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Less Feed, More Gain

Why is beef the most expensive meat in the grocery store? There may be several reasons, but one of the biggest is that cattle are less efficient converters of feed into live animal gain, compared to other meat animals. Chickens require less than 2 pounds of feed to gain 1 pound of weight; pigs convert at a little over 3:1.

For cattle, it takes 6 or 7 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of animal weight gain. It simply costs more to produce beef.

At the Cattle Industry Convention, two experts on the subject, Larry Berger of the University of Nebraska ruminant nutrition department and South Dakota rancher Cody Jorgensen, talked about beef industry efforts – or lack, thereof – to improve feed efficiency.

“Cattle have higher maintenance requirements and are typically fed high-fiber diets,” Berger says. “It takes about 50% of their diet just to maintain their bodies, compared to 30% for poultry and pigs. The bovine rumen is designed to digest fiber, resulting in 5% to 10% of what they eat being lost as methane gas.”

More telling, he says, is the lack of industry efforts to improve feed efficiency in cattle.

The chicken industry began selecting breeding stock for feed efficiency at least 50 years ago. In that time, the pounds of feed per pound of weight gain has been reduced by about 60%. 

The swine industry began selecting intensively for feed efficiency soon after that and has steadily moved down from 4:1 to near 3:1 now.

Not the beef industry. The problem, says Berger, is that feed-efficiency tests require keeping individual animal feed records. The labor and logistics of feeding animals individually made it prohibitive for seed stock operators.

Technology came to the rescue about five years ago. That’s when radios in ear tags made it possible to record the feed consumption of individual animals in group-housing situations. It’s an expensive process, and it’s still in the beginning stages, but Berger thinks it holds great promise.

For example, he says, if one feedlot steer has a feed efficiency of 7:1 and another is 5:1, the profit differential can be $140 a head. Even more significantly, Berger calculates the extra value of a bull that could sire 5.5:1 feed efficiency calves, vs. 6.5:1, a 15% improvement. If the more efficient bull sired just 100 calves over his lifetime, with feed at current levels, that bull would be worth an extra $6,392 in calf profits.

With the increasing emphasis on cattle feed efficiency, Berger thinks the day will come when bulls will be bought based on a genetic marker for improved efficiency.

“It will let us identify 20% to 40% of the genetic differences in feed efficiency,” he says. “Remember, you may have to retain ownership of your cattle through the feedlot phase to get the full benefit of the better feed efficiency of your cattle.”

16 Years of Progress

Cody Jorgensen of Ideal, South Dakota, says his family has been testing for feed efficiency since 1998 in their Angus herd at Jorgensen Land & Cattle Partnership.

They started in individual stalls with hand feeding and have since switched to a pen-feeding system that utilizes a formula developed at Cornell University to predict individual animal feed efficiency. It’s called the Value Discovery Program. For more, click here.

“In 16 years of testing and selecting bulls for feed efficiency, we have improved our overall herd from 7.35:1 to 6.81:1,” Jorgensen says.

That’s an improvement of just over .5 pound of feed per pound of gain. While it might not sound like much, Jorgenson says changing a whole herd by 1 pound could be worth as much as $500 a head in extra profits.

“It’s really hard to quantify what that means in our cowherd, but we know our cows don’t eat as much as before we started on this,” he says.

To become a herd sire at Jorgensen Land & Cattle Partnership, bulls have to pass a rigorous pedigree test of above-average performance for gain and feed efficiency (plus several other traits) going back for five generations. That means at least 15 females are in that above-average pedigree on all traits before the bull is considered.

“When you apply that kind of selection pressure, you can make efficiency progress,” Jorgensen says.

Through cooperator herds, this ranch has about 5,000 bulls working in commercial herds every year, many of them on a leasing program. There is the potential to sire 100,000 calves annually from Jorgensen bulls.

“That’s a lot of impact, and we can’t afford to make mistakes,” says Jorgensen. “That’s why we work so hard to identify the best sires for our herd and customers.”

Learn more about the Jorgensen Land & Cattle Partnership here. Also, to visit the National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle for more information.

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