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How to Calculate Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle

Last Updated: 22.04.24



The way your cattle grow and develop is directly related to the type and amount of feed they get as well as to the feed frequency, as we have highlighted in our recent post. That’s why cattle ear tags are a great way of keeping track of your animals’ evolution.

Based on the information introduced into your record keeping system, these tags will let you know if there is a satisfying feed efficiency level. If you’re new to this and you’re looking for more on feed efficiency, how it can be improved, and how to calculate it, you might find this post to be of help.


What is feed efficiency

Since livestock producers have certain economic targets and feed is one of the greatest costs involved in this activity, they use the so-called feed efficiency to see how the cows convert feed into milk and how much carcass and body weight growth is attained for a specific amount of feed.  

When it comes to cattle, this metric can be used for different productive purposes. In this case, producers will use feed efficiency measures for dairy and beef cattle; therefore, to see how much milk or body mass the cows produce for a certain amount of feed.

In breeding programs, this ratio trait (pound feed per unit of gain) helps livestock producers select larger animals with a greater growth rate yet also with a greater feed requirement.

Feed efficiency measures

Alternative feed efficiency traits have been examined in order to get the best results as far as milk production, body mass gain, and other such aspects are regarded. You can thus use a certain measure depending on your productive purposes.

In case you want to monitor feedlot cattle performance, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) is recommended. Being the ratio of dry feed intake to live-weight gain, this will help you know how much body mass is produced when given a certain amount of feed. The usual range of FCR used is 4.5 -7.5, where the lower the number, the better. Having a low FCR means a steer required a smaller amount of feed per pound of gain. This measure is not recommended for selecting replacement females, though.

Residual feed intake (RFI) or net feed efficiency is currently the most popular feed efficiency measure among beef cattle producers. When an animal has a low residual feed intake, it means that it eats less than expected based on its weight and growth and is thus considered to be an efficient animal.

If the animal eats more than expected and has a high residual feed intake, it is considered to be inefficient. Therefore, the RFI is the difference between the actual feed intake and the expected feed requirements for growth and maintenance.

Some livestock producers also use the residual gain (RG) as a measure of feed efficiency. It basically refers to the difference between the predicted gain and the actual gain based on the animal’s intake, body weight, and composition.

When it comes to RG, a positive value is desirable as it would mean that an animal has gained more than it was predicted and, thus, expected for its intake, weight, and composition. Since this measure is correlated to growth, it may not be a good option if you’re interested in selecting replacement females. It does make a great choice for identifying superior feedlot cattle.


Conversion ratios for cattle

As we’ve said before, the feed efficiency measure you use depends on your purposes. They will vary based on what you raise the cattle for. However, as a general rule, you can calculate feed efficiency quite easily. Divide the mass of feed or the mass of the input by the mass of output (milk or meat). This is how you get the FCR.

However, even if feed efficiency has been extensively studied and feedlot profitability is significantly affected by feed efficiency, the beef sector is still behind the competition as this industry has had minimal improvement regarding the FCR in the last three decades.

This is related to the fact that ruminant animals require a diet that is richer in fiber and energy is lost as methane through rumen fermentation. Also, since they are large animals, cattle require more complex maintenance.

Plus, in order to identify superior individual cattle and thus improve feed efficiency properly and significantly, the cattle should be fed individually. This calls for expensive facilities. Not to mention that comparing cattle that are at varying compositions is quite difficult.

How to improve feed efficiency

Despite a livestock producer’s efforts, sometimes the feed efficiency may be too low or, even, too high. Although your specific targets and productive purposes will help you know more accurately what to do to improve feed efficiency, there are some strategies that may help you see what might have gone wrong or what caused a low feed efficiency.

In case the feed efficiency is low, you might want to check the calculations and weights again to make sure that the number you get is correct. If you still get the same result after rechecking all that, energy might be the factor that reduces the feed efficiency since cattle are known for their tendency to consume dry matter to cover their energy needs.

If the amount of energy a cow gets through feed is insufficient or the forage quality is low, the cattle may consume more dry matter without producing enough for their level of intake. The opposite can also occur, that is, the feed efficiency is too high.

The thing with such cases is that we consider the feed pound per cattle and not the fiber or nutrient pound an animal receives. Considering the quantity of fiber and nutrients given and required for a certain level of production thus gains importance when it comes to calibrating feed efficiency.

Plus, you still may get high feed efficiency in cows that produce lots of milk without eating well because of some metabolic diseases. Therefore, there are various factors to consider in order to have an accurate understanding of feed efficiency.




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