Imagine you’ve got two bulls in front of you. They look equally healthy and robust; they’re roughly the same size. But one of them will cost you a whole lot more in feed over its lifetime to grow at the same rate as the other.
Can you tell which one is the grass guzzler, and which is more fuel-efficient?
That knowledge has developed and advanced over an eight-year relationship between WVU’s Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences and GrowSafe Systems, a Canadian company that develops feed efficiency technology.
Feed efficiency is a measure of how much animals eat as compared to how much they grow. Ideally, cattle will experience maximum growth with a minimum input of feed.
"Seventy-one percent of the cost of livestock production is feed," said Gene Felton, associate professor of animal and nutritional sciences in WVU's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Producers have traditionally kept a sharp eye on what’s called the feed-conversion ratio, weight gain per quantity of feed consumed. WVU and GrowSafe are refining how feed efficiency is expressed and exploring residual feed intake.
“RFI goes beyond the ‘bigger animals grow more’ standard of the feed-conversion ratio,” Felton said. “Understanding RFI lets us know how much feed that goes into an animal goes into not only growth but into maintenance.”
The GrowSafe system features a feeding station that only one animal can use at a time. Each animal is tagged, allowing a system of sensors to record how much it consumed and how that feed consumption occurred over time.
At the end of the test period, system users can compare consumption quantities and rates with weight gain and body size, finding animals that are making best use of the feed provided. Efficient animals pass those traits onto their offspring, yielding generations of savings for livestock producers.
Each year, WVU tests the feed efficiency of around 155 bulls and 65 heifers. They’ve also been testing the feed efficiency of sheep for five years, and they’ve even used the system to evaluate goats, a small but promising segment of West Virginia’s livestock landscape.
“The amount of data the system collects is mind boggling,” Felton said. “There is so much data that we haven’t yet used all of it.” Felton noted the potential for intensive genetic research, spotting the link in an animal’s DNA that governs its ability to efficiently use feed.
That data is best evaluated in the long term. Looking at the evolution of WVU’s own cattle herd over the last eight years, Felton estimates that the animals’ feed efficiency has improved by about 40 percent, decreasing from a ratio of about 8.5 pounds of feed for each pounds of growth to about five pounds of feed per pound of growth.
Beyond the feed cost benefits for producers, WVU researchers are finding unexpected advantages.
“Our eight years of data indicate that feed efficiency is related to methane production,” a commonly criticized byproduct of livestock enterprises, Felton said. “The better an animal’s feed efficiency, the less methane they produce, which reduces the greenhouse gases associated with livestock.”
Feed efficiency work has raised WVU’s profile in the livestock industry. GrowSafe invited Felton and his colleagues (and two bulls) to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association in Nashville.
“West Virginia isn’t generally viewed as a livestock state, so what excited me the most about the kind of showcase we received in Nashville was that it positioned WVU as a national player in the livestock industry,” Felton said.
Felton has been involved with WVU’s feed efficiency program since the beginning, and his experience with the GrowSafe system stretches back even further. The first system installed at an institution of higher learning was at the University of Missouri, when Felton was completing graduate studies.
As Felton was helping to incorporate the GrowSafe system in Missouri, West Virginia cattle producers were reaching out to WVU for help in improving the feed efficiency of their herds. When Felton applied for a faculty position at WVU, his then-unique experience combined with industry interest. Felton came to work for WVU, federal funding was secured with the assistance of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd.
According to Allison Sunstrum, co-CEO of GrowSafe systems, that initial legislative investment has produced an excellent return.
“We’re seeing genuine improvement in feed efficiency for producers,” Sunstrum said.
Since WVU’s days as an early adopter of the GrowSafe system, more than 60 institutions and agribusiness entities in the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union and Brazil now collaborate with GrowSafe on feed efficiency research. Over the years, results have been standardized, which puts data in a universal language and fosters scholarly cooperation among partner institutions and valuable feedback for the creators of GrowSafe.
“We started as a group of engineers and computer scientists,” Sunstrum explained, adding that the insights of animal scientists like Felton and his WVU colleagues helped GrowSafe refine its systems.
“Since we started, more than 300 peer-reviewed publications have resulted from these partnerships, and more than 40 Ph.D. students have used the GrowSafe system in their dissertations,” Sunstrum said.
At WVU the technology is used in undergraduate laboratory courses in animal nutrition and beef production. Kevin Shaffer, a graduate student in animal and nutritional sciences, incorporated the technology into his master’s research and is using it again as he completes his Ph.D.
For his master’s work, Shaffer studied the links between feed efficiency and potential fertility issues. As a doctoral candidate, he’s been studying the sources of variability in feed efficiency in animals. Shaffer will graduate in May 2012 and has accepted a position as the agriculture and natural resources agent for Barbour County with the WVU Extension Service.
Shaffer will continue to rely in the findings in his new Extension role, particularly in events like the West Virginia Young Sire Evaluation Program, more commonly known as “the bull test program.”
This program has evolved throughout its lifetime to best serve the current and future needs of the beef industry. Organizers have rapidly incorporated emerging technology to evaluate traits of economic significance. In addition to traditional measures of growth, fertility and body composition, WVU animal scientists can now measure individual feed intake and provide insight into each bull’s ability to convert feed into marketable product.
Since first reporting RFI in the sale catalog in 2005, the bull test program has marketed an average of 107 bulls each year to producers in West Virginia and neighboring states. Ninety-five bulls were sold in 2005, the only bulls to sell in the world that year with RFI data. In 2012, it is estimated that more than 30,000 bulls will sell with the same information.
“West Virginia University was an international pioneer in this respect,” Shaffer said. “Ninety to 95 percent of bulls sold through the bull test program are purchased by beef producers in West Virginia, although bulls are frequently sold into surrounding states. A few bulls have been purchased by producers from as far west as Nebraska and Montana and were purchased primarily because of their RFI data.”
From tangible results for producers who can better control their costs to contributions to the body of scientific knowledge and creation of opportunities for students, the partnership has yielded many benefits.
“I love what’s happened with GrowSafe at West Virginia University,” Sunstrum said. “It’s been a great partnership.”
CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources,and Design
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