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Why is beef losing ground to chicken?

Gene Johnston Updated: 02/02/2012 @ 3:39pm On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Attend enough beef cattle meetings, and you know these numbers by heart: 





Those are the average feed efficiencies, in order, of fish, chickens, pigs, and beef cattle. Yes, fish will gain a pound for every pound of feed they eat. Chickens will convert half of the feed they eat into body weight gain. 

So why does it take 7 pounds of feed to gain a pound on a beef animal?

That was the topic at a forum during Cattlemen’s College at the 2012 Cattle Industry Convention, along with what we might do about it to turn the trend and make beef more competitive.

“We used to say that feed made up 50% to 70% of the total cost of beef production,” says Dan Shike, an Extension beef specialist at the University of Illinois.  “But with feed as expensive as today, it may be closer to 80% at some times.”

There are reasons why cattle aren’t as efficient at feed conversion compared to those other species, says Shike. “For one, as ruminants they eat higher fiber diets compared to chickens and pigs, and fiber digestion is not as efficient as grains,” he says. And, another issue is the large body size of beef cattle. They use half of what they eat just to maintain themselves.

But a bigger issue is that in the cattle industry, we haven’t selected hard for feed efficiency, like they have with chickens and pigs. Chickens have made a 250% improvement in feed efficiency since the 1950s, while cattle efficiency has barely budged. 

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