Feed Efficiency… How We Got It All Wrong

Defining and measuring feed efficiency is something I have always struggled with.   It’s definitely not as easy as science wants it to be.   Science wants to break everything down into understandable bits and pieces.   Unfortunately, that won’t work in the real world.   The real world is made up of wholes with thousands of interactive pieces.

Before we continue, we need to understand that all beef animals fall into two basic categories.   Some animals are destined to end up on the dinner table, while others are working in a cowherd to produce more beef animals.   Ironically, success in both categories is dependent on the same thing – storing up energy in the form of fat.   Beef does not provide an enjoyable eating experience until it has stored up enough fat to grade Choice or Prime.   A cow is incapable of getting bred until she has stored up enough fat to come into estrous.

You cannot assume the animal that gains the most is the most efficient because you don’t know how much feed was required to achieve those gains.   Therefore, the beef industry came up with ways to determine how much feed is required to produce a pound of gain.   On the surface, this seems like the ideal way to measure feed efficiency.   In reality, though, feed to gain ratios have done nothing but create taller and taller animals that are leaner and leaner.   Animals that do the best in these tests are gaining pounds of skeleton and muscle – not fat.   It takes much, much less feed to produce skeleton and muscle than it does to produce fat.

All beef animals must meet their maintenance requirements before any weight gain can take place.   After the maintenance requirements have been met, nutrients will first be allocated to skeletal and muscle growth.   After those needs have been taken care of, nutrients are made available for milk production in lactating animals.   Fat deposition, which is by far the most important, cannot take place until all other needs have been met.   A pound of fat requires 2.5 times more energy and feed than a pound of muscle or bone.   Therefore, it takes substantially more pounds of feed to produce a pound of fat than it takes to produce a pound of muscle or bone.

Daughters of the so-called “feed-efficient” bulls will be tall, late-maturing, hard-keeping and difficult to get bred.   Fertility is more a function of fleshing ability than of anything else.   Cows must be storing up energy in the form of fat before reproduction is possible.   Therefore, if you produce your own replacement heifers and if you are going to purchase bulls that have been tested for feed efficiency, we suggest you to select for bulls that performed the worst in the feed efficiency test.   Their offspring will be early-maturing animals with great fleshing ability.

More and more seedstock producers are using GrowSafe systems to test their bulls for so-called “feed efficiency.”   Without exception, these tests heavily favor tall, hard-keeping animals.   Moderate-framed, early-maturing animals that have the propensity for fat deposition will never be able to compete with tall, late-maturing, hard-keeping animals in a traditional feed-efficiency test.   Remember, it takes 2.5 times more energy (feed) to produce a pound of fat (body condition) than it does to produce a pound of muscle or bone.

In the name of feed efficiency,the beef industry has inadvertently created tall, lean cattle that take longer and longer to finish and are difficult to get bred.   This has been going on for the past 40 years – and it continues to get worse every year.

20 responses to “Feed Efficiency… How We Got It All Wrong

  1. Spot on Kit. It costs me more money to haul that bone from West River to my NE Iowa Feedlots. My Dad and uncles brought 4wt calves in from Black Hills area 65 years ago. Now they arrive 200 heavier and finish 150 heavier. Less efficient and more pounds for the trucker to haul.

    1. It depends…   Most of today’s cattle in all breeds are tall, lean and late-maturing.   If you mate the right kind of cattle from two different breeds, you will get some hybrid vigor kick.   Finding the right kind of cattle is easier said than done.

  2. I must disagree with this opinion, but perhaps it is relative to particular breeds 
      It has not been seen in Wagyu cattle. But of course, Wagyu are light years behind the curve. 

    1. I strongly believe genetics, not frame size, determines cattle quality. If the consumer wants large ribeyes, good marbling and a yield 2, then the larger-framed cattle gives that quality. I’ve seen carcasses of smaller-framed Hereford steers, yield 4-5, no marblng at all. A seedstock producer has to breed for many qualities to satisfy his customers. It is the commercial breeder who determines if he is breeding for extra maternal and fertility in his replacement heifers, or if he is focused more on carcass qualities when he buys his bulls.

      1. At the end of the day it is still fertility that will make the bucks for the breeder. The breeder has to be successful in order to produce cattle for the feedlots. 

  3. Hello Kit
    My name is Jon Wright I am a seedstock producer from Australia. I just wanted to make comment about the above article. I have tested every bull we have produced for feed efficiency for 22 years (about 1340 bulls to date). Initially a manual facility we built ourselves and now the Growsafe system. We have used this information responsibly by including it in a multi-trait approach to breeding cattle. We initiated our Blue-E composite in 1997 combining Shorthorn and Angus to develop a line of cattle. We have focused our selection only on those traits that make our clients (the commercial producer), money. Those being Fertility, Feed Efficiency, Growth, Muscle and Marbling. After 22 years we have a functional line of cattle that are meeting all standards for fertility ie 95% pregnancy rates in cows and 90% in heifers after a single sire, 3 cycle mating using all yearling bulls. Our cattle have the capacity to finish on grass or grain and meeting all meat quality requirements.
     It is my observation over time that most problems within the beef industry, across the world, has come from irresponsible breeders taking shortcuts and using single trait selection. Responsible seedstock breeders understand how long it takes to change the genetics of a population when considering all the important traits. It doesn’t matter what trait it is, if you use single trait selection or an unbalanced approach, you will be heading for a disaster. There is no trait you can blame, only the people involved in the selection process. Tall lean cattle where created by people who didn’t respect the basic principles of breeding. Seedstock producers have a responsibility to take their time for their client’s sake.

    1. I agree.  Feed efficient cattle come in all sizes. To look at calves that are tall and lean and think they are more efficient then short fleshy calves is not true.  

  4. Is it possible to select a high efficiency bull by just looking at him and not EPDs ?
    By efficiency I mean doing well on just grass and raising efficient daughters 

  5. I think it is possible. Look up Johann Zeitsman. He is very good at explaining grass efficiency & environmental adapted cattle. Also PCC evaluates bulls for grass efficiency for all of their bulls and it sounds like that should be highly heritable. 

    1. Kevin,
      David is right…   It is possible to select grass-efficient cattle by phenotype.   Grass-efficient cattle will be the direct opposite of what the status quo beef industry calls feed-efficient cattle.   Cattle that perform best in a traditional feed-efficiency test (GrowSafe, etc.) will be tall, lean and late maturing.   Grass-efficient cattle will be short, thick, easy fleshing and early maturing.
      Johan Zietsman once said, “Grass-efficient animals look like eight pounds of sugar in a 5-pound sack.”   We believe that is an accurate analogy.   They are short and heavy.   We provide a grass-efficiency score for all of the bulls we sell.

  6. Kevin, it is important to understand that feed efficiency and doing ability are separate things. There is over 100 different genes that influence feed efficiency that we know of, to think that those 100 genes are a completely different for grass than grain is a bit of a stretch I think. I haven’t been able to define what doing ability is, in a sense of how you could accurately select for it. An animal that retains its fat all year round might look like a good doing animal, but we have no idea how much feed it is eating to stay like that. We do know that, how much a cow eats is correlated with body weight, so a fatter cow will eat more relative to her genetic potential or frame size. My feeling is that highly efficient cattle have the ability to transition fat on and off the body when needed, rather than staying fat all year round. Thanks Kevin, interesting discussion.

  7. Jon,  Y
    You are correct that feed efficiency and “doing ability” are two separate things.  Cattle that excel in feed efficiency trials are tall and lean.  Cattle that perform well on the ranch without the need of expensive supplements are low-maintenance, easy-fleshing and early maturing.  At PCC, we are able to accurately measure these attributes with our grass-efficiency index.
    The problem with feed efficiency trials is the fact that they do not take into account body composition.  We need to understand that not all pounds are created equal.  We know that it takes nearly 2.5 times the energy to deposit a pound of fat than it does a pound of muscle.  With this in mind, tall, lean cattle will always outperform early-maturing, easy-fleshing, low-maintenance cattle with the propensity to deposit fat.

    1. Collin, are you implying that easy-fleshing, high-marbling maternal genetics are not good to eat?   If so, I think you are wrong!

  8. If feed efficiency was looked in conjunction with frame score and only similar frame score cattle compared to each other wouldn’t that have increased value ? Only comparing 4 frame scores with other 4’s, or 5’s with other 5’s and NOT comparing 4’s with 6’s. I personally believe a tape measure needs to be another selection tool. Many terminal cross animals *have been saved back as replacements (*should have been terminal)

  9. I understand that selecting for feed:gain has flavoured cattle earlier in their maturity pattern at a given age. These would be the ones who were aiming at a grander target (the tall,  hard, lean types that Kit refers to), and those type may well have age of puberty issues as breeding heifers for the same reason. However,  I thought that the maths and science of NFE (Net Feed Efficiency or Conversion), including ultrasound fat measurements was supposed to counter for that.  I agree that feed efficiency is mostly down to a whole lot of things that we don’t understand fully.

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