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Using and troubleshooting calf scales efficiently

Nicole Turner Published on 17 September 2014

Calf scale cart

Dairymen, veterinarians and nutritionists are increasingly asking for weighing solutions as a way to monitor their heifer growth and efficiency goals. University research suggests heifers should experience 1.8 to 2.2 pounds of gain per day through 150 days of age.

During the following 150-day period of growth, a gain of 1.6 to 1.8 pounds per day should be targeted. Ideally, heifers should be weighed at birth, weaning, 150 days and near breeding age to track their progress.

Weight tapes or scales
Collecting the weights of animals can be done by weight tape or by scale. A weight tape is fine if the same person is taking the measurement every time. A scale can offer advantages over a weight tape, as a scale can be integrated into the regular movements of the animals.

For example, gathering birth weights can be simplified by weighing the calf while it is en route to the calf barn or hutches. Placing a scale near the calving pen or moving the calf with a cart that has a mounted scale are two ways to make weighing newborn calves routine. Placing scales in alleyways where heifers are transitioned creates an opportunity for weighing while reducing the work of moving cattle to a central scale on the farm.

A scale that can be moved easily is a scale that will be used more often. A scale that does not require the platform to be located on a flat surface may be ideal depending upon circumstances. For example, weighing calves that are entering or leaving hutches are often times not located on level areas.

Not only is a scale effective in measuring the growth of heifers, it is a useful tool for those who are raising various breeds of cattle. Many breeders who have traditionally had experience with Holsteins are beginning to have exposure with other breeds. Due to the difficulty in estimating weight and maturity of smaller framed animals, the use of a scale is the easiest method of capturing an accurate weight, regardless of age or breed.

Troubleshooting electronic scale problems
An electronic scale is composed of three parts: a platform to support the animal, load cells that sense strain or weight, and a digital indicator display that interprets signals received from the load cells and displays a calculated weight. Several feature levels of digital indicator displays offer basic weight or the radio frequency identification electronic identification (RFID EID) recording software, daily gain calculating and even group weighing statistics to provide more data for managers.

When working with electronic scales, there are several issues that commonly arise, which are easily remedied. Not achieving accurate weights is the most prevalent issue that emerges. While there are scales on the market that can gather accurate weights on uneven terrain, most scales require a firm, level surface to rest on. Clearing any debris from near load cell sensors and under the scale platform can reduce inaccuracies. Lastly, place a known weight on the scale, such as a tractor weight or a 50-pound bag of feed. If the displayed weight is not accurate, the digital indicator calibration should be adjusted.

Non-stable display weights are another issue livestock and dairy producers face while weighing animals. The displayed weight on the scale-head drift because of animal movement. Some digital displays feature a restless animal ‘lock-on’ software setting. This feature calculates, then displays an accurate weight even when the animal continues to move around.

Another concern is electronic load cell cables with a knick or cut. Damaged cables invite moisture into a scale’s sensitive circuitry, which results in inappropriate readings and eventual load cell sensor failure. Examine cables for signs of injury if non-stable weights persist; a damaged cable is cause for concern.

A final problem that scale users encounter is that the digital display appears accurate one day and not the next. This is a common symptom of load cell cable damage or if a load cell sensor is failing. When moisture, or even humidity, is introduced into the scale’s electronics, irregular voltage is interpreted, resulting in an inaccurate weight.

Although moisture can be harmful, regular disinfecting and washing is recommended to limit disease exposure. Careful load cell cable repair by a trained technician can extend a scale’s load cell life. Though often times a load cell sensor component needs to be replaced. If operators protect electronic scales from excessive moisture and cables from injury, they should enjoy many years of weighing confidence.

Long-term benefits
Knowing the weight, rather than guessing, can provide a multitude of benefits outside of just monitoring growth rates. These include spot-checking daily gains to measure where diminishing returns start, dosing medicine correctly to pinpointing management issues. At the end of the day, monitoring calf weights from birth to freshening can add to an operation’s bottom line. PD

PHOTO
Photo provided by Digi-Star.

Nicole Turner

Nicole Turner
Livestock Scale Product Manager and Technical Consultant
Digi-Star

Read a related article, "Calf scale monitors success of feeding program."

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