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Increasing Feedlot Efficiency

Nebraska research looks at opportunities and challenges for improving feedlot efficiency.

by Troy Smith, field editor, Angus Journal®

LINCOLN, Neb. (June 20, 2014) — During its 45-year history, the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) has focused on evaluating and increasing the awareness of methods for genetic improvement of beef cattle. In recent years, there has been increased interest in developing genetic selection tools for improving feed efficiency, both for cattle fed grain-based diets in feedlots and for breeding herds whose diets consist primarily of forage.

Galen Erickson

University of Nebraska Beef Feedlot Specialist Galen Erickson said improving feed efficiency is all about improving production, reducing inputs that result in added cost of production.

Speaking during the 2014 BIF symposium June 18-21 in Lincoln, Neb., University of Nebraska Beef Feedlot Specialist Galen Erickson said improving feed efficiency is all about improving production, reducing inputs that result in added cost of production. That is a goal shared by savvy managers engaged in all segments of cattle production.

“I’m a feedlot guy, and I’m going to focus on feed efficiency in grain-fed cattle,” said Erickson. “In the feedlot, feed efficiency has been improved significantly, mostly through manipulation of nutrition.”

While other grains can be and are utilized, Erickson called corn the most common feed grain in the United States. He explained different methods for processing corn to aid digestion of its high starch content, including dry-rolling, ensiling high-moisture corn and steam-flaking. Erickson said corn processing method can have dramatic effects on feed efficiency, noting that high-moisture corn offers a 1%-2% advantage over dry-rolled corn, but steam-flaking improves feed efficiency by 12%-15% (based on studies involving diets with 80%-85% corn inclusion.)

Erickson called the availability of corn byproducts of ethanol production — mainly distillers’ grains and corn gluten feed — a huge opportunity for the cattle-feeding industry. He added that nearly all feedlots currently use some byproducts in cattle rations. Historically, said Erickson, producers have purchased distillers’ grains at 70%-80% of corn price. That changed in recent years, with distillers’ grains costing 100%-130% of corn price in 2013 and 2014.

Erickson explained the differences in value of different distillers’ grains products, depending on whether they are dried, partially dried or fed wet (wet distillers’ grains plus solubles). Calling wet distillers’ grains the most popular form, he cited data suggesting that it has 143% the value of corn, at a 20% inclusion rate, and 130%-140% when included as 40% of the ration.

How well distillers’ grains work in feedlot rations depends on how corn is processed, said Erickson. Unlike historical corn-based diets with 80%-85% grain, where steam-flaked corn offers the greatest feed efficiency, diets containing distillers’ grains work best with dry-rolled or high-moisture corn. Erickson called the reasons unclear, but the results are repeatable.

“In my opinion, Nebraska is competitive in cattle feeding today because feeding wet distillers’ grains with dry-rolled corn can achieve feed efficiencies comparable to steam-flaked corn,” stated Erickson. “The wetter the better, and that is a huge advantage when distillers’ grains can be bought locally.”

Erickson said forages — referred to as roughage in feedlot lingo — are routinely included in feedlot diets in gradually decreasing amounts to gradually adapt cattle to high-grain diets. Roughages are bulky with large shrink losses, which feedlots would rather avoid, and feed efficiency generally improves as forage concentration is decreased. However, low levels are included in finishing diets to maintain rumen function and reduce acidosis. That digestive disturbance results in lower feed intake and lower average daily gain.

Erickson also talked about the use of growth-promoting implants, which generally increase average daily gain by 10%-15% and feed efficiency by 8%-12%.

“Implanting does not depress quality grades of cattle if compared at equal fatness,” stated Erickson. No other technology used today in feedlot cattle has as great of a return as use of implants.”

Turning to the use of beta-agonists, Erickson explained that these feed additives are introduced to rations near the end of the feeding period to increase carcass weights, gain and feed efficiency. Zilpaterol (trade name Zilmax®) is currently unavailable, but ractopamine (trade name Optaflexx®) remains commercially available.

Erickson said measuring feed efficiency of individual animals is a challenge, since feeding cattle in a feedlot pen setting prohibits accurate measures of individual animal feed intake. Another challenge is managing cattle appropriately for their age, which affects feed efficiency.

Calf-feds always eat less feed per day and gain less per day, but they are always more efficient in converting pounds of feed to pounds of gain than yearlings, said Erickson, adding that summer yearlings are more efficient than fall yearlings.

While it is true that the longer cattle are fed, the less efficient they become, Erickson said there is incentive for producers selling cattle on a carcass-weight basis to feed cattle longer than when selling on a live basis. The common objective for all cattle feeders, he added, is to sell more weight without increasing the cost of production.

The 2014 BIF Annual Meeting & Research Symposium was hosted by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and the Nebraska Cattlemen June 18-21 in Lincoln, Neb. The Angus Journal and LiveAuctions.tv provide comprehensive online coverage of the event at www.BIFconference.com. Visit the Newsroom for summaries, proceedings, PowerPoints and audio of the sessions; the Awards page for announcements of award winners; and the Photos page for galleries of photos from the meeting and the tours.

Editor’s Note: This summary was written under contract or by staff of the Angus Journal®.Through an agreement with the Beef Improvement Federation, we are encouraging reprinting of the articles to those who will adhere to the reprint guidelines available on this site. Please review those guidelines or contact Shauna Rose Hermel, editor, at 816-383-5270. PowerPoints are posted with permission of the presenter and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express permission of the presenter.

The Angus Journal's coverage of the event is made possible through collaboration with BIF and sponsorship of LiveAuctions.tv. For questions about this site, or to notify us of broken links, click here.

Headquartered in Saint Joseph, Mo., Angus Productions Inc. (API) publishes the Angus Journal, the Angus Beef Bulletin, the Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA, and the Angus Journal Daily, as well as providing online coverage of events and topics pertinent to cattlemen through the Angus Journal Virtual Library.

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