The importance of feed & livestock feed efficiency

Over the past 30 years the poultry and pork industries have made great strides towards improving feed utilisation, and thus efficiency of production, but the beef cattle industry has only made a few feeble attempts in that direction.

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Annelie Coleman

Over the past 30 years the poultry and pork industries have made great strides towards improving feed utilisation, and thus efficiency of production, but the beef cattle industry has only made a few feeble attempts in that direction. Dr Roger Hunsley, recognised in the US for his scientific achievements and as one of that country’s best cattleman, speculates that in many cases beef producers have simply been measuring the wrong traits, and offers a new standard for feed efficiency – net feed intake (NFI).

The increased costs associated with producing a pound of chicken or pork have necessitated intense efforts to improve the efficiency of production and maintain or create a profit from enterprises. In many cases, vertical integration has played a part in the pursuit of improved efficiency for both poultry and pork producers, as each phase in the production chain has been constantly challenged to become more proficient. t’s not uncommon to see documented information showing that 1lb of chicken is produced for every 1lb of feed utilised, a 1:1 ratio, or cases where 1lb of pork is produced for every 2lb of feed, a 2:1 ratio. Both pigs and chicken primarily consume concentrate or high-energy feed. With today’s higher feed costs, both industries are in enviable positions and continue to show positive bottom lines in their cost ledgers due to past efforts to improve the efficiency of feed utilisation in producing the end product.

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The challenge to beef O ccasionally, we hear of beef animals that have converted feed stuffs to product at a 5:1 ratio, but this not frequently. On average we’ve actually seen a decrease in net efficiency over the last 30 years for the beef industry worldwide. A ccording to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, from 1978 to 2004 production per cow went up about 22%, but the consumption of hay per cow rose by more than 50%. At the same time industry’s average cow size has increased by more than 27%. That is a net decrease in efficiency for the beef industry. Beef cattle consume grass as their main dietary ingredient, and the supply is relatively fixed by the environment. If we have an increase in feed requirements, it must be met entirely with supplementary feeds such as hay or grain, or by a reduction in stocking rates.

Thus, a small increase in feed requirements can dramatically increase the need for high-cost supplements. ver the past 30 years, after adjusting for inflation, maize has averaged about R800/t. With the continued push to ramp up ethanol production, it’s likely to stabilise at prices somewhere around R2 000/t. As more land shifts to maize, prices for other commodity crops will also increase. Where does this leave our feedlot sector and beef product? Feed costs will put pressure on the livestock industry to cut production. To date, any gains achieved in the feedlot sector due to increased animal growth have been offset by increased production costs in the cow-calf sector. We must ask ourselves whether it’s possible to right the ship and improve the overall efficiency of beef production. Until now in the US, seed stock has been selected for growth, and it’s been assumed that faster-growing animals are more efficient. But it appears it’s possible to select for feed efficiency independently of growth in beef cattle.

Net feed intake – the new standard Dr Gordon Carstens, a beef nutritionist at Texas Ax, is exploring and understanding a biological trait in cattle known as net feed intake (NFI), which refers to the variation in feed intake after the requirements for maintenance and growth are computed. A commercial farming enterprise I’m involved in has tested over 300 head of purebred Brahman cattle for NFI. To determine it, the actual feed each animal consumes must be measured and the amount of feed it would be expected to eat based on its size and growth rate subtracted. It’s very important that the performance of a whole contemporary group of animals is recorded. NFI is different from feed conversion or feed-to-gain ratio, which are traditionally used to describe or measure feed efficiency. Genetic selection for improved feed conversion ratios will lead to larger mature-cow size.

This is what caused the higher maintenance requirements in the beef cattle industry over the past 30 years. NFI measures feed efficiency independently of growth characteristics and mature size, offering breeders the flexibility to move growth rate and mature size in any direction, while improving feed efficiency. It’s not uncommon to find bulls with similar body weights that differ in daily feed consumption by 20% or more, with the low, negative-NFI bull having similar or higher average daily gains. The feed cost savings based on today’s high-priced corn would be monumental in favour of the low NFI bull. In the past little or no progress has been made towards improving feed efficiency in beef cattle, and cattlemen all over the world are feeling the effects of high input prices.

Now is the time to become more efficient and to diligently pursue lower inputs into the production of beef. If the industry is going to survive and prosper, we must genetically sort out efficient animals that can produce 1kg of product from 3kg to 6kg of feed, rather than needing 7kg to 12kg. NFI and DNA markers for feed efficiency are some of the tools that will be used to select, breed and develop, and market efficient cattle loaded with “good genes”. – Annelie Coleman Dr Hunsley’s trip to Southern Africa was organised by the Livestock Registration Federation (LRF) and Breedplan, and sponsored by Unistel laboratories. |fw

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Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.