EBLEX: Driving feed efficiency in finishing beef cattle

Feed is one of the main inputs of beef production and can amount to around 70 per cent of variable costs. Improving feed efficiency should therefore be a fundamental target for beef finishers.

There are four key areas where beef finishers can focus their efforts to do this:

Health and stress levels: Health problems, both past and present, can cause deterioration in feed efficiency in finishing cattle. Potential problems include parasites, pneumonia and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD). A rigorous health protocol for purchased cattle, or health plan for home-bred cattle, will help address these issues. For example, calves that have suffered from severe pneumonia will suffer from a long-term negative impact on feed efficiency and reduce finishers’ margins.

Body weight and composition: Body weight is a key determinant of feed requirements for maintenance. As cattle get older and heavier their maintenance requirements increase. This results in increasingly higher costs to keep them on the farm regardless of how fast they are growing. Not only do younger cattle have lower maintenance costs, but they deposit more lean tissue in their liveweight gain than older cattle. This gives them a further advantage in terms of feed use efficiency compared with older cattle. Where older cattle are being finished it pays to aim for high rates of gain to minimise days on feed. Cattle should be sent to slaughter as soon as they meet target fat levels, as fat takes four times more feed energy to deposit than lean tissue. There are also differences in feed efficiency between bulls, steers and heifers. These are worth considering in conjunction with market requirements to make the best use of the resources on the farm.

Nutrition and growth rate: Reducing the number of days to slaughter provides an obvious opportunity to enhance efficiency by decreasing the amount of feed used for maintenance. Simple improvements in forage and feed quality as well as health management could help to improve growth rates and reduce days on feed, with relatively little financial investment.

Genetic merit: Currently Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for feed efficiency are not available in the UK. But much international effort is focused on exploiting the opportunity offered by selecting cattle that are genetically more efficient in their feed use than their contemporaries. Work to date suggests that improvement in feed efficiency is worth more than four to eight times an equivalent increase in growth rate to the industry. EBLEX and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have recently been awarded a project from Defra that will collect data to enable the development of EBVs for traits relating to feed efficiency. The project will produce a set of possible business models for the continued recording of feed efficiency parameters.

If this and other research can provide the rates of genetic gain in feed efficiency that has been delivered for growth, then it will revolutionise the beef industry. For further information, call your EBLEX regional manager or Rebecca Veale on 024 7647 8636. Information is also available at www.eblex.org.uk

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