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Selecting cattle for forage efficiency

As agriculturalists, our main goal is to produce the best and most productive crop for the least amount of money. As a cattle producer, we often make decisions about our herd by selecting genetics from a wide variety of traits including weaning weights, birth weights, milk production, average daily gain, and more. These traits are often characteristic of the breeds that animal is composed of. While animals of a specific breed do not always follow breed trends, cattle producers can recognize patterns of productivity within a specific breed. The genetic traits and patterns of cattle breeds are so important to our productivity and profitability on the farm. If the statement “smaller cattle produce more pounds of calves on less pounds of food” holds true, is it possible to increase productivity and profitability by utilizing specific breeds for feed and forage efficiency?

While many factors including age, diet, environmental factors, growth promotants and other management variables impact feed and forage efficiency, breed also plays a role.  There is not a direct forage efficiency trait between breeds or in EPD’s (expected progeny differences), but we can use other traits to assist in determining feed and forage efficiency from breed to breed. These traits would include Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR), Residual Feed Intake (RFI), and Residual Average Daily Gain (RADG).

Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR represents the dry matter intake needed to gain weight. The lower the number the better, which means less feed is required to put on a pound of gain. Research results indicate that differences exist in FCR between breeds.  The breeds that were common among the studies are ranked from best FCR to lowest as follows: Limousin, Charolais, Simmental, Hereford, and Angus. While FCR is important, make sure you do not select only for the Feed Conversion Ratio as it can negatively affect post weaning average daily gain and mature cow size.

In addition to FCR, another important ratio to select for feed efficiency includes Residual Feed Intake (RFI) or the difference between actual intake and predicted intake based on animal’s gain, body weight, and composition. The lower the intake number, the better when selecting. What we find here is that of the five above-mentioned breeds Limousin, Charolais, and Hereford cattle perform better with Simmental and Angus following suit.

Another good indication of feed efficiency in cattle traits includes Residual Average Daily Gain (RADG). Defined as the difference between actual gain and predicted gain based on animal’s intake, body weight, and composition; a positive number represents better feed efficiency.  Research from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center indicates that the top breeds with a positive RADG include Beefmaster, Limousin, Simmental, Hereford, and Angus.

Whatever breed or combination of breeds you choose for your cow herd, selecting for economically important traits is essential for the success and sustainability of the herd. Related traits of importance are adaptability to your environment, fertility, and soundness of feet and legs, eyes, and udders. If an animal is lacking in any of these traits, they will not possess longevity. Longevity is a function of all the above traits combined.

During this time of uncertainty, being efficient and utilizing resources to our benefit is important to the cattle industry and our livelihood. Selecting for productive and efficacious traits in our herds will assist in not only cattle profitability and productivity, but will also assist us in utilizing our forages sufficiently.