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Measuring Doability

Most of the efficiency work underway today is focused on growing cattle. While cow feed costs are of overriding importance in integrated beef-production

Read part one: Predicting Doability>

Most of the efficiency work underway today is focused on growing cattle. While cow feed costs are of overriding importance in integrated beef-production systems, the measurement of forage intake on large numbers of mature cows isn't practical.

“Expectations are that appropriate use of the feed-efficiency trait in growing cattle will generate progeny that are efficient in all segments of the industry,” says Gordon Carstens, Texas A&M University (TAMU). Some projects measure the individual efficiency of growing bulls or heifers, while others test progeny of sires.

While mathematical models, such as the Cornell/Cattle Value Discovery System, are being developed to predict feed intake, actual individual animal feed intake data over a 70+-day feeding period is the key number, along with the standard data on weight, gain, etc. Three different but related efficiency measures are derived from the data: feed conversion ratio, partial efficiency of growth, and residual feed intake (RFI). Discussions about standardization of collection, analysis and reporting of intake on beef cattle are being conducted through both the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC) and the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF).

Two systems commonly used for individual feeding trials are the Calan Broadbent Feeding System and GrowSafe. In both systems, cattle are housed in small groups simulating group-feeding behavior in commercial operations.

  • The Calan system employs an individual feeding door that is unlocked by a wireless “key” each animal wears around its neck. Each animal has an individual feed trough and data on each feeding event is collected.

  • Meanwhile, GrowSafe equipment utilizes a shared feed trough in an integrated system that reads an electronic ID ear tag and collects data each time an animal has a meal.

Other systems for successfully collecting individual intake data vary from hand-feeding — using the always dependable, 5-gal. pail technology — to hybrid integrated electronic systems. In Australia, portable units dubbed “meals on wheels” are available for producers to do on-farm testing as part of Australia's national data-collection effort.

Based on an informal NBCEC survey, there's a one-time capacity of about 10,000 head — scattered across the U.S. and Canada — for individually feeding, collecting and analyzing data in growing cattle. Contrast that with an industry that harvests more than 400,000 head of fed cattle/week. Regardless of the system used, however, phenotypic feed efficiency data in cattle is expensive to collect and analyze.

The value of partnerships

Across the U.S. and Canada, partnerships between universities, breed associations, artificial insemination (AI) firms, feed companies and individual breeders make individual and progeny testing for feed efficiency happen. To make the best use of resources, most projects are multi-faceted and collect data on other traits in addition to feed efficiency.

  • The American Simmental Association (ASA) is in the second year of a multi-year progeny test being conducted at the University of Illinois (UI). Marty Ropp, ASA director of field services, says the feed-efficiency project is part of ASA's annual carcass-merit evaluation of Simmental sires. To date, ASA has data on 50 bulls from the Illinois study, with an average of 15 steer progeny/sire.

    Sires are enrolled by ASA member breeders and it's used in large commercial herds that cooperate with ASA on the study. Data is returned to the sire owner and cooperator, and incorporated into the Simmental EPDs and dollar value indexes. The UI facility uses the GrowSafe system and boasts a 960-head capacity.

  • UI also is cooperating with the American Angus Association (AAA) in a multi-year study involving 800 fall-calving cows bred to Angus sires. The project will include individual feed-intake data on 450 progeny each feeding period and collect comprehensive data on performance, ultrasound, carcass and behavioral traits.

    AAA is also in the second year of a five-year project with North Carolina State University (NCSU) on biological efficiency in the Angus cow. Using NCSU's Calan system, the effort is researching methods to identify bulls with efficient daughters and predict efficient replacement heifers. AAA's Bill Bowman says, “We hope these research projects will spearhead future practical data collection and analysis for genetic selection tool development.”

  • TAMU's Department of Animal Science uses both the GrowSafe and Calan systems, and it has partnered with the Beef Development Center at Millican, TX, to test more than 500 bulls and heifers. TAMU is also working with King Ranch, Camp Cooley Ranch and Kallion Farms in measuring efficiency in their calves, Carstens says. He's also worked with Denny Crews, University of Alberta professor of livestock genomics, in developing the RFI index being used in the TAMU projects.

  • In Canada, Crews, who also chairs the BIF committee on feed efficiency, conducts projects in cooperation with Canadian Charolais and Canadian Angus, and he relies on support from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and Alberta Beef Producers, among others. Working with the Olds College bull test, they have nine years of efficiency data on steer and heifer progeny of the high-use AI bulls in Canada.

  • ABS Global, the most active AI firm in the U.S. in the feed-efficiency area, partners with Circle A Ranch in Iberia, MO, to market top graduates of the Angus Sire Alliance progeny profitability test. Now in its fifth year, this exclusive agreement seeks to progeny-test all Angus sires new to the ABS lineup using Circle A's Calan-equipped, progeny-testing facility. Feed-efficiency data and a related profitability index are available on many ABS Angus sires. Doug Frank, ABS Global beef product manager, says the goal is “to find the profitable outlier bulls for our customers through progeny testing.”

    Some of those outlier bulls marketed by ABS carry the “Ironwood” prefix, the moniker for bulls from Wardens Farm in Council Bluffs, IA. One of the pioneers of feed-efficiency testing, Duane Warden has 25 years of data on his unique Angus genetics, and he recently partnered with the Iowa Beef Center (IBC) and others to develop a new hybrid feed-intake monitoring system. Using this system, he's testing 64 Angus bulls annually for feed efficiency.

    Iowa State University's Daryl Strohbehn has worked closely with Warden on this new facility. “If producers want to get involved in developing an on-farm test, IBC is definitely available to consult with them and share what we've learned,” Strohbehn says.

  • Jorgensen Angus of Ideal, SD is another pioneer in feed efficiency. Starting 11 years ago by hand-feeding 21 bulls, Jorgensens now have an extensive on-farm test of their bulls utilizing the Cornell model to predict intake. Their validation work shows that the intake prediction is within 3-5% of actual intake, and the model consistently identifies the top and bottom outlier bulls correctly.

Cody Jorgensen says any breeder can set up an on-farm test, as the data required for using the Cornell model is “nothing you aren't already collecting.” Does it make a difference? “Absolutely,” he says. “By putting emphasis on cow families developed from our efficient sires, we have simply fed less feed — and improved other profit-making traits.”

Bill Zimmerman is a purebred producer based in Foley, MN, and program coordinator for the BEEF Quality Summit, set for Nov. 7-9 in Omaha, NE. Visit for more information.