A few weeks ago, I wrote about how someone asked me why we should be worried about climate change when we are dealing with some many challenges stemming from high input costs. I made the case that mitigating and adapting to climate change and improving our bottom lines were not mutually exclusive ideas. More often than not, the same things we want to do to "harden" our farms and ranches to extreme weather are the same things that can help reduce fuel and fertilizer costs, while also controlling soil erosion and increasing soil water holding capacity. This week, I'm continuing on that theme with a focus on livestock and feed efficiency.
Combining the words cattle, methane and climate change in one sentence starts all kinds of fun conversations, but what seldom comes up is the fact that the more methane a ruminant animal produces, the less efficient that animal is in utilizing the feed they consume to produce meat and/or milk. That means that if you can reduce the amount of methane a cow is burping out, you'll save on feed costs. There are many ideas and approaches to do this, but I'm focusing on one concept in this post: Residual feed intake (RFI).
Residual feed intake is a measure of feed efficiency defined as the difference between an animal’s actual feed intake and the expected feed intake based on the growth rate of the animal. Researchers use this concept to explore animal feed utilization and the efficiency of feed use. An animal with a positive RFI consumes more feed than expected for a given amount of growth and is less efficient. If an animal has a negative RFI, it consumes less feed than expected for their level of growth and is more efficient.
An example of this was discussed in a recent article in the Oklahoma State University Extension Newsletter. Research showed how steers and heifers with low RFI had a 19% lower feed consumption rate than other cattle while having the same average daily weight gain. Feed digestibility, along with digestibility of protein and fiber, increased by 4% in these cattle, and ruminal methane production was reduced by 14%. That meant the lower, more efficient RFI steers and heifers gained the same weight as other less efficient cattle while eating less feed and producing less methane. That’s what I would call as win-win.
Feed costs have always been a major factor in livestock profitability — accounting for sometimes as much as 60-70% of overall production costs. Any time you can reduce your feed costs while maintaining or possibly increasing productivity, it’s a good thing, especially when feed prices are high. Many breed associations now have feed efficiency EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences) based on RFI to help producers select more feed-efficient cattle. While most would agree that RFI shouldn’t be the only criteria that a producer uses when buying stock, it’s a useful tool that can help producers potentially improve their bottom line while helping reduce a natural resource concern by lowering methane levels.
If you want more information on RFI and its potential use in your operation, check out these articles here and here. Selecting feed-efficient cattle is another example of how helping your bottom line and dealing with climate change can go hand-in-hand.