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Beef Feed Efficiency Programme expands across Great Britain – October 2017

Reducing feed costs can make a big difference to the bottom line of all beef businesses. Enabling farmers to do that without affecting performance is the aim of the Defra and AHDB-funded Beef Feed Efficiency Programme.

So far, feed intake records from 1,200 cattle have been collected which will be used to identify the genetic differences between the sires of those animals in terms of how efficiently they convert feed to liveweight gain. Including feed efficiency in the genetic selection indices of beef cattle has the potential to increase farm-level profit by 39 per cent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 22 per cent.

The project, led by AHDB and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), is two thirds of the way through the recording phase and preliminary results are showing that daily feed intake can vary considerably between the progeny of different sires which are growing at the same rate.

Mary Vickers, AHDB Beef & Lamb Senior Scientist, explains: “Along the way, much has been learned about conducting this sort of performance recording on commercial farms. Investment in equipment which accurately measures feed intake, along with electronic identification of the cattle, means that the measurement of individual daily intake is now feasible with a high level of accuracy. As part of the project, feeds are regularly oven dried to determine dry matter content of the ration, cattle are weighed weekly and are ultrasound scanned at the start and end of the test period.”

An ultrasound scan uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the inside of the body.

Images taken over the loin area provide measurements of the layer of subcutaneous fat in that area. This enables composition of the liveweight gain to be incorporated into the model for recording feed efficiency, as the feed requirement for laying down lean tissue is different to that required for fat deposition.

An additional funding partnership with the Scottish Government and ABP Food Group has meant a recording unit in Scotland has been set up and has already hosted its first batch of 136 animals. The Scottish unit, together with a pre-existing unit in Dorset and two new units in North Wales and North Yorkshire, means the programme now has much greater flexibility in terms of sourcing suitable cattle and has increased capacity to record greater numbers of animals.

Initial results

Although the programme has not yet generated sufficient records to work on the genetic analysis, the preliminary performance data is showing some interesting trends.

Both Limousin-sired cattle from beef and dairy dams are being recorded and an initial comparison of their performance across 400 cattle has shown some interesting results. “Limousin-cross cattle from the dairy herd had a lighter weight for age at the start of the recording period but had very similar levels of daily dry matter intake,” says Mary. “This was a consequence of their greater intake as a proportion of body weight. Growth rates for the suckler-bred calves have so far been around eight per cent faster than those from the dairy herd, with an associated reduction in feed conversion ratio (FCR). As expected, we are also seeing considerable differences in intake between sires.”

Calves on test

Mark Needham is a suckler producer from Dorset and has supplied calves to the project. Mr Needham says: “I run 180 continental-cross suckler cows, half are put to a Charolais bull and half to a Limousin. The cows are spread over two units, which are both spring calving. One herd has the advantage of being outwintered on chalkland which saves on housing costs. I sell all progeny as stores in Frome Market in the autumn. No concentrate is fed to the cows, however, calves are offered creep from mid-June onwards.”

Across the two herds, Mr Needham has five stock bulls which are purchased only after he has checked their estimated breeding values (EBVs). Both herds are routinely health tested.

To date, Mr Needham has supplied 25 calves to the project, sired by two different Limousin bulls and he plans to supply more. The objective is to collect feed intake and performance data from no less than eight calves per sire from over 200 Limousin bulls used across the UK.

Mary says: “Calves from Mr Needham’s farm have performed well while on test, with daily liveweight gains averaging 1.68 kg per day and average dry matter intake averaging around 8.5 kg per day. Compared to the average weight of the cattle in the group, both sire groups were among the heaviest at the start and finish of test, with growth rates in the top five per cent.”

The ration used during the recording phase is based on grass silage, barley and a protein blend to be typical of the majority of commercial beef rations.

Figure 1 shows the average growth rate and feed intake of the calves submitted by Mr Needham. Cattle with relatively lower feed intake for the same level of performance are the most feed efficient.

Figure 1: Feed intake and performance of cattle sired by two bulls from the same herd

Mary explains: “The circled dots illustrate the performance of two animals which grew at the same growth rate during the recording period (1.5 kg/day) but had a dry matter intake that differed by 11 per cent or 0.9 kg of feed dry matter per day. During a 100-day finishing period, this type of response could deliver a feed cost saving worth approximately £22 per head, a reduction in feed cost per kg liveweight gain of £0.17.”

The future

Identifying sires and dams whose genetics mean their progeny eat less but grow at the same rate is what this project is all about. The aim is to collect sufficient records to generate breeding values for the Limousin breed to demonstrate the approach of using commercial growing cattle recorded for feed intake on commercial farms, with the data linked back to the pedigree herd.

The project has also established industry standards for recording of feed intake and will determine an agreed measure of feed efficiency to be included in selection indices. At the end of the project, the programme will continue through the ongoing availability of the feed recording facilities, which will be available to breed societies and breeders who wish to generate breeding values for their breed.

The Beef Feed Efficiency Programme is part of AHDB’s wider Farm Excellence Platform, which inspires industry to improve performance and succeed through farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange.

The programme is continually looking for suitable cattle that can be purchased or retained on a B&B arrangement for feed intake recording. Feedback on cattle performance is available. Any producers with Limousin-sired cattle aged eight months or less who are interested in understanding how their cattle could participate should contact Natalie Cormack on 07866 934563/01890 781006 or email [email protected].

About the author

Samuel Boon

Samuel Boon

I am the Manager of Signet Breeding Services, within the AHDB.

Enthusiast on all things genetics to do with sheep and cattle and currently also supporting Bridget Lloyd in running the @RamCompare progeny test with ~18,000 lambs/annum.

I am also involved with the:-

  • Relaunch of Terminal Sire Breeding Programmes (Sheep)
  • AHDB lead for the Welsh Sheep Breeding Project run by HCC - working with Innovis, HCC and Janet Roden
  • Database design and development for this website
  • National Sheep Breeds Survey
  • Development of Carcase Trait EBVs in Beef Cattle
  • Formerly involved with the delivery of the Welsh Sheep Strategy, Northern Upland Sheep Strategy, Suckler Cow Project, Highlands and Islands Sheep Strategy

I can be followed on Twitter @SamBoonBreeding