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Efficiency Testing

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Effective Cattle Selection for Efficiency

“We need to be measuring traits crucial to the rancher’s profitability and get away from the hype and glitter that’s entered the industry in the last 10 years.”

Leo McDonnell, Owner

The McDonnell family, owners and founders of Midland Bull Test, have introduced a new technology that will allow the industry for the first time ever to analyze the feed efficiency of individual live animals.

“The McDonnells are bringing to bull testing this idea of finding bulls that have improved feed conversions by implementing a new tool dubbed GrowSafe,” says John Paterson, Extension Beef Specialist for Montana State University. “This test could lead to vast improvements in the forage and feed efficiency of cattle – because now we will be able to identify individual animals with greater feed efficiency and propagate those genetics across the country.”

“Measuring RFI is more than a simple conversion of requiring eight pounds of feed to produce one pound of gain. It is the difference between the actual feed intake of the animal and the expected feed intake,” Paterson says.

RFI offers an improved alternative to traditional efficiency measures. It is a calculation of true feed utilization measuring differences in metabolic efficiencies. The concept of RFI is measuring the amount of feed an animal consumes above or below its maintenance requirements as well as its performance (growth) levels. “For example, let’s say we expect a given animal to consume 22 pounds of feed. But, we find through data collection this animal is only eating 18 pounds daily. This means the four pound reduction in intake is actually a negative RFI value,” Paterson says. “The concern is the research shows both of these animals had the same average daily gain (ADG). However, one animal is consuming 18 pounds of feed while the other is consuming 26 pounds daily to produce an equal amount of gain,” Paterson says. “It’s a no-brainer. Which animal do you want: the one that consumes more feed and has less gain, or the one that consumes less feed and has more gain?”

The potential long-term benefit of applying this GrowSafe technology is quite substantial. “Discovering we can save 60 dollars per cow annually, times the 1.6 million mother cows in the state is incredible. Now figure the average lifespan of a cow is around eight years, and we are talking about some pretty significant dollars,” says Patterson. According to McDonnell, “The greatest opportunity for ranchers depends on their ability to understand the connection between grass and their cows, and to use both of them efficiently to produce products for the marketplace.”

As important as RFI is, it represents only half of the performance testing equation. The second component is the animal’s ADG. Midland Bull Test, in conjunction with Montana State University, plans to use this information to continue to justify why the industry must continue to focus on — a balance of multiple traits. “I think we get into trouble when we look at only a single trait, such as reduced feed intake. We want to use those EPD’s for birth weight, weaning weight, feed yard performance and carcass characteristics together. Let’s use residual feed intakes and this residual feed conversion as one more tool for selecting cattle that are efficient, but still have desired traits we want on the ranch – birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight and carcass quality,” says McDonnell. “Whether you succeed or fail depends on how you utilize your resources. That’s why we’re putting so much emphasis on efficiency and residual feed intake. We need to be measuring traits crucial to the rancher’s profitability and get away from the hype and glitter that’s entered the industry in the last 10 years.”

There are a limited number of GrowSafe systems currently available in the United States on a commercial basis, most located at central test stations. Installed last fall at Midland, the GrowSafe system consists of individual feed tubs next to one another at a bunk line. The feed tubs have weigh bars underneath them. As an animal comes to the bunk and puts its head down to feed, its electronic identification device (EID) is read by a sensor activating the system which then records the amount of feed the animal consumes and for how long it was present at the bunk among other traits. This information is then transmitted in real time to a data collection computer at Midland headquarters.

With the capacity to test 600 bulls per 70 day test period, 1200 head per Midland Bull Test cycle, Midland is one of the largest efficiency testing sites in the United States. With a strong conviction in the necessity of testing for feed efficiency, Midland Bull Test will be installing another 28 nodes this coming fall to increase capacity to test all bulls for feed efficiency this year. Also, for the first time ever, Midland Bull Test will be feed efficiency testing throughout the summer – some private herds who will then take their bulls or heifers home and use this information to promote their sales as well as purebred breeders wanting to test their replacement females in aiding their culling decisions.

Feeding behaviors with the GrowSafe system are not altered – a significant advantage. The ability to precisely measure the amount of feed an individual animal consumes is not new. Researchers have relied on Callan gates for decades where each animal had their own individual feed bunk which could only be “unlocked” by them. From the Callan gate, producers moved to measuring pen efficiency by feeding sire groups together and calculating a feed efficiency for the entire pen. While this provided some useful data, the GrowSafe system is a marked improvement as now accurate individual feed efficiencies per animal can be calculated. An added benefit – this technology enables the Midland team to know exactly when a certain animal is declining in feed intake, often an early sign of sickness, and thus allows for more timely preventative treatment.

Paterson drives home the point that absolutely no gain is sacrificed, but that you are simply reducing feed intake by 10-15 percent. “That’s the economic advantage we are pursuing.” Approximately 70 percent of variable cost for beef production is feed costs. As such, feed costs provide an opportunity to enhance efficiency. The key is to identify cattle that are more efficient. Traditionally, feed conversion ratios provided a measure of efficiency. However, highly correlated to feed conversion ratios is increased growth rates, increased total feed intake and increased mature size. But, with increased mature size also comes an increase in maintenance requirements, and thus while cattle in the feedlot may convert efficiently and grow rapidly, the cows in the pasture are bigger and require more feed and thus “total system efficiency” is not achieved.

RFI, on the other hand, is a “clean” trait, meaning it can be selected for without any currently known genetic antagonisms. In other words, selection for RFI allows one to select the cattle achieving desired performance levels with less feed intake than expected or normally required. RFI allows selection for improved efficiency regardless of size. This, coupled with the fact that post weaning RFI is highly correlated with mature RFI, “total system efficiency” is closer to reality.

Research has shown that both feed intake and RFI during the post weaning period and at maturity had genetic correlations greater than 0.90. This suggests selection decisions made on the basis of RFI measured post weaning would translate nearly perfectly to genetic improvement in efficiency in the cow herd. Therefore, selection for cattle that grow and perform with less feed inputs is achievable and just as importantly the cow herd efficiency and maintenance requirements are not compromised and better yet, perhaps improved.

Benefits abound. This research will undoubtedly aid every facet of the cattle industry, but the area that may stand to benefit most is the cow/calf sector. Paterson puts this concept into perspective for the typical rancher. “You can now compare bulls within a herd and say this sire group is much more efficient than this group over here. That’s the beauty of this – we can now select cow families and heifer development practices to improve our feed conversion on the ranch,” he says. Paterson notes just how dramatic a 10 percent reduction in feed intake can be, and that they expect to find upwards of a 15 percent decrease. “In the northern states it costs us around $400 to run a cow annually. What if we could reduce our input costs by 10 percent, or $40 per cow. What we’re suggesting is that you could potentially reduce it by $60 per cow,” Patterson says.

The possibilities to lower input costs don’t end there. “We just don’t know yet, but what if we could reduce the amount of supplement we feed to our cows by, say, five percent. Keep in mind that we still need these cows to maintain their body condition scores as well as calving efficiency rates. But now we are talking about some pretty serious reductions in input costs,” he says. Another benefit of identifying the elite genetic lines is the possibility of earning a premium for consistently performing cattle in the feedlot. Paterson suggests this is the primary objective of the Midland Bull Test station.

“Let’s reduce input costs for that cow/calf producer, who can then sell steers to the feed yard and say ‘I have documentation these steers will eat less; they have a negative RFI, improved feed conversions, and that should translate into a reduction in costs by somewhere between $60 to $70 per head based’,” says Paterson. Paterson feels confident adopting this technology has the potential to improve the cow/calf industry in Montana by around 50 million dollars. But it won’t only be them who benefit from the technology. “Our neighbors in Alberta are saying if they could get these bulls into their herd, they could improve the industry by 100 million dollars because they could see the benefits both in the pasture and the yard. Whereas in Montana, we are primarily a cow-calf industry,” he explains.

While there is no magic equation to create the perfect animal, RFI offers an opportunity to breed more efficient cattle with the same level of performance that is needed to either sell cattle profitably at weaning, maintain the cattle through the feedlot, develop replacement heifers with minimal feed inputs or even increase the carrying capacity of your most valuable asset… your land.

Anyone is more than welcome to view the feed efficiency system or animals on test anytime at the Midland Bull Test facility located east of Columbus.

Summer Efficiency Testing

This summer proved to be a successful efficiency trial for the GrowSafe system. We have just completed our 10th efficiency trial (Midland Bull Test yearling bulls, and the summer efficiency with fall bulls and heifers) and are excited about the results we have gathered and the enthusiasm expressed by breeders and buyers alike. Not only are we heartened by where the industry is headed, but the motivation shown by purebred breeders taking advantage of this testing process in an effort to position themselves in years to come.

This year we have a limited space available to summer efficiency test cattle. We have decided to run only one efficiency feeding trial this summer to allow us time to prepare for the coming testing season, perform improvements to the feedlot and overall feeding for the livestock is harder in the heat of the summer. If you are interested in summer testing your cattle with us, emailor call 406-322-5597.

All data is being submitted to American Angus Association and Red Angus Association. Also, we are working with Dr. Gordon Carstens of Texas A & M to have an EPD by fall. Now more than ever, feed efficiency is an important factor to the success and profitability of your herd. High input costs are a major concern of most cattlemen these days and finding ways to reduce those costs may be challenging to some. Making sure your cattle are feed efficient may be the soundest investment you can make.