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Why is beef losing ground to chicken?

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

1:1

2:1

3.5:1

7:1

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. 

Feed efficiency research in cattle is expensive work because you have to feed animals individually, or measure it individually. But new technology that uses wireless radio signals from tags or collars to weigh every bite an animal takes may change this, and lead to more and better research.

Generation interval also works against the beef industry. Chickens and pigs go through multiple generations a year, while it takes at least two years with cattle to see genetic change come to fruition. As one speaker said, “In the cattle business, you have barely entered the dates on your calving calendar when the poultry and pork folks have completed a new generation of data.”

“We have some long-term records that say that over the last 20 years, we’ve made no improvement in beef cattle feed efficiency,” says Shike. “Other work says maybe we’ve made a small improvement, maybe from 8:1 to 7:1. And it looks like the rate of improvement has slowed.”

The rewards will be huge when the beef industry begins to make progress in this area. Shike says a 10% improvement across the board in feed efficiency throughout the cattle industry would be worth over $1 billion. “A 1% improvement in feed efficiency would give the same economic impact as a 3% improvement in daily rate of gain. It’s a big deal.”

And perhaps the most significant place to improve feed efficiency is in the cow herd. About half of all the feed resources used in the entire beef industry – calves, cows, feedlots – goes just to maintain the cow herd. Controlled feeding trials have shown huge differences in forage intake by cows, with some eating as much as double their herdmates. And the low-intake cows are not always the low-performers. “This has a lot of implications for stocking rates and carrying capacities of our pastures,” Shike says.

“We have to get serious about this in the beef industry,” he says. “With new technology such as gene markers, we have a real opportunity to make progress, and we’re starting to identify sires that are good in feed efficiency for grain and forage.”

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