Extension by Steve Paisley
Feed efficiency will become increasingly important. Because of widespread drought, tight corn supplies and smaller national feedgrain crop forecasts, both feed and hay prices have jumped significantly. Improving the feed efficiency of a beef cattle herd can mean big savings for producers. A five percent improvement in feed efficiency could have an economic effect four times greater than a five percent improvement in average daily gain (ADG). Many breed associations have adopted a slightly different method of evaluating individual feed efficiency called Residual Feed Intake, or RFI.
RFI is defined as the difference between an animal’s actual feed consumed and the animal’s calculated feed requirements based on weight and ADG while on test. RFI attempts to describe variation in feed intake that remains after the requirements for maintenance and growth have been met.
Efficient animals eat less than expected and have a negative or low RFI, while inefficient animals eat more than expected and have a positive or high RFI. More desirable, more efficient animals have low (negative) RFI values. Canadian and Australian research suggests that we can improve feed efficiency through RFI selection, with estimated heritability for RFI of about 40 percent. This means we can make significant improvements in overall herd efficiency if we have data available when we make our bull selection and purchasing decisions. One caution comes in my next point.
Production vs. feed
Production efficiency and feed efficiency aren’t necessarily the same thing. As with any new technology or selection tool, there is always a risk in over-use or over-emphasis of its importance in selection decisions. The same point may be made for feed efficiency. While improved feed utilization is very important to our industry, it is still more important for that cow to successfully wean a healthy calf every year. Production efficiency in very general terms is pounds of weaned calf produced per unit of input. Feed efficiency is an important part of this equation, but cow fertility, reproduction, soundness and longevity are all aspects of a profitable cow.
You can’t starve profit out of a cow – there are long-term impacts to poor nutrition. For decades, we have discussed the importance of cow nutrition during late gestation and the importance of cow body condition scores (BCS) during weaning and calving, using BCS as a barometer to breeding success. Thanks to some mid-70s research from UW, as well as 80s research at CSU, we also know the impact of cow nutrition on calf survivability and health.
More recently, researchers at Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota have taken a closer look at the long-term impacts of pregnant and early lactation cow management and its effect on the calves produced. Studies at the University of Nebraska evaluated herd management and supplementation programs during late gestation. Adult cows exposed to nutritional stress during late gestation (those not supplemented prior to calving) appeared to breed back similarly to their supplemented herd mates, but the heifer calves born to un-supplemented cows reached puberty later and had reduced conception rates. This means that while we may save money in that particular production year by not supplementing, there is good evidence that we will have more devastating impacts on heifer fertility and breed-back in subsequent production years.
Early weaning should be considered every year, but it is especially effective when forage resources are limited and cow condition begins to drop by early summer. Multiple studies have documented that early weaning calves at approximately 120 to 150 days of age, although resulting in a lighter weaned calf, will provide several positive benefits to the herd, such as increasing body condition of cows entering the fall by one full condition, or approximately 100 pounds.
This is an important point, especially when the cost of additional hay or supplement needed is extremely expensive. Early weaning will result in forage savings of approximately 27 percent by both reducing the forage needs of the cow by removing the lactation requirements and forage consumed by calves.
By weaning and pregnancy testing early, often we can market both open cows and calves more effectively. Finally, early weaning and retaining ownership of the calves through the feedlot suggests that, although the calves are on feed for a longer time period, they tend to be more efficient in the feedlot, finishing with a higher quality grade.
Early weaning is not a black-and-white issue. It can be adjusted to fit different management styles, forage resources, cattle price outlooks and cattle types. Pasture costs, forage production, hay prices, grain prices and cattle facilities all influence the weaning decision. However, it is an effective tool in spreading risk, managing young and thin cows, as well as conserving some forage. Before making sorting and stocking decisions for summer pastures, take a minute to specific weaning strategies for the late summer and fall.
Strategic culling is important. Drought always results in decreased herd inventory. Earlier preg testing, sorting off older cows, selecting for temperament and removing bigger, presumably less efficient cows are all sorting criteria. If you wean early, consider taking the additional time and effort to weigh individual calves and cows, and select cows based on pounds of weaned calf produced per pound of cow weight. This percentage may actually give you a better idea of actual production efficiency of the cow. The results may be surprising.
Hay losses associated with feeding in round bale feeders will become increasingly costly as prices continue to rise. There are several ways to reduce hay waste with round bale feeders. The main two solutions include the type of feeder used and limiting access time to feeders. Both techniques have dramatically reduced hay waste. Concerning round bale feeder types, consider feeders that have an internal “cone” or tapered feeders where any loose hay falls inside the feeder, rather than outside of the feeder and wasted.
Illinois studies have also investigated the option of limiting access to feeders. Their data suggests that six to nine hours of access to a round bale feeder is plenty to maintain weight, while dramatically reducing feed waste. It’s important to note that limiting access to feeders requires medium- to high-quality forage; close observation of the cattle to make sure they are maintaining weight and condition; adequate space for all cows to have access to hay during the allotted periods; and potential for sorting the cows to remove the timid or poor-performing cows. Not all cows are suited to time-restricted feeding programs.
When teamed with forage analysis, ration balancing, hay budgeting and feeding management, managing hay waste can help more efficiently manage winter nutrition. Other tools include testing hay, balancing rations and using co-product feeds both as a supplement or forage substitute to reduce winter feed costs while maintaining cow condition.
Efficient use of feed resources will be very important this fall and winter. Any management and selection decisions made to improve efficiency will ultimately pay off. Hopefully there are a couple of ideas to consider.
Steve Paisley is the UW Extension beef cattle specialist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.