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4 Ways to Improve Beef Cattle Feed Efficiency

By: Kelvin Heppner

October 16, 2015

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Advancements in genetic selection and nutrition are unlocking the potential to improve beef cattle feed efficiency by up to 20 percent, says a beef research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Whether it’s on a cow/calf operation or in a feedlot, managing feed costs is a critical part of the business.

Susan Markus, in the above video at the 2015 Western Nutrition Conference in Winnipeg, explains how there four main areas where improvements can be made:

  1. Selecting animals based on residual feed intake — RFI is a measurement of an animal’s actual feed intake versus their expected feed intake (like a golf score, lower is better.) Markus explains how RFI is better measurement of feed efficiency than traditional feed-to-gain ratios. “The practicality is it’s expensive to do your own on-farm tests, so we can purchase bulls with feed efficiency rankings,” she explains. “The easiest way really is to purchase a bull, and because it’s moderately inheritable, we can select those progeny as replacements.”
  2. Improve the gut environment  — Not all rumens are alike when it comes to microorganism populations.”Knowing that, there will be more work done on sequencing. That might lead to being able to vaccinate or add a feed additive for ones that don’t have an efficient gut,” says Markus. “The feed efficient ones have a different population of microorganisms than the feed inefficient ones.”
  3. Improve diet formulations — As genetics improve, rations will also have to change. “We have a cow that’s changing as we select for genetics, the way we’ve looked at nutrition in the past maybe doesn’t apply as soundly now,” she notes.
  4. Genetic selection of feed crops  — Digestability, not just yield, matters in forages grown for feed. “If the forages can be selected for increased digestability, then maybe we don’t have to put higher energy type feeds in the ration to balance it,” says Markus.

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While acknowledging scientific research generally takes time to implement, she says improvements of 5 to 10 percent in feed efficiency are doable right now, with potential for another 10 percent coming in the next five to 10 years.

Related: Ruminating with RealAg — Ep 4: Residual Feed Intake, Genomics & Sire Selection

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