Farm focuses on feed efficiency
Beef producers Jeff and Lisa Liston of Turtle Rock Angus near Lovilia in southern Iowa have discovered an exciting trait in their herd: feed efficiency. The Listons’ goal has always been to have a consistently sound and productive herd, and in 2007, they DNA-tested their yearling fall heifers. One of these heifers was found to have all 10 of the gene markers that the Bovigen genetics company had identified to enhance quality and feed efficiency.
Since then, the Listons have started using feed efficiency testing among their bulls to determine the exact amount of feed it takes for the bulls to gain 1 pound.
Feed efficiency testing works by giving each calf an electronic ID tag in its ear. At the testing site, the feed bunk is set up so only one animal can eat out of each section at a time. When the animal puts its head in the feed bunk, its ID tag will register how much feed the animal is eating via weigh bars beneath the bunk. This way, the Listons can derive accurate readings of how much feed the animal has eaten, and compare the animal’s weight accordingly.
In 2011, the Listons’ top bull from their farm, SF Turtlerock RFI W124, was put on the feed efficiency test at Werner Feed Efficiency Center at Diagonal. This calf had a 4.76-pound average daily gain with a feed conversion of 3.02 pounds of feed for 1 pound of gain. “That’s way better than the national average,” Jeff says, which tends to be around 6 to 1 in cattle. “If a feedlot had 5 to 1, they’d be thrilled.”
Why select feed efficiency?
Since then, bull W124 has played a large part in the Liston operation. Turtle Rock Angus co-owns this bull with Stansbeary Farms Angus of Albia. Bull W124 is a sound, genetically efficient animal, and consistently pairing these traits with feed efficiency has become the exciting, new goal of the operation.
“Our goal has historically been to produce a genetically efficient animal, developed with a balanced approach of sound body structure and performance,” explains Jeff Liston. “The identification of the superior genetic base for feed efficiency has added another dimension to our breeding program.”
Improving feed efficiency is an important goal of raising cattle for some relatively obvious reasons, and for other not-so-obvious reasons. Having a feed-efficient herd means using less feed to get the same final product. And with both cattle and land prices rising, feed efficiency can increase profitability of the animals. The Listons have also noticed within their pasture operation that they can run their increasingly larger herd on the same amount of feed, and can see a lot of gain from running the herd on smaller paddocks and rotating them frequently.
Visual vs. nonvisual traits
With the rotations, they’ve noticed grass growing stronger and less weeds in the pastures. Having more feed-efficient cattle also helps address a social issue, in which consumers feel that too much valuable grain is being used to feed livestock to produce animal protein, as opposed to feeding grain to humans.
The Listons point out that low weight gain in spite of great feed conversion is not profitable, and high gain without good conversion has gotten much more costly in recent years with rising feed and land costs. With feed efficiency being a trait that is not visual, it is important to have animals tested to analyze actual proven data for making decisions.
An example of this would be two bulls Jeff is familiar with; they were put on a feed efficiency test in a western U.S. herd. The bulls were weaned at about the same weight and ended up only 18 pounds apart at yearling weight. After the test, the owners learned that one bull ate 42 pounds of dry matter per day, while the other ate only 17 pounds per day. This difference would have gone unnoticed had the animals been judged solely on their outward appearance.
Other measures to consider
Feed efficiency is only one aspect of Turtle Rock Angus. The operation measures many other aspects, such as the percentage of a cow’s body weight she weaned, pounds of production per acre, and how quickly the animals shed in the spring. Jeff compares knowing pounds of production per acre in a cattle operation to knowing crop yield per acre. This is a different approach than what is common today, where weaning weights are looked at without consideration of other associated costs of production.
Expected progeny differences are commonly used in the cattle industry, and EPDs are monitored at Turtle Rock. However, EPDs are not necessarily used by the Listons for making culling decisions. “We think the cattle environment, management and feed sources need to be analyzed first,” Jeff says. Then they look for animals that work well in the herd, and consider their respective EPDs as a starting point in deciding whether to keep animals for the herd. “It’s just a different angle we take,” he explains.
Looking at EPDs without consideration of all costs associated with achieving those EPD results in another example of not always taking efficiency of genetics and resources into account. For example, adding milk EPD will mathematically add to weaning and yearling EPDs, but there can be a loss of feed efficiency in trying to maximize milk production for a beef cow.
Along with using EPDs that match resources and management of their cattle operation, the Listons give credit to a measure called “cow energy value,” expressed as $EN, for Angus. This can indicate either the cost savings or the increase in cost to feed an Angus cow for a year.
A positive $EN means the cow is saving that dollar amount in yearly maintenance cost, while a negative $EN indicates a cost increase in yearly maintenance. Turtle Rock has been working toward a neutral, or 0-$EN, cost when choosing breeding stock.
“Choosing feed efficiency or even performance, but losing all or most of it in cow maintenance with a $EN that’s less than zero is not making use of what is genetically possible,” notes Jeff.
With this cattle operation’s 40-year history of producing balanced and genetically efficient cattle equipped for the pastures of southern Iowa, the next step to improve feed efficiency is mixing and matching everything to come together consistently.
Future plans and goals for Turtle Rock Angus include continuing to “stack” feed efficiency into generations of sound, genetically efficient cattle they are working to produce.
What about other breeds?
There will be a point of diminishing returns for reducing dry matter intake. Cows need a certain amount of roughage and forage to convert to milk. However, there will be years of genetic improvement needed before that will be a major concern, Jeff says.
“Improving feed efficiency consistently, [and] increasing dressing percentage and carcass weight without increasing cow size will keep us busy. We are feeding out some steers at the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity in southwest Iowa every year to see how our plan is working out,” he says. “Our bulls are tested for feed efficiency at the Werner Feed Efficiency Center at Diagonal, with computer software assistance through Iowa State University.”
Could there be other breeds in the herd someday? Jeff and Lisa know there are good cattle in every breed, and every breed has at least some area where they outperform other breeds. It is likely that the best-suited animal to meet the Turtle Rock goals will someday have other breed influence involved.
But consistency is an important value of the seedstock producer, so change seems to sometimes come along at a “turtle” pace, Jeff notes. “There is a lot of room for improvement and consistency in the cattle industry. In our breeding program we are using what is proven, while carefully making changes for goals we identify as practical, measurable and achievable.”
Dittmer was a Wallaces Farmer intern.
This article published in the January, 2015 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.
Beef Herd Management