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Residual Feed Intake Trait has Value for Cow-calf Producers

25 January 2013

CANADA - Residual feed intake is one trait cow-calf producers can take advantage, without waiting for someone else to pay for it, says Dr. John Basarab, a beef research scientist with Alberta Rural Developent.

Cattle with lower residual feed intakes gain as much weight as their bovine friends with less feed, making it a more economical trait straight weight gain or feed conversion.Mr Basarab and his colleagues studied the progeny performance of three feed efficient and three feed inefficient bulls at Three Cross Ranch in Alberta.

The progeny all went to the feedlot and through to the packers. The efficient bulls’ progeny saved $10 to $15 per head in feed costs, and had the same weight gain as the big eaters.

Mr Basarab says “there’s a pretty good case saying this is an economic trait and it shows value.”

But cow-calf producers can benefit even more by selecting replacement heifers with lower residual feed intake. Feed efficient heifers will save producers about $40 per year.

To make sure early feed efficiency sticks with a heifer through her life, Basarab and his colleagues re-evaluated the heifers a few years later. The now mature cows were as feed efficient as they were as heifers. Mature, feed efficient cows will save about $46 per year, according to Basarab’s research.

Basarab points out these gains were made after only one generation.

“Remember, genetic selection is cumulative. It increases over time.”

Selecting for residual feed intake has no negative effect on growth or carcass yield or quality. It also doesn’t adversely affect calving patterns, fertility, birth or weaning weights.

In fact, more feed efficient cows lost fewer calves early on. Mr Basarab hypothesises that because these cows had lower maintenance requirements, they were able to put more nutrients into other areas, such as uterine environments.

“These efficient cows may be more able to adapt to stressful conditions,” says Basarab. He explains that efficient cows turned excess nutrients into back fat, and did better when swath grazing than their less efficient herd mates.

DNA panels are unlikely to be helpful to most commercial producers, unless their herds are straight Angus. The panels were developed using Angus cattle, and are not accurate for other breeds or mixed animals.

“Hopefully one day, five years down the line, we will have a cross-breed marker panel for RFI and many other traits. But it isn’t there yet.”

But some seedstock producers include residual feed intake in their estimated breeding values. Residual feed intake is a moderately heritable trait, meaning it can be selected for. There doesn’t seem to be any downside to selecting for lower residual feed intakes, but Basarab says other traits, such as calving ease, still need to be weighed.

“Let us remember there are many other traits out there. And all of these traits need to be put in balance.”

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