Imagine two cows: One tall and lean looking with narrow flanks, and the other short legged, with an enormous gut and girth.
Most ranchers would be quick to put the first one on the cull truck in fall, and the other out with the bull on pasture for next year.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Under residual feed intake (RFI) testing, it was found that the ugly cow ate six pounds of feed less per day than the herd average, and her swell-looking friend ate six pounds more. What’s more, the ugly cow weaned a heavier calf.
That means choosing cattle based on preconceived notions of “pretty” instead of scientific data could be costing the rancher $60 more each year in feed, said Tod Wallace, a MAFRI beef extension specialist and proponent of RFI testing, a measure of a cow’s actual feed consumption against a baseline average using a computerized data logging system.
“We always tend to focus on the things that we can control in the cattle business,” said Wallace, who gave an RFI testing update at the recent Farm Focus event in Boissevain.
“Cost of production is one thing that we can control. We know that the highest percentage of our costs in our beef operations are associated with feed, bedding and pasture. If we can make those girls more efficient, it’s going to put more dollars in our pockets.”
Wallace, who also runs a 5,000-acre, 500-head cattle operation near Oak Lake, said efforts to make RFI technology available to more Manitoba producers have been ongoing since late 2009.
One proposal called for the installation of GrowSafe technology used for RFI testing at the Douglas Bull Test Station, said Wallace, who managed the operation in the 1990s. A decision has yet to be made, he added.
GrowSafe, first developed in the early 1990s, is now widely used in Alberta and the United States. It consists of feed tubs with computerized weigh scales linked to a computer that logs each animal’s intake using RFID tag info.
Whenever an animal sticks its head into the bunk to eat, the scale takes a measure of how much feed was eaten and the computer records the information along with tag data.
A similar device can be installed over an existing water bowl. When the cattle step onto a platform to drink, their front quarters are weighed and a mathematical formula is used to calculate their entire body weight to within 10 pounds.
Some feedlots have even attached a spray paint marker to tag animals as they reach market weight. Pen riders then go out and round up the “blue faces” and ship them to market.
For a feedlot, it can detect a sick animal as early as four days before it shows symptoms, just by computer modelling of weight gain, feed and water intake.
A “node” of GrowSafe bunks has been installed at the Glenlea research station, but Wallace believes bringing the technology, which costs about $100,000 for a basic system, to Douglas would give the average rancher better access to it.
“To put it in perspective, once the infrastructure is in place, it costs about $1 per head per day, or $70 per animal,” he said. “That’s pretty reasonable to get the technology and the data.”
At the beef research centre in Lacombe, Alta., a study of 96 British bulls found that group of animals could be divided into thirds: One-third were “easy keepers,” another third were average feed consumers, and the rest were “eating for fun, and wasting your money.”
That’s of interest because a positive RFI trait is “moderately inheritable” in new offspring, and could over time, be used to improve a herd’s feed efficiency.
Selecting for the trait isn’t offset by maternal or performance trait losses, he added. Research since 1990 shows there is also no effect on average daily gains and animal size. Carcass fat, however, may show a two to five per cent reduction.
Methane emissions were nine to 12 per cent lower, and residual nutrients N, P, K in the manure were down by 15 to 17 per cent in low RFI animals.
A study in Illinois found that a low RFI bull of -1, or -2 after 10 calf crops, offered $7,000 in feed savings, said Wallace.
Those sorts of findings have made RFI testing popular in Alberta. Wallace said about 3,700 head were tested on the typical 70-day trial at both research and commercial facilities.
If a GrowSafe system was installed at Douglas, ranchers could bring their bred heifers for testing and find out right away which ones were the most efficient.
“Life’s too short. I want efficient cows now,” said Wallace. daniel. [email protected]
– TOD WALLACE