Would you pay more for a feed-efficient bull? Ranchers around the country face that question as they attend bull sales, and for increasing numbers, it appears the answer is “yes.” Speaking to the Bovine Committee at last week’s National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual conference, University of Idaho animal scientist Rod Hill, PhD, provided background on feed efficiency and its role in cattle marketing.

Hill notes that feed represents the largest share of production costs for beef cattle, and 70 percent of the total cost of feed in beef production is carried by the cow-calf sector. Grain-based ethanol has helped drive feed costs up in recent years, and while Hill considers that technology unsustainable, a shift toward cellulosic ethanol will have similar effects as land currently in forage production moves to energy production. So with high feed costs a reality for the foreseeable future, identifying animals that eat less of it while producing the same or more beef becomes increasingly attractive.

Scientists and producers use several measures of feed efficiency in cattle. These include the feed-per-gain ratio, which simply shows how many pounds of feed an animal eats for each pound of gain. Another measure is residual feed intake (RFI), which compares an animal’s actual intake with predicted intake based on its size and growth rate. A low RFI rating means an animal consumes less feed than predicted. Hill says research has shown wide variations in RFI among similar groups of cattle. Two similar feedyard steers, for example, might have the same average daily gain of about four pounds per day, but one might produce those gains on 20 percent less feed.

For a good comparison of the terminology and measurement o feed efficiency, read “Improving efficiency starts with understanding the measures” by Kansas State University beef Extension specialist Bob Weaber, PhD.

Increasingly, seedstock producers and bull-test facilities use facilities designed to measure individual feed intake on young bulls to measure their feed efficiency, as the trait is heritable. And considerable work is underway to identify and validate genomic markers for the trait. But as bulls come to market with ratings for efficiency included in their EPDs or selection indexes, do buyers see a value?

Hill and a group of researchers have surveyed large groups of cow-calf and seedstock producers over the past four years to evaluate their awareness of, and interest in, measures of feed efficiency in genetic selection. In their 2008 study, only 3.8 and 4.8 percent of commercial and seedstock producers indicated that feed efficiency was the most important characteristic used for bull selection. For most in both groups, calving ease was the most important trait used to evaluate genetic merit of breeding bulls. However,   49.1 percent of commercial producers and 43.6 percent of seedstock producers indicated they were willing to adopt RFI as a measure of feed efficiency. Asked how much extra they would pay for bulls with favorable ratings for RFI, 28 percent indicated they would not pay any extra, 51 percent indicated they would pay from $1 to $100, and the percentage of buyers who would pay larger premiums dropped off sharply.

The researchers conducted a follow-up survey in 2011 and found some change in attitudes toward the trait. Asked whether bulls are worth more if measured and rated favorably for feed efficiency, 76 percent responded yes, 16 percent said no, and 8 percent indicated they did not know. Asked about their willingness to pay for feed-efficient bulls, 18 percent said they would not pay any more, 45 percent said they would pay 1 to 10 percent more, 19.5 percent said they would pay 11 to 25 percent more and 4 percent said they would pay 26 percent or more.