Liveweight loss and recovery in cattle

Liveweight is often used as the basis for trading cattle and is the major determinant of carcase weight. However, due to time off water and feed through handling and transport, considerable weight, and therefore, financial loss can occur.

Liveweight includes the weight of the body tissues and the contents of the alimentary tract (gut fill) and bladder. Losses in any of these components, including tissue moisture, will reduce liveweight.

Change in gut fill has the greatest influence on liveweight. In adult cattle, gut fill can account for 12-25% of an animal’s liveweight .

The main factors determining the weight of gut fill include:

  • the quantity of water ingested
  • feed quantity and quality
  • time since the animal last drank or ate
  • rate of passage of gut contents.

During the selling process, water consumption has the greatest effect on liveweight change.

Grassfed versus grainfed

Pasture type and season affect the percentage of gut fill, with fill increasing as feed quality and palatability decline. Cattle that graze on pasture, or are fed roughage, have a higher percentage of their liveweight as gut fill than those on a grain diet. As such, these animals lose liveweight at a faster rate when off feed and water. Gut fill of cattle on grain diets decreases as the proportion of grain in their diet, and the length of time on grain, increases.

Measuring liveweight loss

The rate of liveweight loss is measured relative to initial liveweight. Cattle lose weight most rapidly during the first 12 hours without feed and water. After this, the rate of loss slows progressively. This means that much of the loss usually occurs before animals leave the property, particularly, if they are mustered well in advance of transportation. Cattle will continue to lose weight if not offered feed and water.

The general weight loss pattern to 72 hours is shown in Table 1. This pattern is similar for cattle that have access to water but not to feed.

Table 1. Average liveweight loss up to 72 hours without feed and water for cattle of various liveweights

Hours without
feed and water
Liveweight loss (%)Estimated liveweight loss (kg)
200 kg400 kg600 kg

However, cattle usually have intermittent access to feed and/or water during the selling process. Liveweight losses have been reported at around 9% after 3 days and 10% after 5 days in unfed animals, but only about 5.5% and 8% respectively, in fed animals. For longer periods with intermittent access to feed and water, losses have been estimated at less than 12% after 8 days and 14% after 10–11 days.

Keeping cattle off feed and water for six to eight hours before transport is recommended as they travel better, are easier to handle and are cleaner on arrival. Cattle are also deprived of feed and water while they are travelling, so further loss of liveweight is inevitable. Therefore, any unnecessary delays between mustering and selling need to be avoided to minimise liveweight loss. Generally, the time factor is more important than the distance travelled.

Providing water whenever possible during the selling process is the major key to reducing liveweight loss. Reduce additional losses by providing hay and/or salt, with water.

Liveweight recovery

In Australia, store (non-slaughter) cattle are normally sold either on a per head basis by private negotiation in the paddock, by auction at saleyards, or on a per kilogram liveweight basis soon after arrival at feedlots.

The effect of the selling process on subsequent weight gain is important to the new owner, such as feedlot operators. The total time of full feed and water during the selling period, rather than the length of any interim fasting period, has the greatest influence on long liveweight recovery.

Studies indicate that cattle require 3 to 21 days (generally 10 to 21 days) to recover their initial liveweight after periods of fasting and transportation. This seems to be irrespective of whether they recover in a feedlot or on pasture.

Written by Jennifer Wythes, formerly QLMA Brisbane, reviewed by Kieran Smith, formerly Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. This document was reviewed as part of the GrazingFutures Project. GrazingFutures is funded by the Queensland Government’s Drought and Climate Adaptation Program (DCAP) that aims to build drought and business resilience for Queensland livestock producers.

Related information

Handling and transport of cattle, sheep and goats (MLA project final report) →

Selling options for beef cattle →

Cattle marketing ready reckoner →

Improving carcase traits →