Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Stephen B. Blezinger

It seems that seldom does a day pass that we do not hear numerous references to efficiency. We are constantly battered with automobile ads that claim this or that level of fuel efficiency for whichever car model they are promoting. We hear of energy efficiency as it refers to air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines and even computers. In the beef industry we typically consider the importance of feed efficiency when evaluating the performance of cattle in the feedlot, those on a complete, high-grain ration. Anyone who operates and manages a business can tell you that efficiency pertains to substantially more than just one sector of a business. Production and feed efficiency is a concept that must be promoted from the time a calf hits the ground until it ends up on someone's plate. This article will discuss the issue of efficiency as it pertains to the beef industry. The focus will be largely on nutrition since the vast majority of production costs of an animal from start to finish lies in the expense of providing the necessary nutrients for cost-effective production.

Efficiency is defined in Webster's dictionary as a characteristic of something being performed or functioning effectively with the least waste of time or other resources possible. It is also includes characteristics of being competent and capable. In a cattle operation, from the cow/calf phase to the feedlot, efficiency refers to the best and most cost effective use of input resources whether it be time, money, feed, labor, etc. Obviously we could take much more time and space to discuss this issue that what we are allowed here so our primary focus will be on feed source efficiency from the cow/calf phase to the feedlot.

Before we go on though, let's step back and take a big picture view of the importance of operational and feed efficiencies and the effect it has on a producer's individual operation but also on national and world agriculture. An interesting picture is provided by Dennis T. Avery, formerly the senior agricultural analyst with the U. S. State Department and now the Director of Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute, a think-tank working on solving many of the world's food production problems and issues. Dennis has published several books on the importance of high efficiency and intensity agriculture and the positive effect it has on overall food production, the environment and overall land use. The following is an excerpt from his paper, “Saving the Planet With High Feed Efficiency.”

In this work Mr. Avery writes: “The major certain danger to the world's environment in the 21st century is neither population growth nor pesticides. The biggest certain danger to nature in the next 50 years is the likelihood that people will plow down much of the remaining forests and wildlands for cattle pasture and feed grains. The world's human population will increase, but only by about 50 percent from today. The big problem is that we will re-stabilize the world population by giving ninety plus percent of the people affluent, urban lifestyles. Few of these people will be vegetarian, let alone vegan. That means a world which already has one third of its land area in agriculture will have to produce at least 250 percent more farm output. To conduct high yield, high efficiency farm production for export, American farmers will need public approval. In the old days, this was automatic. In the old days, people regarded farmers as hunger fighters. But no more. Today, our city folks take their food for granted, and the environmental movement has replaced the farmer's white hat with a black one. However, that doesn't mean farmers can't get back their public approval. It won't happen through Political Action Committees or delegations to Washington. Instead, agriculture will have to achieve through the power of ideas. The most powerful idea in the public forum today is the concept of saving the environment. Environmental concerns have displaced the old ideal of producing "enough food" because the First World now takes food for granted even meat. But farmers and ranchers can still have the high moral ground because the world can't save its wildlands and wildlife without high yield farming and ranching. Saving the wildlands is just the flip side of feeding the people. That's because it is farmers and ranchers and foresters who manage the land and make room for wildlife. The world's cities take only 1.5 percent of the earth's land area. When we have a peak human population of 8.5 billion in 2040, cities will house 95 percent of that population on 3.5 percent of the land.”

It is only through increased production AND high levels of efficiency that the concepts outlined by Mr. Avery will be elicited. It is up to us then to determine how to be the most efficient we can be.

Efficiency Counts, from Pasture to Plate

Assessing production efficiency, especially feed efficiency starts before the calf ever hits the ground. It starts when the grazing cow is carrying the calf that will one day be used to produce meat for someone's table. This is probably the most difficult area of the production cycle to assess for efficiency. It is important to remember here that what we are looking for is a female that can most cost-effectively produce a calf that will wean and ultimately perform optimally as it goes on to later production stages. The primary reason this is so difficult to asses is that it can be a challenge to determine where to start. Probably the simplest way to view the feed and production efficiency in the cow herd is to look at it on an annual basis individually and then as a herd.

On an individual animal basis the following factors need to be evaluated:

1) Breeding period. How long did it take for the cow to rebreed after calving.

2) Body condition. What does it take to maintain the cow in the appropriate phases of body condition to insure she produces adequate milk as well as rebreeds in a timely fashion.

3) What were the average supplementation costs and requirements for this animal? Protein and energy are the main concerns but you need to evaluate mineral supplementation expense as well. Was she one of those individuals that required a higher level of supplementation in order to maintain body condition? Was she losing condition while the rest of the herd held it's own?

4) Vet Expenses. Did you have more or less vet expense with this particular animal and what was the nature of the expense? As related to 3) above was she more difficult to maintain and thus may have suffered from a suppressed immune system?

5) Weaning weight of the calf. Where did she rank overall in the weaning weight of the calves she produced?

6) Total annual production expense. All things considered what were the total costs for this cow to wean a calf?

On a herd basis the producer needs to evaluate:

1) Calving percentage. What is the total number of calves weaned for the number of cows maintained for the period? This tells you how much additional expense each of the calves must carry.

2) Cull Rate. What percentage of cows must be replaced every year to maintain herd size.

Any number of other factors can be evaluated as well but these are some of the more important.

Since feed cost is the largest single production expense in a cattle operation, supplementation costs have to be evaluated carefully. As noted above, cows that require higher levels of feed or supplementation to maintain a given body condition and wean an acceptable calf are too costly and should be considered for culling. This is why the use of palpation, body condition scoring and record keeping are very important.

Another factor to consider is supplementation methods. There are numerous ways to provide protein, energy and mineral to the cow herd. Assuming pasture and forage conditions are adequate, protein and energy supplementation should be designed so that they maximize the use of existing forages. Supplements, when needed, should be matched to forage conditions. Since operations and forage types and conditions vary so widely it is difficult to make blanket recommendations in this format. That is why it is important for each producer to be very well acquainted with his forages and what he can expect at different times of the year and under varying moisture conditions.

While feed efficiency can be related to matching forage types with supplementation another important factor is genetics. Research and practice has found that it is possible to identify whether feed efficiency can be selected for in beef cattle. It has been found that by selecting for feed conversion rate you would increase growth rate and improve feed conversion rate. One important goal has been to show that selection for efficiency would produce cows that eat less but have the same performance without increasing cow size.

Initial studies were performed with cattle being selected for two separate breeding lines on the basis of either a low or high net feed efficiency. Results indicated a significant difference between breeding lines for feed intake, fat depth, feed conversion rate and retail yield with no significant difference in growth rate or yearling weight. Ok, so what does this mean? Basically, breeding to reduce feed intake is possible without compromising performance. It is important to ensure that additional economically important traits are not sacrificed when selecting for feed efficiency.

Efficiency in Grazing and Stocker Operations

The next stage in the chain comes as calves are weaned off and placed on grass for additional growth. The last few years have seen a trend where by cattle have been placed in the feedyard at earlier ages due to market conditions, pasture availability and so on. Nonetheless, it is important at this grazing stage to produce cattle that will minimize cost of gain and be ready to go on to the next stage of production in a reasonable period of time. This is especially important considering the number of cattle produced using borrowed money and the cost of interest.

As noted previously it is important that cattle make the most use from available pasture, especially if this is wheat, oats, ryegrass, rye or similar planted pastures. In many cases this can also require supplementation of some types. Positive responses have been noted to supplementing with moderate amounts of grain that is high in non-fiberous carbohydrates (starch) to provide additional substrate for the rumen bugs to better utilize the large amounts of soluble protein present in winter pasture forages. Additional research has shown benefit in the use of by-pass protein sources which helps improve the over all quality of the protein (more specifically the amino acids) that the cattle absorb. Subsequently this results in better gains on the same amount of pasture. Additional options include the feeding of some silage or a silage-based ration to cattle on pastures of this nature. This has been found to help stretch the available grazing allowing longer grazing or the grazing of more cattle per acre. Subsequently this results in the production of more beef per acre of established pasture.

Feed Efficiency in the Feedyard

Given the massive volumes of feed provided to millions of head of cattle each year, an improvement in feed efficiency of only .01 lbs. can make a huge difference in performance. Consider this: in the feedyard, if we adopt a product or practice that would improve feed efficiency by .01 lbs. per head per day, over the course of a typical feeding period, say 150 days, this would save 1.5 lbs. per head. Spread over a million head of cattle, the end result is equal to 1.5 million pounds of feed over this period or 3.65 million pounds of feed per year. If ration cost are about $110 per ton this would be equal to a savings of $200,750.00. Quite a sum of money for such a small difference.

Feed efficiency in the feedyard can show improvement in different ways. One may be improved gains on the same amount of feed. The second might be similar gains at lower feed intake levels. Improved feed efficiency is normally correlated with the intake of higher levels of energy that is produced with feeding a high grain ration. Research has shown numerous other ways in which feed efficiency is enhanced. One of the best methods to reduce feed costs and improve feed efficiency is through the use of feed additives. Their primary effects are to improve feed efficiency and/or daily gain. Some feed additives have secondary benefits which include reducing the incidence of acidosis, coccidiosis, and grain bloat, while others suppress estrus, reduce liver abscesses, or control foot rot problems. In each of these cases the end result is that the animal either consumes less or makes better use of the energy it is provided.

Feed additives can be divided into five general categories. Examples of each are given:

1) Ionophores – Rumensintm, Bovatectm, Cattlysttm

2) Antibiotics – chlortetracycline, oxytetracycline, bacitracin, and tylosin

3) Estrus suppressants – Melengesterol Acetate (MGA)

4) Buffers – Sodium Bicarbonate

5) Others – Rumen-Protected Choline (a B-Vitamin), Sarsaponin

Each feed additive has its own characteristics, mode of action and feeding limitations. Some are approved to be fed in combination with others. Using the proper level of feed additives is very important because too high a level will decrease animal performance, especially with cattle on low-quality roughages.


Management of production and feed efficiency are critical elements of a total beef production program. Producers, regardless of the phase they are involved in need to constantly monitor these factors and make the best use of research and tools available to them. The end result will be improved long-term profits and a more efficient industry.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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