Back in 2006 when members and staff of the Braunvieh Association of America began planning their national bull test, they couldn’t have predicted that corn prices would climb to over $5 per bushel this year. Nor did they know that related trends would drive prices for fertilizer, pasture rents, hay and other feeds to record levels.

They realized though that efficiency is becoming more important at every stage of beef production and that cattle with the ability to gain weight on less feed could improve producer returns.

Building a breed

Mark Nelson, the association’s executive vice president, says the Braunvieh breed started slowly when first introduced in the United States during the mid-1980s. Around that time, he says, many U.S. producers were finding they had perhaps gone too far with Continental influence in their herds, resulting in too much size and not enough marbling. 

But over the past decade, Nelson says, the breed has established a good track record for carcass quality. In a crossbreeding program, Nelson says, Braunvieh are more likely to help marbling than hurt it. “We find that in Braunvieh-Angus crossbred herds, quality grades are about equal to those in straight-bred Angus calves, but the Braunvieh influence tends to improve yield by about one USDA yield grade.” Braunvieh also are moderately sized, good-keeping cattle, Nelson says, with good maternal traits.

Nelson says his members’ typical bull customers are commercial cow-calf producers who retain ownership of their calves and sell fed cattle on a grid, taking advantage of the breed’s carcass merit. Through these feeding programs, they have noted another area where the breed seems to excel  —  feed efficiency.

“Feedyard operators tell us that Braunvieh and Braunvieh-influenced cattle are not always the very top gainers in the feedyard,” Nelson says, “but they tend to be more efficient than average.”

Pursuing performance

Sensing an opportunity, the association has focused on feed efficiency among its long-term goals for the breed. Nelson says they made the decision to begin testing bulls for feed efficiency, using a measure known as residual feed intake or net feed intake.

RFI measures metabolic efficiency independent of the animal’s rate of gain. A rating for RFI requires a measurement of individual feed intake, minus the amount of feed the animal would be expected to eat for maintenance and rate of gain. An efficient animal eats less than the expected amount of feed and has a negative RFI. An inefficient animal eats more feed than expected for its body weight and growth rate, and has a positive RFI. Research trials have consistently shown that within groups of cattle of similar size and rate of growth, actual feed intake can vary considerably.

RFI is different from the feed-to-gain ratio typically used to describe feed efficiency in that feed-to-gain is closely tied to growth and mature size. Genetic selection for feed conversion alone can lead to larger mature cow size and higher maintenance requirements in the cow herd. Because RFI measures feed efficiency independent of growth characteristics, and is moderately heritable in beef cattle, breeders can select for feed efficiency while moving growth rate and mature size up, down or keeping them the same.

A timely test

But before breeders can select for RFI, they first have to measure it. This requires use of a feeding system that continuously measures and records each animal’s feed intake.

Largely for that reason, Nelson says, the association chose the Green Springs Bull Test Center at Nevada, Mo., where owner Kent Abele has invested in a GrowSafe feeding system that uses individual feeders linked to radio-frequency animal identification. Each feeder has a load cell and a radio-frequency identification reader linked to a computer system. Each bull has an RFID ear tag, and when it comes to feed, the computer identifies it and records exactly how much feed it eats by sensing the weight removed from the feeder. Bull-test managers weigh the bulls regularly, allowing them to determine average daily gains matched to the actual amount of feed it took each animal to achieve those gains.

The association began the bull-test project in January 2007 and moved quickly to have close to 100 yearling and long-yearling bulls tested and ready for its national bull sale in Manhattan, Kan., on April 9. Most of the bulls in the test, Nelson says, were fullblood or purebred Braunvieh, while some others were BeefBuilders with influence from either Angus or other Continental breeds.

Bob Brink, a Braunvieh breeder in south-central Kansas, says the association fortuitously picked the right time to focus on feed efficiency, as producers face skyrocketing feed prices and overall production costs.

Brink first became interested in the breed in the late-1960s when the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., began using Braunvieh in some of its breeding programs. He purchased his first Braunvieh cows in 1978.

“We promote the breed as the only one that can improve marbling, muscling and milk at the same time,” Brink says. He adds that his customers who retain ownership of their calves through the feedyard have benefited from their feed efficiency along with carcass value. He says he has finished groups of his steer calves at Decatur County Feedyard near Oberlin, Kan., a facility that collects extensive data on cattle through the feeding period. His pen closeout reports, he says, have shown that the cattle gain weight efficiently.

Five of Brink’s bulls completed the test and entered the national sale, and he believes the RFI measurements will allow him and his customers to select for more efficient cattle without sacrificing other beneficial traits. “Because we have not selected for RFI in the past, we should be able to make some significant genetic progress in just a few generations.” Brink says his phone began ringing several weeks before the sale, as producers became interested in the RFI data.

As his bulls went through the test, Brink says, he was surprised to see that his feed bills from Green Springs listed the feed each bull consumed, providing an individual bill for each animal.

Uncovering differences

Abele says that until recently, there really were not any viable or cost-effective ways to measure individual feed intake. The GrowSafe system makes it feasible, and he plans to expand the system to test more bulls for RFI.

The test reveals considerable variation in RFI within all the breeds he’s tested, Abele says. “Over the 112-day test, we have seen as much as $120 to $130 variation in feed costs between individual bulls.”

Nelson stresses that the breed’s focus on RFI is intended to add one more selection tool rather than any move toward single-trait selection. “Even the most efficient cattle would not be profitable if they don’t gain,” he says. “We need cattle that will put on good daily gains but do so with less feed than average.”

Abele also notes that gains and efficiency are not the same thing. “We used to equate average daily gains with feed efficiency, but now see that some bulls that gain rapidly are efficient, some are not. “

Illustrating this point, Nelson says the bull with the biggest ribeye area and highest average daily gains in the test turned out to be the least efficient. Most of the RFI ratings, he says, range from about negative 4.5 to positive 2.5 or 3.5. A negative RFI rating is favorable, meaning the animal consumed less feed than average for its size and rate of gain. This crossbred bull, however, had an RFI rating of positive 7  —  well above any other bull in the test. He gained weight and looked good but consumed a lot of feed to get there.

On the other end of the spectrum, the bull that tested best for RFI gained just 2.9 pounds per day. The top yearling bull in the test was one that did it all, with good gains, marbling, ribeye and RFI.

“We use RFI and ADG in one to rank bulls,” Nelson says, “with equal emphasis on each. Eventually we might be able to adjust the ratings to reflect how the balance of RFI and ADG affect cow costs, returns at weaning or returns in retained ownership.” The ratio also includes ribeye area, marbling and weight per day of age.

Nelson says the association hopes to test 200 to 300 bulls per year. “A genepool that is tighter and smaller than most other breeds actually gives us a distinct advantage,” Nelson says. “With such a high percentage of our genetics being measured, we see an opportunity to make significant genetic progress through our entire breed very quickly.”