Improving the feed efficiency of a beef cattle herd can mean big savings for producers.
One way to achieve this goal is to select breeding bulls that are naturally feed efficient, since 80 to 90 per cent of the genetic improvement in a herd comes through the sires.
“With this being bull-buying season, I think producers should give a little extra look at the residual feed intake (RFI) number,” said Susan Markus, a beef research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “Producers need to know it’s an economically important trait that can be measured, as well as how to tell if a bull producer is offering RFI tested animals.”
When reviewing a bull sale catalogue, look at the expected progeny differences (EPD) for each bull, said Markus.
“EPDs are our best tool to get an estimate on the potential genetic performance of a bull, especially for hard-to-measure traits like feed efficiency and carcass traits. Don’t forget to compare the bull’s numbers with his breed average numbers because the breed average will change every year. Although you always need to look at all the traits of a bull you are considering buying, if you see the letters RFI under the EPDs, that’s a measure of the animal’s residual feed intake or feed efficiency, with a negative number being preferred over positive numbers.”
Having a bull with a negative RFI can really make a huge difference over a long period of time, she said.
“If you have a bull brought into your herd with this negative RFI value, and keep replacement heifers off him, you can improve the feed efficiency of his daughters and their offspring so you’re bringing up the baseline of your female herd,” said Markus. “It’s really important for a cow-calf operation to have efficient cattle. Feed costs are over 60 per cent of the cost of production in a beef operation. There can be up to a 10-cent-per-day feed cost difference between a feed-efficient and non-feed-efficient animal. And calves that are the offspring of the feed-efficient cows will show improved feed-to-gain ratios in a feedlot as well.”
Increasingly, breed associations want to measure cattle for feed efficiency and develop RFI EPDs or indexes that include feed efficiency.
“They want to know which pedigrees are more feed efficient so they can make sure they are balanced with other traits to get the best genetics.”