We all know a guy who can eat triple portions at the dinner table, yet remains skinny as a whip. When it comes to raising cattle, he’s exactly what we don’t want to see in our stock: supreme feed inefficiency.
It’s commonly known there is a wide variation between how individual beef cattle convert food to gain.
However, it’s been largely guesswork regarding which animals are most efficient. Few farmers base breeding programs on accurate analysis of feed-to-gain ratios.
GrowSafe Systems hopes that will soon change. Working in collaboration with researchers at multiple universities, GrowSafe’s team of animal scientists, computer scientists and engineers (they call themselves ‘cowboys, geeks and nerds’) has developed a high-tech way of measuring which animals are most feed efficient.
As Alison Sunstrum, vice-president of GrowSafe, says, “we’re basically creating a new technology to monitor individual animals to the best of their individual potential.”
Feed-efficiency calculations usually focus on feed to gain. Measurement is based on an average amount of feed, resulting in a larger-than-expected weight gain. If breeding is based on this kind of feed-to-gain ratio, producers end up with very large cattle.
GrowSafe technology identifies cattle with a low Residual Feed Intake (RFI )– those that eat the least and gain the most. GrowSafe measures how much an animal eats, less what it is expected to eat; the difference is RFI.
If an animal eats two pounds per day less than is expected he has a -2 RFI. This type of calculation was proposed as far back as the 1960s, but until GrowSafe came along, it wasn’t possible to accurately measure multiple individual animals for RFI.
The system allows producers and feedlot managers to measure exactly how much ration an individual animal consumes, and then how much weight it gains. The technology identifies large differences in efficiency between individual animals. The most efficient animal in a pen can consume up to 30 per cent less food than the least efficient animal, and still have the same weight gain results.
As feed is the primary cost of production, improving a herd’s feed efficiency is key to reducing costs and increasing profitability. At the Denver Stock Show, GrowSafe demonstrated a pen of heifers tested at the University of Missouri. With ration costs at $180/ton, the most efficient heifer in the pen cost $0.49/ lb of gain; whereas the least efficient heifer cost $0.79/lb of gain. A simple mathematical calculation shows that getting 500 lbs. of gain onto the least efficient heifer would cost $150 more than getting the same weight onto the most efficient cow.
This is a measurement tool, not a tool to change individual animals’ eating patterns. However, because feed efficiency can be passed on to progeny, GrowSafe technology can improve entire herds over time.
“Residual feed intake is about a 40 per cent heritable trait. Purchasing an efficient bull can really improve bottom line results,” Sunstrum says. In fact, she says that breeding selection based on efficiency can “reduce average cost of feed in the feedlot by about $50 a head. Our research shows that we can make significant progress in a short amount of time.”
According to an Agri-Facts newsletter put out by Alberta Agriculture, research in both Alberta and Australia shows that selecting based on low RFI not only reduces feed intake an average of 10 to 12 per cent, it also results in: 25 to 30 per cent lower methane emissions; a 15 to 17 per cent reduction in manure nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium production; and a nine to 10 per cent lower herd maintenance requirement.
Sunstrum finds it exciting that some really leading edge research is being done in Alberta. She believes this will “definitely change how people raise cattle.”
But despite the fact this is homegrown technology, it’s seeing a more rapid adoption in the U.S. where farmers have had the ability to focus on production efficiency.
Sunstrum says that “the uptake in the U.S. has exceeded our expectations. We’re not yet a household name in the U.S., but we’re close. And, we’re expanding into Brazil, Australia, and starting to move into the EU.”
Why the slow uptake in Canada? Sunstrum says producers here have been more focused on survival and new technology doesn’t come cheap.
But she’s optimistic the technology may come down in price eventually. “Ultimately, our goal is to provide the least expensive measurement technology that provides the most benefit to the industry.”