Cattle eating habits tracked

John Basarab recalls a remarkable calf.

John Basarab recalls a remarkable calf.

The animal, which was being finished in a feedlot, was packing on five pounds a day and reached slaughter weight in just 10 1/2 months.

This performance attracted the attention of Basarab, a beef research scientist at Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s Lacombe Research Station, and other researchers.

They discovered that the calf hadn’t earned its owner the profit it appeared to.

“When we looked at it, it was eating 50 per cent more than the next animal in the pen,” he said. “It had a huge appetite.”

For the past 15 years, Basarab has been looking at an alternative to the rate-of-gain breeding value that producers have long relied upon.

He thinks residual feed intake might be a better yardstick.

Essentially, that’s the efficiency with which cattle convert feed to weight.

The challenge Basarab initially faced was accurately measuring the amount of feed consumed by each animal.

But a solution was provided by GrowSafe Systems Ltd. of Airdrie, which combined RFID (radio-frequency identification) eartags and sensor-equipped feed stations to track what individual calves were eating.

This made it possible to calculate the residual feed intake of each animal, which in turn could be used to assign it an estimated breeding value based on feed conversion efficiency.

The trait would be inherited — to a certain extent — by the animal’s offspring. And it varies between cattle, but not necessarily between breeds, noted Basarab.

“The difference between breeds are much, much, much less in terms of this trait — and like many other inheritable traits — than the differences within a breed,” he said. “There are huge differences within any breed.”

Global interest in residual feed intake is apparent from the growth in the number of GrowSafe Systems and comparable systems being used. In 2000, the total testing capacity was about 500 animals; today it’s 68,000.

The Alberta government has even approved residual feed intake as a carbon offset protocol — allowing farmers to accumulate and sell the resulting greenhouse gas reductions from their herds as carbon dioxide equivalent credits. Basarab confirmed that reduced feed consumption is linked directly to reduced methane production.

“The more you eat the more you produce.”

But the real incentive for cattle producers is the reduced feed costs they can realize by having animals with low residual feed intake values. There’s the possibility that carbon offset revenues could become a strong incentive as well, if the price of CO2 equivalent credits rise, noted Basarab.

Currently, cattle can be tested at about eight facilities in Alberta, including at Olds College. The resulting data should become increasingly accurate as advances are made in cattle genomics, and the ability to link an animal’s DNA to its feed conversion efficiency.

“You’ll get much more accurate estimated breeding values, earlier,” said Basarab.

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