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Selecting More Efficient Cattle Focus Of New Study

“The calves from more efficient sires ate less, grew the same amount, and had no adverse effects on carcass traits. ”


Astudy into getting more bang for the feed cost buck is in the works. Based on prior work done by Alberta Agriculture researchers, the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council (MRAC)-funded study partnered with MCPA and MAFRI, will look at selecting bulls that offer lower Residual Feed Intake (RFI).

Animals that eat less but still offer the same rate of gain offer significant cost savings to beef producers, according to Ray Armbruster, a director for the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, who is leading the MCPA’s involvement in the research.

“With feed efficiency, some animals have a capacity to grow on less feed with no effect on carcass and yield,” said Armbruster.

“So, if you can get a percentage of efficiency, it’s cheaper to feed those animals, that’s No. 1. Secondly, with better feed efficiency, there’s less nutrient issues with nitrogen and phosphorus as well as methane.”


According to the MRAC website, roughly $750,000 in funding has already been earmarked by the council and the province. Matching industry funds for the MRAC grant are being sought for the project. Details are still being worked out in conjunction with MAFRI beef specialist Tod Wallace, who will oversee the work.

The Douglas Test Station has been tentatively chosen for the study to begin in the fall of 2011, which will use the GrowSafe system of computer-linked, high-tech gadgets and feeding systems to keep track of the amount of feed eaten by each of the RFID-tagged test animals, measure their bodyweights, and then crunch the numbers to sort out the easy keepers.

The typical cost of a 90-day testing program is about $75 to $100, plus feed and yardage costs, said Wallace.

“You can’t do this stuff at home because it’s too expensive,” said Wallace. “People could come in, pay for the data and get their animals tested, and then have a starting point when they take them home.”

RFI, also known as net feed efficiency, is a way of measuring the difference between an animal’s expected feed intake based on body size and growth compared to how much they actually consume over a given period.


Studies by Lacombe-based senior beef research specialist John Basarab found that low-RFI traits possessed by bulls were passed on to 40 per cent of their calves.

In feedlot trials in 2006-07 that measured the individual animal intake on every calf, the researchers found that this resulted in $8.50 in reduced finishing costs for the offspring.

“The calves from more efficient sires ate less, grew the same amount, and had no adverse effects on carcass traits. So, essentially, they were more profitable because you are producing the same carcass weight with less feed,” said Basarab.

Other work done at Lacombe has shown that more efficient bulls show no indication of reduced breeding success, and very little if any effect on female conception rates. Eating quality data is still underway, as is cow lifetime productivity, but so far there seems to be little difference, he added.

“So far, we’ve seen very few adverse effects,” he said. “It looks like a good trait to go after.”


Basarab, who has been working on RFI since 2000, said that such studies offer the tantalizing prospect for beef producers of a way to narrow the gap in feed efficiency and cost of production with pork and chicken.

Stunning gains by innovators and breeders of both those competing meats have been achieved over the last couple of decades, with most chicken breeds capable of converting less than two pounds of feed into a pound of bodyweight. For hogs, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) is currently at about 4:1 or better.

Cattle have lagged behind, with an FCR of anywhere from six to 10 pounds of feed for every pound of gain.

“In beef cattle, about two-thirds of the energy that animal consumes is used just for maintenance. If you can get that down to 65 per cent or 62 per cent, that means the extra energy left over can be used for production: milk, fattening, growth, or production.”


Cattle with low RFI are cheaper to raise because they are more “energy efficient,” with a 25 to 30 per cent reduction in methane emissions, and 15 to 17 per cent less nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus going straight through them in their manure and urine.

“Guess where you’re saving energy? Some of the energy is being saved because it’s not being spewed out as methane. Methane is energy lost from the system,” he said, adding that this could amount to 100 kilograms of “natural gas” wasted each year.

“True efficiency means that you are keeping nutrients – carbon and nitrogen – in the body.”

Low RFI research in Alberta and Australia has proven that maintenance requirements for a herd can be slashed by nine to 10 per cent, improved feed conversion from nine to 15 per cent, lower liver, stomach and intestine weights, and no effect on the distribution of nine wholesale cuts.

The process of selection is slow and steady, however, and the improvements listed above might come at a rate of two to 2.5 per cent a year. But after one or two decades of careful herd management on the sire and dam side aimed at always selecting the “best of the best,” the advantage will accumulate.

“If you start measuring it, and start selecting for it, you will make genetic progress,” said Basarab.

“You’re saving yourself money, and doing your little bit for the environment, too.” [email protected]

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