Efficient use of feed resources in beef production is important on several fronts.

Feed costs represent the largest of the cost of production items, ranging from 50-60% of cow-calf costs to 70-80% of feedlot production costs. Beef cow record summaries have typically shown that herds with the lowest feed costs tend to be in the high third in profitability.

Feed efficiency is the single most important production measure in feedlot cattle in relation to cost of production. Feed efficiency also contributes to more efficient resource use and a lowered carbon footprint. This has become a metric for environmental sustainability improvements.

There are several approaches to improve feed efficiency. Management of feed resources before and during feeding, proper supplementation to meet requirements, sorting cattle into similar management groups, feed testing and analysis, and more precise weighing and delivery of feed are examples of nutritional approaches to improved efficiency of cattle. Control of parasites and disease improves feed efficiency. Technologies such as ionophores, implants and beta agonists are used explicitly to improve efficiency.

What has remained elusive is genetic improvements in feed efficiency. Some efficiency gains can be found through selection for growth rate, but direct selection requires the collection of individual feed intake data. This month marks the beginning of the final year for the 5-year, $5 million project, “The national program for the genetic improvement of feed efficiency in beef cattle.” This USDA integrated project on evaluating feed efficiency in beef cattle is led by Dr. Jerry Taylor at the University of Missouri and includes 20 researchers and extension specialists from 10 universities.

The project measured individual feed intake phenotypes on more than 8,000 head of cattle while capturing the high-density genetic profiles of those same cattle. Nutritionists on the project found that efficient cattle had improved feed digestibility and that cattle selected for feed efficiency generally will be more efficient on both forage and grain based diets. Results from genetic analysis found important genes that explain differences in feed efficiency. Interestingly, these genes differ between breeds so there will not be a “one size fits all” test for feed efficiency. Look for this information to be incorporated into commercial DNA tests and breed association EPDs for efficiency in the very near future.
Simple and cheap genetic tests for sorting feedlot cattle into management groups has proved more elusive but remains a goal for the future. More information on this project can be found at our website, www.beefefficiency.org. One tool that may be helpful to producers beginning to collect information on feed efficiency is the RFI calculator.

April is a month of beginnings for agriculture and the beef industry in Iowa. Newborn calves and seeds sprouting in the warm soil are the beginning of new life and another cycle of the abundance of agricultural production.

April also is a good time to evaluate the effectiveness of your feedlot runoff control measures. If you are looking at an expansion or update of your feedlot facilities be sure to download the newly updated version of the Beef Feedlot Systems Manual. This is a free download that provides updated information on various feedlot facilities. Also look for a new computer-based decision tool to be added to the Iowa Beef Center website soon. Looking to improve the utilization of pasture and become a better grazier this summer? Talk to one of our regional beef specialists or agronomists about participating in a grazing clinic or pasture walk program.