Last week while at the Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville, Tennessee I had the opportunity to attend a series of classes designated to  inform and educate cattle producers and the associating community on the latest technologies in cattle production. The Cattlemen’s College covered a variety of topics ranging from Nutrition, Reproduction, and Ag Business Management. I took advantage of classes in Feed Efficiency and Reproduction. My mind usually logs material best when I share it with others, so I’ll take a few days to cover the topics as a part of my Cattle 101 series. Some of this information might be over the top for non-cattle producers (some of it got pretty in-depth), but hopefully we can all learn a little better appreciation for all of the knowledge and effort that goes into raising quality cattle.

The first class I attended covered Strategies to Impact Feed Efficiency.

The first question that may come to mind is, Why emphasis on efficiency? Just like many other production systems in our country today, cattlemen must produce more beef with  fewer resources. More land goes into urban development each day in this country, resulting in fewer acres for grazing and crop production. Cattle feed costs continue to rise with this shift and compose as much as 80% of the budget for cattle finishing operations. If we can manage to improve the efficiency of our cattle by 1%, that would be an economic impact equal to a 3% improvement in weight gain.

There are several methods to measure feed efficiency in cattle. Selecting a method that fits the current situation and observations available is an important step in determining how to measure efficiency. Understanding what these terms describe also helps producers better understand values when selecting replacement animals to improve herd performance.

  • Gross feed efficiency – ratio of live weight gain to dry matter intake (DMI; the amount of feedstuff after subtracting for % water present). How much weight does the animal gain per pound of feed consumed? A higher value is better.
  • Feed conversion – ratio of dry matter intake. For every pound of feed intake, how much weight does the animal gain? A lower ratio is better in this case. The average for cattle is usually 6:1 (For every 6 pounds of feed consumed, the animal gains 1 pound.) This value is negatively correlated with mature cow size and post weaning average daily gain (ADG).
  • Residual feed intake (RFI) – ratio between actual and predicted intake based on weight and desired gain. Lower values are good. Unlike measurements of feed conversion, this value is independent of growth and mature size and is better linked to biological traits for maintenance and efficiency.
  • Residual ADG – ratio of actual and predicted gain based on desired intake. A higher number is good.

Understanding these feed and gain conversions is an important step in identifying efficient cattle. Putting things into perspective, on average cattle require 6 pounds of feed for every one pound of gain. This compares to swine and poultry conversions that are closer to 3:1 and 2:1, respectively. Fish are closer to a 1:1 feed to gain conversion. Cattle producers as a whole have not made much genetic progress in feed efficiency with only a 1 pound improvement over the last several decades.

Why has there been little improvement accomplished? Efficiency measures are more difficult to obtain in cattle. Social interaction is required for normal eating habits, so isolation for individual measurements is hard to obtain. This requires expensive facilities and labor for separate feeding facilities. Technology advances are improving this situation. The use of systems like GrowSafe that utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and individual bunk scales to measure intake are making data collection easier, but still expensive.

Quality herd measurement goes a long way in improving over-all herd efficiency. However, selecting animals for individual efficiency will go a long way toward helping farmers produce more with less. Over the next few posts I’ll review why feed efficiency is more difficult to improve compared to other species and room we have for improvement, including the use of genetic information.

How do you measure efficiency in the cattle herd? How do you define efficiency?