Greatly increased costs of production appear to be a given for the foreseeable future, so our industry must employ strategies to reduce costs and possibly to modify production systems substantially.

Genetic improvement strategies must be part of the solution to our challenges. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the genetics that will best reduce feed costs. Recently, the American Simmental Association held a national two-day symposium hosted by the University of Illinois, with one day devoted to feed efficiency. The University of Illinois is a leader in feed conversion research, boasting one of the most advanced facilities in the world for measuring feed intake. This program offered presentations from a variety of scientific experts, backed by sound research data. Sadly, their message for our industry was mixed and not always optimistic. These high-level exchanges of information and theory, however, are crucial for enacting intelligent change, and are necessary if our industry is going to survive our new cost challenges and come to consensus regarding methodology for making necessary genetic improvement.

The initial speakers at this conference leaned on the potential of Residual Feed Intake as the tool necessary to make genetic progress for feed efficiency. Later, other presenters aired their views that RFI was not a genetic measure at all but rather a phenotypic value that might not be useful for making genetic progress. Others presented information that feed conversion (intake divided by weight gain) was not a trait that could be improved by selection. This is somewhat disturbing because the economically important trait that is becoming so out of balance with skyrocketing feed costs is cost of gain, primarily influenced by the rate that dry matter is converted to edible tissues.

Other speakers also aired concerns that feedlot gain efficiency may or may not relate well genetically to efficient cow herd usage of feedstuffs, which is an even larger cost component of our industry, and they stressed the need for further research in this area. Still other presenters showed how feedlot intake could be estimated using other measured and correlated traits so that the direct measurement of individual feed consumption might itself be economically inefficient. They suggest that by using genetic simulation, feed usage can be predicted based primarily on growth rates and body composition. This strategy certainly is relatively inexpensive to employ. However, using correlated traits only may put this industry at the disadvantage, being unable to identify the outliers necessary to make significant genetic progress. By measuring the trait of importance directly, we might make more progress, especially when the cost of intake is rendering other traits relatively less valuable daily because of the huge increase in energy feed costs.

I believe that reducing feed resource needs will become extremely important. There is no doubt that management and strategic system changes will be substantial in response to these historic cost increases. Genetics must also play a significant role in the solution. It is unacceptable for our industry to ignore the demand for genetic solutions to this issue. Even small improvements today, clumsily moving in a direction of increased efficiencies, are actions we need to consider to pave the way for more advanced genetic improvement systems in the future.

The accompanying data were generated from the intake research portion of the American Simmental Association’s Carcass Merit Program and were collected at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2007. These performance means represent the top 10 percent of steers (approximately 40 head) for feed conversion contrasted to those steers ranking in the bottom 10 percent. Some of the biggest differences in gain efficiency can be found when you partition steers into groups based on retail-product-gain per unit of consumption and not just feed to live-weight gain. This should come as no surprise considering the substantially superior energetic efficiency associated with the accretion of muscle when compared to the cost of laying down lipids. In both 2006 and 2007 data, the difference between the highest and lowest cutability steers approached 10 pounds of dry-matter-fed per pound of retail product produced. An additional 500 sire-identified steers are currently being evaluated in the U of I facility with harvest set for April and May 2008.