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Steps to Improve Cow Herd Efficiency

March 21, 2014
Bechtel Ranch Cows Winter Snow
Cow/calf efficiency is especially important, as cow/calf production accounts for 70 percent of the total calories consumed in the entire beef industry.  
 
 

By: Katie Allen, K-State Research & Extension News

Business owners are often challenged to find time to sit down, analyze data, and strategize to make their business more profitable and successful. A beef cow/calf operation is one such business, and improving feed efficiency is a main profit-driver.

Bob Weaber, beef breeding, genetics and cow/calf specialist for K-State Research and Extension, said feed efficiency is converting pounds of feed resources, whether that is a concentrated diet in a feedlot or a diet of range and pasture forage, into pounds of calf gain.

"Feed costs are associated with about 60 to 70 percent of total beef production costs," Weaber said. "A large chunk of those are realized in a feedlot, but it’s also important to think about feed efficiency on the cow side."

Fed cattle only account for 30 percent of the total calories consumed in the entire beef sector, he said. Ignoring the cow/calf side of the beef production system, which consumes the remaining 70 percent of the total calories, means producers are missing a great opportunity to not only change feed costs, but also improve efficiency, sustainability and the impact of the beef production system on the environment.

Knowing inputs and outputs
Cattle in the commercial feedlot are easy to evaluate for feed efficiency, Weaber said. On a pen-wide basis, feedlot managers know how much feed the cattle consume, as every feed truck is weighed, and cattle owners are billed accordingly.

"We know how much the cattle cost going into the feedlot and how much they weighed," he said. "We know what the value is when they leave the feedlot in terms of grid value, carcass merit, live weight or other output measurement. That’s easy to capture."

Understanding efficiency at the cow/calf level is a much more complicated issue, Weaber said.

"We don’t measure how much forage they consume," he said. "We have a fixed land mass typically in owned or rented pasture that provides the bulk of calories our animals consume. We can only measure hay allocation and supplemental feed as additional inputs."

To calculate efficiency in feedlots, managers often use the feed conversion ratio, a measure of an animal’s feed intake to gain, or its reciprocal, gross feed efficiency, Weaber said. Cow/calf producers, on the other hand, should collect enough records to be able to calculate weaning weight per cow exposed to measure efficiency.

This provides producers with the output of their cow herd relative to the calories that the cows exposed to a bull consumed. It shows producers how the cows are working not individually, but as a system.

"For most producers in Kansas and across the country who sell calves at weaning time, weaning weight is the targeted end point," he said. "The nice thing about weaning weight per cow exposed is that it captures all sensitive areas that have an impact on productivity in your cow/calf operation—fertility, conception rate and ability for cows to re-breed. It is a function of how many cows you turned out with bulls and the net effect the management decisions made to realize a marketable product."

Understanding feed efficiency tools and concepts
Weaber and several of his colleagues are working on a beef feed efficiency project and completed a nationwide survey of beef cow/calf producers, seedstock producers and feedlot operators in 2013, to gauge producers’ understanding of a wide variety of feed efficiency and genetic concepts.

One of the most surprising things, Weaber said, was that only about one-third of the cow-calf producer respondents could correctly identify the proper definition of feed conversion ratio or the measure of feed efficiency.

Producers also answered questions about methods historically used by the beef industry to improve the feed efficiency of growing animals. Slightly more than 50 percent of cow/calf producers correctly identified increased growth rate or average daily gain (ADG) as the genetic tool used by the U.S. beef industry to improve feed efficiency of growing animals.

Slightly more than half of the respondents were not aware of any consequence to the cow herd resulting from selection for increased growth rate. About 13 percent responded that there were no harmful effects, and only about 10 percent correctly identified that selection for increased ADG results in potentially higher maintenance cows with larger mature weights and leaner body composition.

When asked about other measures of efficiency, only 16 percent of producers were familiar with residual, or net, feed intake (RFI), and 14 percent had heard of residual average daily gain (RADG).

"We have lots of work to do in the industry to help producers understand conventional measures of feed efficiency or transformation of data into measures of metabolic size, feed intake or growth rate, such as RFI or RADG," Weaber said. "We also need to help them understand how to use those tools in selection strategies."

Breed association national cattle evaluation programs are beginning to report efficiency-related expected progeny differences (EPDs) that producers can use in cattle selection. For a long time, the strong genetic association of feed intake and gain performance has been understood in the beef industry, he said, as it’s somewhere around 0.75 or 0.80.

In addition to the RADG EPD published by the American Angus Association, other EPDs and value indexes are emerging to differentiate animals for growth efficiency. For determining maintenance efficiency on the cow side, $EN (cow energy value) in
Angus or the maintenance energy EPD in Red Angus are examples. These can help producers select sires of replacement females that represent lower maintenance energy costs and a more moderate mature size and lactation potential.

Matching animals to their environment
Along with knowing the genetic selection tools available for improving efficiency, producers should also understand the difference between maintenance requirements versus maintenance efficiency in the cow herd.

"Maintenance efficiency in a cow perspective is how animals differ in their ability to use consumed nutrients, and right now in the beef sector we don’t have a very good way to measure that on an individual animal basis," Weaber said. "So that means selection to change that would be difficult."

A more appropriate strategy, he said, is making sure maintenance requirements match a producer’s forage environment. Cow size and milk production are both moderate to highly heritable traits, and EPDs can help producers select for cows that are more optimally matched to their production environment. For many producers, that will mean selecting lower milking cows with more moderate or smaller mature weights, as they will likely have fewer maintenance requirements.

"We can affect cow size and lactation potential in the next calf crop by using appropriate selection strategies," Weaber said. "If we think about the nutrient requirement between a 1,000-lb. cow and a 1,400-lb. cow for maintenance of bodyweight, there’s about a 27 percent difference. If we look at the difference between a low milk, 10-lb. peak lactation cow versus a 30-lb. peak lactation cow, that’s another 16 percent change in nutrient requirements."

Together, that is more than a 40 percent difference in maintenance requirements between small, low-milk cows and large, high-milk cows. On a caloric basis, that’s about a ton of corn equivalent per cow, he said.

"If you think about how energy-dense corn is, think about the required difference in nutrient consumption if you were feeding prairie hay," Weaber said. "The difference is massive."

Producers should strive to hit the optimum level of how many cows and calves they have relative to their access of native, standing forage, he said. Not having to feed a lot of harvested forage can really change the profitability of an operation.

Crossbreeding also helps improve cow herd efficiency by improving weaning weights of calves and especially traits with low heritability, such as fertility and longevity, Weaber said. System efficiency improvements across the whole cow herd inventory due to crossbreeding can be realized in three to five years depending on the replacement rate in the herd.

For more information on the effects of crossbreeding on production efficiency, production system constraints and breeding systems, Weaber recommends the National Beef Cattle Education Consortium’s Beef Sire Selection Manual available online.

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