Vet Column 11-1-10
Ryan Summerlin November 1, 2010
For those who have paid the feed bills for any class of cattle, feed efficiency makes sense, even if sense really means “cents.” If something measureable can reduce costs, and at the same time generate income, why not use it? Such is the case with feed efficiency in beef cattle. A recently published article by scientists from the University of Idaho and the Red Angus Association of America examined why the adoption of this technology was so slow among beef cattle producers in the United States.
Residual feed intake (RFI) is a metric of feed efficiency that allows producers to estimate an expected cost savings because of reduced feed inputs. Studies have confirmed that potential benefits to the beef industry from adoption of technologies to improve genetic merit for feed efficiency as measured by RFI appear to be substantial. In a recent computerized model, by basing bull selection alone on the genetic differences in feed efficiency for use in the breeding herd, profits ranged from 9 to 33 percent when optimal numbers of bulls were selected for intake measurement.
In an attempt to explore why the adoption of this technology in making breeding selections may be restrained, a 35-question survey was mailed to randomized selections of 1,888 members and producers of the Idaho Cattle Association, Red Angus Association of America members, and the Red Angus Association bull buyer list. Just under 50 percent of the surveys were returned with 58.7 percent of the respondents being commercial cow/calf producers and 41.3 percent being seedstock producers or operated a combination seedstock/commercial operation.
Of the commercial operations, the average herd size was 223 cows and 13 bulls. Of the seedstock operations, the average herd size was 206 cows and 23 bulls. Both seedstock and commercial operator indicated that calving ease/birth weight was the most important trait used to evaluate genetic merit of breeding bulls. Only surveys returned by producers who presently owned cattle were used in the results.
So why the lag in adoption of RFI as a selection criteria for bull buyers? RFI is not easy to understand as it is a comparatively complex trait as compared to something like birth weight. As other studies have indicated, adoption trends in the beef cattle industry are generally associated with economic resources and incentives.
Examining the way in which beef is produced in the United States can provide some possible explanations for the slowness of current adoption rates for RFI use. The decision to retain ownership versus selling calves may sway the justification to adopt. For the majority of cow/calf producers, getting a live calf is a higher priority than the calf’s projected feed efficiency improvement or advantage over someone else’s calves. If the calf doesn’t live, it doesn’t matter what its RFI is.
For seedstock producers, measuring RFI does not come without expense. As a result, would commercial bull buyers be willing to compensate for the additional information and selection criterion? Moreover, unless commercial and seedstock producers better understand RFI and/or measure cost savings afforded by using RFI, and that includes over the lifetime of a cow versus just a year, the priority nationally to use it more widely is lessened.
If dollars and cents are of interest to beef producers, however, learning more about the science of RFI does make sense (“cents”).