A 1 percent improvement in beef cattle feed efficiency could return as much as $700 million annually to U.S. producers, Iowa State University animal scientist Dorian Garrick, PhD, told participants in last month’s Beef Improvement Federation conference.

Feed efficiency and the potential for genetic improvement become increasingly important as humans compete with livestock for feedgrains used for food, fuel and industrial uses, Garrick notes. From an environmental standpoint, improvements in feed efficiency can allow reductions in land use for beef production and a smaller “carbon footprint” as cattle reach market weights in shorter times, with less feed and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.

A challenge, however, is that feed efficiency is a difficult trait to measure and quantify, generally requiring measurements of intake and gain on individual cattle over an extended period of time. Differences in diet, health and environmental factors also can cause non-genetic differences in efficiency between individuals or groups of cattle. Once efficient cattle are identified though, the trait is moderately heritable, and researchers are working to identify genetic markers to enable development of reliable predictions for feed efficiency in young cattle.

Garrick and other researchers at ISU are part of a national consortium of universities beginning work on a five-year research and Extension effort toward genetic improvement of feed efficiency in beef cattle. In addition to ISU, the research group includes the University of Missouri, Texas A&M University, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, University of North Carolina and Washington State University, in cooperation with the USDA.

Over the course of the project, researchers plan to assemble data on individual feed intake, growth and carcass composition from 8,000 cattle from eight breeds. They also plan to collect DNA samples and use a high-density 700,000-marker panel to record genotypes of 2,400 cattle from six breeds, with the goal of developing and validating across-breed genomic tools for predicting feed efficiency.

The research teams also plan to conduct a field demonstration project with producers to demonstrate the utility of genomic EPDs for feed efficiency and related traits.

For more information on the five-year research and Extension project, visit the program’s website at BeefEfficiency.org.