New way to measure efficiency will
benefit beef herd profitability
Nov. 18, 2005
Net Feed Efficiency (NFE) is a relatively new term for producers, but
it’s all about identifying those animals that can achieve gains on less
New feeding technology being used at Olds College, as well as a commercial
bull test facility in southern Alberta, should assure Canadian beef
producers they can now select breeding stock for improved feed efficiency.
Neil French and Connie Burton check
feed records at Olds College.
The technology, which makes it possible to precisely measure the feed
intake of individual animals, supplies data needed to generate Expected
Progeny Difference (EPD) ratings on bulls with improved feed efficiency.
What does that mean? As more data is collected, selecting breeding stock
with genetic potential for improved feed efficiency could save cow/calf
producers as well as cattle feeders hundreds of millions of dollars
annually, say researchers. Simply put, the technology allows producers to
select breeding stock and build herds with a genetic disposition to gain
weight on less feed.
How much less feed? Feeding trials at Olds College over the past three
years showed over a 120-day feeding period, as much as an $80 per head
feed savings for cattle with the higher genetic potential for improved
feed efficiency compared to other cattle.
“Along the production chain that potentially means cow/calf producers
will see calves reach weaning weights either faster or on less feed,” says
Neil French, college instructor specializing in feedlot management and
A batch of 59 bull calves is being tested this fall and winter at Olds
College, and a privately-owned feedlot — Cattleland Feedyards — at
Strathmore, east of Calgary is offering the first commercial bull test
service in Canada collecting data on net feed efficiency. Cattleland will
be evaluating about 190 head of bulls from 50 purebred breeders this fall.
The concept of selecting cattle based on genetic potential for feed
efficiency isn’t new. Researchers first identified a genetic potential for
feed efficiency back in the 1960s, but little was done with that
information. However, in the 1990s Australian researchers began working
with the concept, and in the early 2000s Canadian beef researchers took a
serious look at this heritable trait.
Technology makes NFE measurement possible
The new technology for measuring feed intake is a critical tool in
developing the whole concept of net feed efficiency (NFE), says
Connie Burton, an Olds College instructional assistant who has
worked closely with instructor Neil French during the three-year NFE
GrowSafe's specially designed feeders weigh feed and
consumption of each animal.
The new technology developed by Airdrie-based
GrowSafe Systems involves computerized bunk-style feeders that can
measure and record the feed intake of individual animals each time
they come to the bunk to eat. A sensor on the edge of the feeder
reads the electronic ear tag of each animal. The GrowSafe feeder
weighs the total amount of ration placed in the bunk and then
records the amount consumed during each visit by cattle.
Dr. John Basarab, a provincial research scientist, Olds College and
their colleagues were the first in North America to integrate the
concept of NFE with new advances in radio frequency identification,
wireless communication and computer software integration (GrowSafe
“The technology produces a very accurate record of how much each
animal eats over a 24 hour period,” says Burton. “The data collected
over the 120-day feeding period is analyzed to determine each
animal’s net feed efficiency.”
Being able to precisely measure feed intake of individual animals in
a feedlot environment was difficult, if not impossible, before the
GrowSafe system was developed, adds French.
This is the fourth year Olds College has conducted NFE bull test
evaluations. The first three years, which involved nearly 300 head
of bull calves from both British and Continental breeds provided the
initial data base to determine EPDs. The feed efficiency of those
bull calves was determined over a 112-day feeding period.
Dr. John Basarab, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture Food and
Rural Development based in Lacombe, working in a collaborative effort with
a several researchers and agencies over the past few years, has developed
an NFE process now available to commercial feedlots.
As feeding data is collected, other researchers such as Dr. Stephen Moore,
genomics chair at the University of Alberta, leads a program to identify
the genetic markers which one day will make it possible to rely on a blood
test to identify cattle with the greatest potential for improved feed
collected from three years of Olds College NFE feeding trials made it
possible to generate EPDs for 221 bulls this year. Those EPDs were 59
percent accurate. “That’s very encouraging and the accuracy will improve
with more testing of bulls for net feed efficiency and as their progeny
are tested,” says French.
Not feed conversion
In looking at this research it is important to distinguish between
traditional and the new beef herd performance measurements. For years the
industry has looked at feed conversion ratio and average daily gain as
important indicators of performance. However, net feed efficiency is
regarded as a more accurate performance measurement.
Feed conversion is the amount of feed consumed by an animal divided by its
live weight gain. In a feedlot, the ratio is often about six pounds of
feed for one pound of gain. In backgrounding operations it could be as
high as 10 pounds of feed to one pound of gain. The feed conversion ratio
is related mostly to growth, body size, composition of gain and appetite,
rather than the energy required by the animal for maintenance.
Net feed efficiency — also known as residual feed intake — is the
difference between an animal’s actual feed intake and its expected feed
requirements for maintenance and growth. “With feed costs second only to
fixed costs in importance to the profitability of a commercial beef
operations, any steps that can be taken to reduce feed costs — improve
feed efficiency — is a benefit to the bottom line,” says Basarab.
Identifying cattle with improved feed efficiency has several benefits for
all sectors of the beef industry. “At the bull test level, purebred
breeders can put bulls on test and identify those that have the genetic
potential for improved feed efficiency,” explains French.
“As commercial cow/calf producers become more aware of the trait, they can
select breeding stock with an EPD for improved feed efficiency. It’s a
moderately heritable trait similar to weaning weight and birth weight. By
using bulls with improved net feed efficiency, their offspring should also
have improved feed efficiency. That trait will be a benefit to cattle
feeders as well.”
Along with being a tool for selecting more efficient cattle, the
technology also benefits the environment. Cattle eating less and making
more efficient use of rations helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Research at the University of Alberta, for example, shows improved feed
efficiency can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nine to 15 percent.
Methane, in particular, can be reduced by up to 28 percent in more
While more feed efficient cattle produce less methane, reduced feed
consumption also means less fossil fuels are needed to produce and supply
that feed to the cattle. And more feed efficient cattle produce less
manure, which again reduces greenhouse gas emissions, associated with
manure storage, handling and application.
The net feed efficiency bull test currently being run at Olds College is
supported in part by the beef sector of the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation
Program for Canadian Agriculture. The federal program, launched in 2003,
was designed to support dozens of projects across the country that
demonstrate practices that not only improve production but also reduce
greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural industry. The Canadian
Cattlemen’s Association administers the demonstration component of this
program for AAFC.
Not a breed issue
The college this year has 59 head that will be on the NFE feeding trials
for 85 days. Participating purebred beef producers each supplied four
half-sibling bull calves (four sons of the same sire) for the feeding
trial. Breeds represented in the trials include polled and horned
Hereford, Red and Black Angus, Welsh Black, Charolais and Simmental.
“Evaluating bulls for net feed efficiency does not pit one breed against
another,” says French. “All breeds can have animals with improved feed
efficiency. That’s why we are looking at four half-siblings in this
project. There can be a wide range of feed efficiency among those
siblings. So breed has nothing to do with it.”
Results of the net feed efficiency feeding trials rank all bulls on test
regardless of breed. Figures from the early 2005 bull test results, for
example, show a Simmental bull had the highest net feed efficiency among
more than 40 other bull calves representing three continental breeds.
However, another Simmental bull calf, a half brother to the leader came in
about 35th in the efficiency ranking.
Similarly among the British breeds, a Welsh Black bull came in with top
feed efficiency while a sibling placed 16 in a field of 28 head.
“The point is you can’t say one breed is better than another, but within a
breed you can have some animals that have improved feed efficiency over
others,” says French. “If a producer selects breeding stock with improved
feed efficiency which has a moderate heritability factor, there is a good
likelihood the trait will be passed on.”
As more bulls are evaluated under the NFE system, the EPD accuracy will
increase. “The genetic benefits of net feed efficiency are cumulative,”
says Basarab. “We can identify breeding stock now with improved potential
for feed efficiency. But, with each generation the genetics will be passed
along. Ten years from now the potential for improved feed efficiency will
be that much greater.”
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