Q & A: New frontiers in feed efficiency

Posted on April 1, 2019 by morwebadmin

The more than 4,000 head of cattle managed annually at the Pine Haven beef operation in central Alberta represent some of the finest production stock in the North American beef industry.

Among them, a select 195 included in a special research trial, led by nutritionists at Country Junction Feeds along with science advisor Dr. Al Schaefer, may also represent a bold new frontier in feed efficiency – one promising dramatically higher performance and profits to help advance the progress of this industry and other livestock sectors into the future.

The animals participating in the trial are among the latest to be assessed and managed under commercial conditions utilizing a breakthrough new system for evaluating feed efficiency. The system is driven by the innovative application of leading-edge infrared thermography (IRT) technology, integrated with a wealth of strategic animal nutrition expertise, to support everything from herd improvement planning to advanced precision feeding.This system, now supported by years of pioneering research and the latest patented technology, shows advantages for dramatically reducing cost of production and environmental impact while supporting continuous improvement in each production cycle.

The IRT technology utilization applied with the new system is based on over 20 years of IRT-related livestock research led by Dr. Al Schaefer and colleagues. This includes numerous landmark studies identifying correlations between IRT measurements and reliable identifiers of metabolic efficiency among individual animals. For example, with beef cattle the IRT approach identifies energy loss as expressed by thermography measurements from key areas – this has been shown to correlate with conventional efficiency measurements using residual feed intake values. (Read the full news story on this study here.)

Here are insights on the study and the feed efficiency challenge from Dr. Schaefer:

Q: What is the primary challenge regarding feed efficiency for cattle?

The cost of production for cattle is primarily determined by the amount of feed the animal consumes. Some animals are more efficient than others at converting their feed to muscle. The challenge is, how do producers identify such animals.

Feedlot cattle are typically segregated in terms of sex, age and weight. This produces more uniform groups of cattle thus enabling feeding and management practices that can be customized for specific groups. However, feed efficiency also can vary among beef cattle and this can cause significant variation in finishing weights and grades creating some challenges for marketing.

Q: What is the opportunity the team is looking at with the new IRT-based approach?

If feedlot managers could segregate and raise animals also by metabolic efficiency this would be one more tool available for improving efficiency in the beef industry.

Current industry standards for identifying variation in growth or metabolic efficiency are often based on long term feeding programs during which feed intake and growth are monitored. However, this approach is costly (typically $300 plus per animal) and time consuming (typically 70-110 days) Moreover,over this length of period factors like illness and environmental instability can affect these growth measurements.

Alternatively, an infrared thermography ranking system has been developed that utilizes a non invasive real time scan to rank animals for metabolic efficiency (Schaefer et al. 2018. Amer. Soc. Anim. Sci. Proceedings). The system basically utilizes the animal’s RFID tag to trigger a thermal camera focused on the animal. The data is passed through unique calculation programs in a data base and the animals are ranked for efficiency.

The system has been verified in several studies involving research and genetic-breeding herds and has been found to parallel conventional measurements of efficiency such as Residual Feed Intake. One of the primary advantages is that the ranking can be done within 24h instead of 70-110 days.

That means the technology is more user friendly for commercial herds, less costly and can be planed to avoid periods when the animals may be exposed to illness or acute environmental challenges such as storms.

Q: What are the next steps in moving this opportunity forward?

It's in collaboration with Country Junction Feeds of Wetaskiwin that beta site studies are being initiated with cooperating feedlots.

One of the obvious linkages is that if producers knew which animals were more efficient at the start of a feeding period then they could pen and feed the animals to reduce the cost of production. Just as one example, if a producer knew an animal was less efficient then why try to finish that animal to a high quality grade.

That would only take more time and more feed. By contrast, a more efficient animal may benefit from a higher quality diet and finish more quickly and at a reduced cost. Just as producers currently pen their cattle based on factors like weight, sex, age and breed type, thermal ranking systems can now be used to pen these cattle for metabolic efficiency.

For further information and potential inclusion in a beta site study please call Bernie Grumpelt or Darrell Kimmel at Country Junction Feeds.

The only full line feed mill producing organic feeds in Alberta