Measuring Efficiency, Moving the Bottom Line

“It’s proven,” the Midland Bull Test website boasts.  “Efficiency proven genetics offer you up to 20 percent more savings on the cow herd and 20 percent more savings in the feedlot.”

The best part?  It doesn’t cost any more to select for efficiency traits.  It just takes data.  At Midland Bull Test (MBT), the team is devoted to finding the most efficient bulls and presenting that data to buyers by measuring Residual Feed Intake (RFI).

“When we first started hearing about RFI as an efficiency indicator we were studying results from large research commercial herds in Australia and Canada where they were repeatably finding a 20 percent difference in feed intake between the top one-third and bottom one-third of cows with the same body weight and same weaning weight,” Leo McDonnell explained at a series of talks in January and February given to ranchers in Arizona and Nevada.

McDonnell said they have been studying and measuring RFI for 12 years now and at a recent large steer test run last spring comparing efficiency tested bulls to non-efficiency tested bulls, the results rang true.  McDonnellsent 188 steers out of 15 different sires to Simplot to efficiency test that were purchased from the Comes Ranch at Lewistown, Montana.  McDonnell said three of the 15 sires were “our efficiency sires” that Comes utilized in their artificial insemination program.  The remaining sires represented six other herds that had not been efficiency tested.

“All three of our bulls were in the top four sire groups for efficiency and our top bull consumed 31 percent less feed, gained 3 percent more and had feed costs of $148.00/head less than 50 percent of the other sires,” McDonnell said.  “And you would of never known it if you hadn’t measured it, as some of these poorer efficiency sire groups were pretty fancy steers to look at.”


Maybe It’s Maternal…


The savings alone, plus the value added to the cowherd is substantial.  In fact, McDonnell said he “looks at RFI more as a maternal trait.”

Multiple studies from Australia, Canada, and U.S. university systems have proven that selecting for efficient cows reduces forage needs for the herd, he said.  The intake of an efficient cow has been found to be 10 to 20 percent lower than the less efficient females without sacrificing weight, body condition, or calf weaning weights, according to McDonnell.

Monty Kerley of University of Missouri noted that “by stacking generations selected for RFI, improvement greater than 20 percent in production can be achieved.”

Dr. John Paterson, Montana State University retired Professor of Animal Science and Extension Beef Specialist, reported that after two years of utilizing GrowSafe technology to measure feed intake on 113 cows, they found a nearly 40 percent higher feed intake between the bottom one-third of cows and top one-third of cows with no difference in weaning weight.  The cows that were lower intake at the start remained low the second year as well.

RFI is an extremely heritable trait at .38 – .40 percent heritability.  McDonnell said research has repeatedly shown that there is a 90 percent correlation to how well daughters will perform based on how their sires did when they were tested for RFI.

“When you consider that heritability – and that it has never been selected for – one can make a lot of progress,” Steve Williams said.  “When you consider that 70 percent of the cost of running a cow are pasture and hay related, and annual costs for running a cow are $700-$900/cow in recent years, there is significant opportunity here to improve net returns.  Also, when you look at what the poultry and pork industries have done the last 25 years, improving efficiency 250 percent and 80 percent respectively, who knows where this journey will end.”


The History of Efficiency Testing…


MBT first started researching measuring feed intake in the early 1990’s.  Technology at that time was limited to high energy rations, intense labor, and small groups of cattle.

“We needed technology that allowed large groups of bulls to be fed and to be able to feed a bulky high roughage ration,” McDonnell explained.  “In the late 90’s, we started hearing of new technology out of Canada from a company called GrowSafe.  My son Steve and I went up there in 2008 to look at it and visited a couple feedlots that were using it.”

As soon as the father-son team returned from Canada, McDonnell took a trip to Snyder Livestock in Nevada where the GrowSafe systems were already being put to use.  From there, he flew to Texas A&M where a well-respected cattleman, Robert Bruner of Huntsville, Texas, had urged the University to implement the system.  McDonnell visited with Dr. Carsten while at Texas A&M who was one of the early GrowSafe and RFI researchers.  A trip to West Virginia University and University of Missouri armed McDonnell with plenty of knowledge about the research behind measuring efficiency and sealed the deal.

In late summer 2008, MBT installed enough GrowSafe units to feed 400 bulls at one time and then in 2009, expanded it to be able to measure individual feed intake on 700 bulls at once.


Data Driven Decisions…


“We generally run three tests a year and gather about 7 million bytes of information a day,” Steve Williams, who now owns and manages MBT, explained.  “GrowSafe personnel are logged in real time to our systems and monitor it for quality control.  Our goal is to account for 98 percent of the feed fed each day.”

MBT has also installed GrowSafe Beef Units around the water tanks, allowing them to capture several body weights each day.

“RFI is pretty simple,” Williams said.  “It simply tells you whether the animal consumed more or less feed than was needed to maintain his body weight and performance within the group of cattle.”

A negative RFI is desirable and should be paired with other traits important to production to capture efficiency.  Combining RFI with other performance data, whether it be weaning weight or daily gain in the feed lot, allows the selection of performance cattle that simply eat less.

“You can’t do that with just average daily gain or feed conversion because they are highly correlated to growth and appetite,” Williams said.

“The cattle industry has put a huge emphasis on genetic selection for growth and carcass the last 15 years and kind of forgot about the cows,” McDonnell added.

But, McDonnell said, the cow and the pasture and hay she consumes, are “where cow-calf producers make their money.  Fertility, longevity, and efficient use of resources are the key here.”

“So, it just makes sense that we put a lot more emphasis there in developing a more efficient and profitable cow to capitalize on these resources,” he said. “These commodity markets aren’t going to take care of us under the current market structure and environment we have.  We are pretty much price takers, whether we want to admit it or not.  Who knows if and when these issues will ever get addressed in a meaningful manner, but improving the efficiency of your operation and your net returns always works.”

RFI, used properly in selection, offers great opportunity to improve returns on the ranch, stocker operations, and in the feedlot.  It’s an independent trait with no negative correlation to fertility, longevity, frame score, feet, or structure, McDonnell explained.  He said just as many inefficient cattle will be found in both large frame and small frame sizes.

“Just pick the frame size you want and go after it – it’s there, you just need to measure for it,” McDonnell told Nevada producers in his presentation.  “When it comes to feet, it’s the same.  Just like in your maternal lines or terminal lines, you’re going to find good and bad structured cattle.  We have been measuring feed intake for 12 years now and have measured roughly 20,000 bulls.  We’ve found as many good footed and bad footed bulls regarding efficiency as we have in maternal lines, performance lines, and carcass.”

McDonnell said today, two of their efficiency sires are in the Angus breed’s top 10 percent for combined foot score.  Actually, he added, he’d be more concerned about foot problems on cattle that have high appetites and tend to overconsume, or light boned, low heeled, high growth bulls.

One producer asked about how negative RFI cattle perform in short grass country or in drought years and McDonell said “that’s where they really shine.”

“Just think about it, they require less feed and metabolize what they do eat better and are more content where feed is limited.”

He did add that, as with any selection tool, RFI should be coupled with other traits important to each producer to achieve balance.

“If you do that, you’re going to be very well rewarded as you move from looking at yield per acre to profit per acre,” McDonnell concluded.


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