few may be narrow pencil gutted race horse types that take longer to finish than the others. Some may be slick haired. Some still have their horns on. Oops! Isn’t that a one nutter in there? (No one wants that in with the steers or heifers) What are the mathematical possibilities for total splits? If we find ten that fit together we are doing well.

Angus cattle package up into bigger groups but even a hundred head of black steers from one ranch will usually split into at least five different weight categories. There is usually the odd slick one; a few short bodied ones, maybe a narrow one or two, possibly the odd crossbred with horns on. There may be the odd pasture born calf that never got cut.

If we get twenty that fit together we are laughing, but still there is the possibility for plenty of unavoidable splits.

The most important thing for you, the consignor, is that they be graded into the right pen or pens. That is with other uniform cattle that are just like them so that they will bring top dollar. Isn’t that the whole philosophy of a presorted sale? It shouldn’t matter to you if your group of one hundred steers went to a hundred different pens. Isn’t the bottom line, more money, what is important? One thing for sure, if we put short ones and long narrow ones in with the long bodied thick ones, and have a two hundred pound spread in the weight it would make our life a lot easier and the sorting would go much faster. So would the sale. Someone would no doubt buy that mixed up group too, but they definitely will not pay as much as they would for a well sorted uniform group of cattle that will all grow the same, in the same pen, on the same ration. When these cattle are finished, the big feedlots like to ship a whole pen of four hundred steers to the packing plant all in one swoop. They don’t not want to resort that pen of cattle. If the cattle are going to be uniform going out they have to be uniform going in.

People occasionally scold us for breaking their cattle down into too small of groups prior to weighing. Why should that matter to anyone? I know of several auction markets in Alberta that have a small scale at the end of a curved chute. They may have two of these set ups. All of the calves for a presorted sale are marched through the chute and weighed one at a time. Lots of the same owner’s cattle go to the same pen but they are weighed one at a time. This sure makes the weight breaks in each pen come out even. It makes a nice even sort. The sorting staff does not need much skill at all. If I ever design a new yard I would put four of these systems in place. I am racking my brain as to how to do it with the existing yards.

When our sorters are sorting into uniform weight breaks, they sort five different ways on one handling of the cattle. That is in-1, in-2, in-3, and in-4.and by. The “by” pen may have to be resorted but all the “in” pens come to the scale as is. One group or single may look heavier and actually weigh 574 pounds. The light looking group or single may weigh 526 pounds. They will go to the same pen after weighing because the parameters for that pen are set up from 526 pounds to 575 pounds so that the average on the whole pen will be close to 550 pounds when completed. There is actually 48 pounds difference in the cattle. The sorters did the right thing because either group, to the naked eye could have ended up in separate pens. However, on your printout, when the two groups go the same way you may wonder why did they split them?

Why should it matter? There is no more handling on the cattle. They still get split from the main group. If they go to “in-1” or “in-2” they still walk the same distance. If they come to the scale in two small groups or one big group they still walk the same distance. There is often several singles or pairs that look too big or too small for the group beside them. Then after they are on the scale, end up going the same way. The rule of thumb here when sorting cattle here is “If in doubt take it out”. That is so that I do not have so many reweighs in the ring. Reweighs take too much time. It is much faster to have two or even three groups go to the same pen than it is to have a reweigh. There is less handling on the cattle too so it is really to the consignor’s benefit.

Sometimes, especially on small groups or livelier groups, we may send all of the calves up to the scale tub and just put them on the scale one at time to save time and handling. The penners have to make more trips, because some singles end up going to the same pen, only one at a time. The cattle are already weighed by then though. Your weigh sheet will be longer and you may wonder why did we weighed the calves one at a time, but they definitely had less handling prior to weighing because all they did was walk up to the scale.

This is getting to be a lengthy story. I hope I did a proper job of explaining what has to be done and how we do it, and why we do it. I can not see why it should matter to anyone if we weigh the cattle one at a time, in small groups or by the scale full. If this is an issue with you please call me and explain why, because I just can’t figure it out.

Obviously I prefer the scale full idea because it is faster, and time is valuable to us. However, if we want repeat business we have to get top dollar for the cattle. A uniform sort is the only way to get top dollar. Ask any order buyer. A uniform sort is more valuable to you the seller than a fast “lump them and dump them sort”. But for some reason unbeknownst to me some people prefer the “lump and dump” method. Can anyone tell my why?

The following is an interesting and profitable story about sorting cattle. We had an Ontario order for some young cows that we couldn’t get filled here in the summer of 2004. We phoned an order buyer who was sitting at a presorted cow sale. There aren’t many of those around but he was at one. He bought and shipped us a graded load of cows. He didn’t put these cows together. They were sorted and graded into a load by the staff of the auction market he was sitting at. When the load arrived there were young cows in the load but there were old ones too, thick cows, and thin cows too. There was no consistency at all. It was just a bunch of cows, a lot of which we could not use to go east. We couldn’t send a part load that far so we re-sorted them into uniform groups and sold them by auction to get out of them. Three different buyers ended up with the cows. There was a difference of twenty cents on some of the cows. We gained several thousand dollars on a fifty head load by sorting the cattle up “our way”. Why don’t you want your cattle sorted up “our way”? Why don’t you want that extra money?

Roy Rutledge

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