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Look for higher feed-efficiency genetics

With feed efficiency important to the bottom line for cattlemen, selection of breeding stock for growth traits can be a major benefit in reducing production costs, says an Alberta Agriculture beef research scientist.

John Basarab told a packed house at the recent Tiffin Conference Series in Lethbridge that his team’s research has gone from the lab to the fields, and proves there is value for selecting breeding stock with genetic disposition for higher residual feed intake (RFI) values. His work shows that the more efficient cattle (cattle with a genetic disposition for improved feed efficiency) grow at equal weight and average daily gain as less efficient animals, but with reduced feed intake.

They also have improved feed-to-gain ratios of 10 to 15 per cent and have lower net energy requirements to maintain their bodies. They also have reduced methane production of 20 to 30 per cent, a factor that will gain importance as society pays more to store greenhouse gases like carbon in the soil.

Equal production, reduced cost

Basarab said RFI animals show no change in carcass yield and quality grade, and exhibit little if any effect on age at puberty, calving pattern in first-calf heifers, and show no negative effect on pregnancy or calving and weaning rates.

With more cattle genetically predisposed to be more efficient, the bottom line of a beef operation should be improved. Efficient cattle showed reduced feed costs of eight to 10 cents per head per day for feeders, which in Alberta represents a total potential savings of $19 million to $38 million a year. Savings for cows could be eight to 15 cents per cow per day, saving $54 million to $110 million a year.

“Why talk about feed efficiency? It has been talked about from management and genetic perspectives for years. It is damn important,” Basarab said.

Maintenance requirements of beef cattle are largely unchanged in last 100 years, he said. Up to 71 per cent of the cost of production for cow-calf operations is for feed, bedding and pasture, while up to 75 per cent total dietary energy cost in breeding cows is required for maintenance. Cattle with the genetic potential to perform well on less feed can have a significant impact on production costs.

Environmental Issues

Basarab said that while production of greenhouse gases by chickens, pigs, dairy cattle and sheep declined between 1988 to 2007, beef cattle’s figure remained static, just slightly worse than sheep. He said improved feed efficiency is about more than reducing costs. It is also a public image issue because of the greenhouse gas issue. Canada’s beef footprint is competing with the rest of the world, Basarab said. Reducing this footprint through improved feed efficiency is a marketing opportunity the beef industry should use to its advantage.

Most livestock greenhouse gases — up to 85 per cent — come from the cow herd. That points out a need to concentrate on cow herd feed consumption. Work at Olds College shows that when you take a group of bulls there are huge differences in feed efficiency, not necessarily between breeds, but to a greater extent among bulls of the same breed. Some use less feed to produce a unit of body weight., while others use 1.5 kilograms more feed than other cattle to produce a unit of weight.

No negatives

Basarab said studies so far have shown no adverse production affects in cattle carrying higher genetic potential for feed efficiency over less feed-efficient cattle. And work is ongoing to further evaluate carcass yield and traits.

On the reproductive side of the equation, females produced from bulls with high feed efficiency were equal to other cattle as far as conception rates, and calving patterns and calving difficulty were concerned.

Preliminary work with replacement heifers showed they performed similarly to less feed-efficient counterparts, on less feed. And other work looking at how cattle perform on swath grazing in fall and winter, showed mature cattle with higher feed efficiency either gained more weight, or lost condition at a slower rate, than other cattle that did not have the high feed efficiency genetics.

Basarab said a southern Alberta farmer has developed, and soon will be introducing, a system to measure feed intake for individual animals. Some of Basarab’s findings show efficient cattle have lower energy requirements, they usually produce lower body heat, and produce less methane with lower feed intake. Getting value from carbon credits may also be an option, he said, but the big saving is on feed cost. Overall benefits will increase as carbon credits funding increases. †

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