Since feed costs make up the biggest portion of a livestock operation, most, if not all, producers keep an eye on consumption and waste.
However, most all operations do not know their herd feed efficiency. That's why Highmore, S.D.-based Eagle Pass Ranch decided to install a feeding system to record how much each animal eats.
“Feed efficiency is such an important economic trait and everybody's just been guessing up until now,” said Steve Munger, Eagle Pass Ranch managing partner. “Now the technology's there that you can actually measure and select for it.”
Munger says feed costs make up 60-65 percent of the total operating costs on a cow/calf operation. By selecting genetics that will increase efficiency by 10-15 percent, producers can save quite a bit of money each year.
“We're working on trying to select bulls that we can use back in our herd and sell to customers,” he said. “Both will raise sire progeny that will be $50 to $75 a year more efficient.”
The Eagle Pass Ranch cow herd consists of about 1,500 head of registered Angus and Gelbvieh cows. They host a sale each March where they sell 40 purebred Angus, 40 purebred Gelbvieh and 170 Balancer bulls. They sell first-cross heifers at another sale in the fall.
Munger had the feeding system installed in November 2007. GrowSafe, a Canadian-based company, installed the system.
The system, which took about a week to install, consists of 15 individual poly tubs sitting on weigh bars. Each animal has an electronic identification tag. When the animal sticks its head through the stanchion bars and into the tub, a sensor on the lip of the tub identifies the animal.
“Every time the weight changes, it's documented and credited to the animal that's in the bunk,” Munger said.
The collected data is stored on the ranch's computer until each test is done. Then, GrowSafe takes the data and gets an analysis done.
Munger plans to use the system year-round. The first group of animals to the use the ranch's system consisted of 120 bulls. Currently, they have heifers using the system. Once the heifers are completed, they will finish steers.
All of the bulls, heifers and steers going through the system have similar pedigrees.
Each test runs 84 days. The animals need 14 days to acclimate to the system and 70 days for the actual test. The system can handle eight to 10 head per bunk.
Each animal in the test at Eagle Pass Ranch gets weighed, ultrasounded and tagged when they start using the bunks. They get weighed about 10 times during the 84-day period and ultrasounded at the end to see the effect on fat composition.
The 120 bulls that went through the system will be sold at the ranch's bull sale March 19. Munger says they will collect semen on the bulls that came back with superior feed efficiency to use them for AI-ing within their herd.
“They're also going to be sold at our bull sale so our bull customers are going to get the direct advantage of having high feed efficiency bulls identified for them and then they can take them and put them in their herd and have an immediate impact on feed efficiency,” he said.
Munger plans to follow the heifers through breeding to see what the effects of residual feed intake have on fertility.
“Residual feed intake is roughly defined as every animal has an amount they need to eat to gain a certain amount of weight based on their size and body composition and the growth rate,” Munger said. “What we're trying to figure out is - there (are) animals that can do that same weight gain with less feed. Those are the ones we're trying to identify.”
Eagle Pass Ranch emphasizes data so this new feed efficiency system fits right into their operation.
“You can't improve what you don't measure, otherwise you're just guessing,” Munger said. “If you're measuring and are making calculated selection decisions based on a good, accurate measure of data, then you can make genetic progress.”
Munger compares what they do at the ranch to what seed companies do before they introduce new hybrids and varieties.
“When seed corn companies come up with new varieties, they're not guessing what they think might work. They're using data and actually know how the genetics are responding to different climates,” he said. “That's what we're trying to do here. We use the technology available to come up with one more way that our customers can make more profits.”
Munger says while the beef industry has the use of expected progeny differences (EPDs) on things like carcass and maternal traits, they do not have one for feed efficiency.
“There's never been any selection method to use for feed efficiency. That's what we're really doing here,” he said. “By next year, after we ran these three groups plus the next set of bulls for our 2009 sale, we should be able to have in-herd EPDs for feed efficiency for our bull sale in 2009. That should be 60 percent accuracy or higher.”
While feed efficiency is important. Munger says they select for other traits as well. “I'm a big performance guy. I mean, pounds are what we sell, so we like to have the high performance cattle,” Munger said. “Our cattle are - versus the average for the Angus and the Gelbvieh breeds - we're about 20 pounds above the breed average for performance.
“But then you also have to make sure you get them born alive. We keep replacement heifers, so maternal traits are important to us,” he said.
Munger says it has been interesting to see the data. They see not only how much feed each animal consumed for the day, but also how many times they visited the bunk and how long they stayed, as well as behavioral traits.
“There's a lot of behavioral stuff you pick up that isn't really economically relevant, but that's interesting. There's some that will eat on that side of the barn, some on this side of the barn. Some will eat just in the middle,” he said. “Timid ones you see that they have a lot of short feeding periods where they'll get nosed out of there. Then the boss heifers or bulls will come in there just a few times a day and eat for a long time.”
Munger says he is happy with the system.
“The intakes are the same as they were when the bulls were on regular feedbunks. I don't think it's changed the growth or the intakes on them at all,” he said. “Just the ability to collect the data that we're collecting, you almost have to look at the data to appreciate how much data's actually involved with 120 animals measuring every mouthful of feed they eat in 24 hours a day for 70 days.”