Modern beef cattle are models of efficiency.
Better genetic selection, improved nutrition, pasture management and disease control have created a beef animal that uses 80 percent less feed and 88 percent less water to achieve market weight compared to animals in the past.
An efficient animal is also environmentally friendly because it releases less methane, said John Basarab of Alberta Agriculture and a leading researcher on feed efficiency.
“It is about the production of safe, affordable, nutritious and environmentally friendly beef,” he said.
“That is our social licence and our value and of course it is about profitability and making a little bit of money,” he said at the recent world Hereford conference held in Calgary.
Improvements are still needed. Researchers continue to work on how much feed is required per kilogram of gain as it is related to body growth, size and composition.
They know net feed intake or residual feed intake is highly heritable. Residual feed intake is a way of adjusting feed intake that removes the effect due to growth, body composition and body weight. What is left over is the residual.
“If we measure the amount of feed, some is for heat production and some is for weight gain,” Basarab said.
If animals are producing less heat to maintain themselves, more nutrients are available for growth, body fat production and improved pregnancy rates.
One area where improvements could be made include fertility, productivity and maintenance requirements for cows. About two thirds of their energy intake goes for maintenance. Modern cows are larger so their maintenance requirements have increased.
Cows that are feed efficient do not show any difference in qualities like calving ease, weaning weights, age of puberty among heifers or pregnancy rates.
However, there appeared to be fewer deaths among young animals from feed-efficient mothers.
“Early life survival is possibly due to a better use of the uterine environment caused by more nutrients being available,” said Basarab.
Ten years’ worth of records on feed efficient animals showed feed efficiency is heritable and the resulting calves were thriftier.
“The moms of these efficient calves eventually maintain themselves in better body condition as measured by body fat thickness for 10 production cycles,” Basarab said.
The efficient and less efficient cows weigh about the same in the fall but when subjected to harsher conditions like a cold winter, the differences are plain.
“Immediately within the next three to four months these two groups of efficient and inefficient start to diverge in terms of their body weight or body fat,” he said.
“This is suggesting these more efficient cows are more adaptable to conditions,” he said.
Research has also looked at bulls.
Some were more efficient on forage, some performed better on grain and some were good on either ration. When they looked at the offspring of the various bulls and assessed the meat quality, there were no differences in grades or yields.
When producers are selecting bulls to produce replacement heifers, they should probably use bulls that performed well on forage because their daughters will spend their lives grazing.