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Agriculture

Science behind the beef industry

August 16, 2010

You are what you eat. Humans have heard this phrase for decades, but the truth is, what you eat costs money. This is the case whether you're human or animal. Colorado State University's Feed Intake Unit has begun collecting data on cattle to address key issues around the consumption of feed, including how much is being eaten, how often are they eating it, and how efficiently are they utilizing what they eat.

Cost savings sought

Researchers are looking for ways to improve genetics by selecting animals that get the most out of nutrients eaten, and don't eat as much, or as often.

With over two-thirds of the non-fixed costs of beef production invested in feed and feed supplementation, it’s a piece of the beef business that, if improved, could mean great cost savings for producers. The goal is to improve genetics by selecting animals that get the most out of nutrients eaten, and don’t eat as much, or as often.

“Ultimately, this research program provides producers with the tools they need to make real permanent, and cumulative genetic improvements in the efficiency and profitability of their business,” explains Denny Crews, professor of animal breeding and genetics, who is the faculty director of the CSU Feed Intake Unit.

Radio frequency ear tag

Cattle are given a radio frequency ear tag at the beginning of their 90-day test that is read by an antenna every second in the feed bunks. This data stream collectively records the time each animal spends eating. Each feed bunk is mounted on electronic load cells, which creates a data stream to record feed disappearance.

Software is then used to filter and edit the data streams, and combine animal attendance with feed disappearance, resulting in daily feed consumption records for each animal. The individual feed intake records are then used in genetic evaluation, which is basically the process of assigning a rank to individual animals on the basis of their genetic merit for feed utilization.

Genetics of feed intake and utilization

“The history of genetic improvement of cattle in North America has focused on output or revenue traits such as weight, growth rate, reproductive longevity, and carcass yield,” says Crews. “Until recently, there has been limited work on the genetics of input or cost traits such as feed intake and feed utilization.”

In 2009, CSU installed GrowSafe equipment at their Agricultural Research Development and Education Center north of Fort Collins and reconfigured their pens to handle this type of research. Since then, the Unit has finished two rounds of testing on approximately 350 head of cattle. The research revolves around feed intake, but it also has collection capabilities to measure the effluent runoff or biological waste of cattle, which provides a link between genetic improvement and environmental impact.

Colorado State a leader

Scientists are able to identify animals that are more profitable because they have characteristics that generate a lot of revenue.

“There are a limited number of sites equipped with the technology to record daily feed intake on individual animals,” explains Crews. “CSU is premiere among these because of our capacity (about 600-head per year), and because we can collect related information on animal performance. Genetically, we expect that we can make about as much progress in feed efficiency as we have made in the past with simple growth traits.

"What we need to get that accomplished are more animals with feed intake records. We recognize that feed efficiency is an important component of multiple trait selection for genetic improvement. We’re essentially identifying animals that are more profitable because they have characteristics that generate a lot of revenue, but do it using less feed resulting in lower costs.”

Students gain hands-on learning

Although research is the key component of the FIU, education plays a big part as well. Both graduate and undergraduate students can use the facility for class projects, and the Unit also provides jobs for a few student-hourly positions.

“We’re also planning to involve the CSU Seedstock Team and the CSU ARDEC Bull Sales in the activities of the FIU by testing ARDEC cattle annually, adding those data to the selection program for the ARDEC herd, as well as the information we provide to buyers of our bulls at the sale,” says Crews.

The Unit is hoping to continue to conduct two to three tests per year that support both the economic and scientific issues of improving cattle efficiency and profitability in the beef industry.

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Original story by Katie Boeder published in the College of Agricultural Sciences E-Connection newsletter, Summer 2010.