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Feed efficiency plays a role in selecting for desirable traits in cattle

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Environment plays a huge role in cow efficiency and what type of cows we should have,” says UW Beef Extension Specialist Scott Lake.

In the West, producers need animals that can survive on the rough forage and sparse vegetation of the rangeland.

System resources

Describing his work at Purdue University in Indiana, Lake comments, “We had cows that were 2,000 pounds. They weren’t fat. They were in good condition, but they were just huge cows.”

In Indiana, the grass grows tall for eight months out of the year.

“In the other four months, the cows are eating corn silage,” explains Lake. “If we are going to have big cows, that is where we should have them.”

In a high-energy system where a lot of resources are available, bigger or higher producing cows are worth more to the producer.

“If we are in a low-energy system, smaller, moderate-framed cattle make more sense,” he adds.


For example, in Indiana, a high-production cow such as a Charolais or Simmental has access to sufficient resources to reach a high level of productivity.

“In a low-energy environment, she can’t meet her needs, and she won’t breed back,” he explains.

In contrast, an Angus or Hereford is better built for the low-energy system because her baseline nutritional requirements are not as high.

“We have a cow with low production potential, but she can meet her requirements and reproduce,” states Lake.

In a high-energy system, an Angus or Hereford becomes limited by her genetic potential.

“She can’t produce more than her genetic potential, so she is going to get fat,” he notes.

The Simmental or Charolais on the other hand, can utilize the extra energy in a high-resource system to produce more milk and perform as a high-producing animal, meeting significant production capabilities and also rebreeding.


“High producing cattle may be more efficient, but it depends on the system we are in,” Lake says.

Indirectly, producers often select for efficiency by choosing the animals that do well in their systems.

“If we have a cow that remains in pretty good condition and usually breeds back, that’s a sign of efficiency. If she’s too thin and doesn’t get pregnant, we sell her because she wasn’t very efficient in our system,” Lake explains.

Feed intake

One of the current hot topics in beef production, mentions Lake, is residual feed intake (RFI), a measurement of feed efficiency.

Many producers use RFI when selecting sires, but the same measure can be used in selecting females, as well.

“There are a lot of bull tests that are testing bulls for RFI. For example, Midland Bull Test uses this measurement,” he explains.

Animals that are tested for RFI are measured on an index, comparing their individual feed intake to an average of intake results from similar animals.

“A positive number means the animal ate more than it should have, and a negative number means it ate less than it should have. In this case, negative is better,” he explains.

Researchers hope to use RFI to select for cattle that maintain high performance while consuming less feed.

Tools to use

“RFI is an extremely valuable tool,” he states. “Although, we don’t want to select for any one single trait.”

Lake is concerned that selecting for RFI alone may result in animals that eat less but can not obtain enough nutrition from a low-energy environment.

“If we select for a heifer calf that doesn’t eat as much, say it only consumes about 1.5 percent of her body weight on low-quality forage, is she going to meet her requirements?” he asks.

Lake believes that selecting for a combination of efficiency and performance is necessary to create the best cattle.

“I have seen the biggest wrecks when a producer started chasing something,” he comments, mentioning carcass and growth rate as examples. “We get away from the foundation of our business, which is the cow, and we should be selecting traits that create a really good female.”

Genetic opportunity

As cowherds expand, producers have an opportunity to assess what traits they want to bring in as their numbers grow.

“In rebuilding our herds, we have an opportunity to improve the genetics in our national cowherd,” states Lake.

Economically, reproduction is an important factor to select for in cow/calf operations.

“One percent in reproduction improvement is better than five percent in growth,” he comments.

Considering pounds on the ground, a small calf is worth more than no calf at all.

“I think our greatest potential in the future is through genetic selection,” notes Lake, encouraging breeders to look at multiple traits and also multiple breeds.

Potential growth

“The U.S. cowherd is becoming increasingly straight-bred, and we are leaving a lot on the table between growth and performance,” he says.

Smoke-colored calves and black baldies do well in feedlots, for example.

“There are a lot of options to take advantage of heterosis,” he explains.

A blanket statement doesn’t describe a perfect cow. Depending on the system, certain traits are more efficient and more desirable.

“We have to like what we are raising, and we have to like what we see,” Lake comments.

Lake encourages producers to consider their personal preferences, as well as their environmental conditions.

“Our cows have to fit the criteria for what we want, but there is nothing wrong with having nice looking heifers,” he says.

He emphasizes that one size does not fit all.

“Selecting for cattle with both efficiency and growth increases our systematic efficiency, as well as our profitability,” Lake notes. “The good thing is, we have more and more tools to make genetic decisions and to make them valuable.”

Scott Lake spoke at Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton on Feb. 11.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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