Cattlemen’s College: Importance of Feed Efficiency

In an earlier post I introduced the idea of feed efficiency and the conversation on how we can collect these measurements. Now I want to step back and ask the questions Why is Feed Efficiency important? and Why are cattle less efficient?

Raising cattle comes down to a business just like any other production method. Whether we’re talking about an Arkansas hobby farmer with 20 cows in his backyard or a billionaire investor who needs a tax break, or the family who depends on a cattle herd for their livelihood, producing more with fewer resources is something we all face. If resources are invested into raising cattle we need to know what the return will be. In the case of feed inputs, we need to know how efficiently cattle are using these resources so we can identify which animals are doing a better job of this.

How do you define efficiency? The simplest description is amount of output resulting from input. In a cow-calf operation we measure this by pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed. One could take it even further and measure pounds of calf weaned per unit of feedstuff produced. Efficiency can be measured by longevity of cows in your herd, reproductive/calving rates of the herd, and even net profit. How ever you look at it, we need to identify how efficient we are with our resources.

Why is feed efficiency important?

  • Feed costs are an enormous portion of a budget in cattle production. Whether we’re talking a finish feeding operation with high concentrate feedstuffs or in a pasture based system raising a multitude of forages. We spend most of our time, effort, and money in providing feed for our animals. Some numbers out there suggest that we utilize 50% of feed resources to maintain the adult cow herd in this country. 70% of this value for maintenance requirements alone.
  • Maintenance requirements are the largest portion of the equation in cattle efficiency. This includes metabolic requirements for basic processes. This includes adjustments for environmental changes and is related to metabolic and cellular efficiency of individual animals (the later being more difficult to measure). This requirement emphasizes the need to identify individual animal efficiency, even down to a genetic level.
  • Production requirements vary in different stages of production. These include variations for growth, pregnancy, lactation, body composition, and how the animal partitions available nutrients.

As mentioned above, maintenance requirements for the cow herd consume the majority of feed resources. Producers can change this requirement with a few good management techniques.

  • Identify high versus low maintenance cows. Across the board, larger cows generally require more resources for maintenance, in comparison to smaller cows. This value is influenced by milk production, visceral organ weight, lean body mass, and body fat mass.
  • Environment and Feed Resources available determine what type of cow is efficient. Does she have to travel long distances to graze sparse forages, or are feedstuffs available in a close proximity with a high density? The amount of work expended in grazing has a huge impact on maintenance requirements.
  • Are breed and cow type appropriate for the climate? There is a difference between breed types. Brahman influenced cattle adapt well to the hot, humid climates of the Gulf and South Central states, but would not handle well the cold climates of the Northern tier states. Adaptability also plays a major role when working in high-altitude environments.
  • Different feedstuffs have different rates of passage. Forages are digested at a different rate than high-concentrate feeds. Intake regulators also vary. Some cows are more efficient at utilizing low quality feedstuffs than others. Each animal is different.

Selecting for cattle efficiency is a difficult task because of the number of variables involved. Each animal can be more efficient for one aspect and less efficient for another. So identifying what our resources are can help determine what we need. Livestock researchers have a lot to learn, but new technology helps to facilitate this process. We have room for progress and as long as the markets demand efficiency, we’ll be working toward it. In a later post I’ll describe how scientists are utilizing genetic information to identify cattle efficiency.

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