Feed Efficiency the New Frontier in Genetics

Words and Images by Sarah Horrocks – AngusPRO Magazine 2022

Everyone in the beef industry knows that if you meet your beef program targets you’ll be handsomely rewarded. The attributes required are bred into an animal’s DNA, so we can easily predict how fast an animal will grow, how big it will be when mature, how easily it will marble, and so on.

But what about the other side of the ledger? Feed is at least 70% of production costs for a beef farmer, so if this could be measured, you’d be able to analyse true profitability.

Rissington Cattle Company in Hawkes Bay has earned a reputation for innovation and genetic improvement over many decades.

Run by three of the four Absolom brothers – Jeremy, Daniel and Ben – there has always been a progressive view for the operation, which incorporates Angus, Simmental and Profit Maker stud herds.

Daniel Absolom

Daniel is involved with strategic projects’ planning and is the primary point of contact for clients. “Net Feed Intake is the primary measure of cost, so if you want to understand profit, you have to know how much an animal is eating to produce the answer,” he says.

Four years ago the three brothers agreed that from both economic and environmental standpoints, investing in Canadian company GrowSafe Systems was the single most important investment they could make. And their clients agreed.

So in 2018 they partnered with GrowSafe (now Vytelle) and adopted their technology to capture information on individual animal feed intake.

All Angus yearling bulls are run through the feed pad for 50 days, in pens of 40. They’re fed a silage mix of lucerne and maize to reduce quantity, as grass would require too much bulk. As an EID tag passes through the gate into the feed bin, the feed is weighed every half second until that bull removes his head. When the bull goes for a drink his body weight is weighed, so over the day hundreds of data sets are recorded on each animal. This data is all analysed in Canada and sent back as a Net Feed Intake (NFI) figure for each animal.

“There is a huge variation across the group, it’s highly heritable and the premise that large animals are less efficient than smaller animals is inaccurate,” says Jeremy, who manages the partnerships in the USA.

The NFI data is rolled in with all the other information they have on each bull and each animal is given a $Profit Index figure, which comes from a database of almost 1.4 million animals worldwide.

To give an indication of the variation seen in the system, the top bulls of a very condensed cohort are consuming 4kg of dry matter to produce 1kg LWG and the bottom end are eating 10–11kg to produce a 1kg LWG.

“A 3kg swing equates to a tonne of feed over 12 months,” says Daniel.

The profit gains are obvious but the other factor that is becoming more important for both beef and dairy operators is that a 10% gain in feed efficiency can create up to a 30% drop in methane emissions.

GrowSafe, along with all the other technology used on farm, is backed by science, Jeremy says. “If you haven’t got science and data to prove what you are doing, it just becomes a hobby.”

Through the power of genomics with HD50k by Zoetis, Rissington has been able to improve its herds faster than the natural life cycle would ever allow, with complete accuracy and absolutely no guesswork.

The entire cow and heifer herd of 100 Simmental, 300 Angus and 300 Profit Maker are genotyped with both HD50k Angus and HD50k $Profit.

“We are that confident in the data that we generate, we are breeding the large proportion of our Angus bulls from the top 40 Angus heifers,” says Daniel.

With the use of IVF, up to 20% of the oocytes collected can be used for ET (embryo transplant) and the heifer can then go on to have her own calf, as she needs to if she wants to stick around at Rissington.

There are 300 embryos transferred each year into recipient cows and the uptake of the ET program is about 40%.

Apart from the recipient cows, the entire herd of MA cows and heifers across all breeds are AI’d with semen from the USA primarily, which the Absoloms believe breeds survivability into their DNA.

“The cow herds we select from are run in far harsher conditions than anywhere here in New Zealand,” says Daniel.

Weaning is done early so the cows can dry off and get to work at cleaning up the hill country for the 2,000 commercial ewes, which complement the cattle well. Ben runs the day-to-day farming operation and although lambs are all grown out, they are only finished on farm as feed allows. Trade lambs are bought in as necessary, but the cattle operation is a closed herd.

Advanced weaning the calves means nutrition for the young cattle is even more important than usual, Daniel says.

“Optimal nutrition enables young stock to express themselves and perform to their best ability when being compared to their contemporary group.”

All weaned calves are fed some grain on the ground in their paddocks to ensure balanced nutrition, and the Angus bull calves start rolling through the GrowSafe feed-lot cycle shortly after weaning.

Bulls are sold as yearlings in October, unless they are retained to use as natural follow-up bulls within the herd after AI, and then sold as an R2. All bulls have Feed Intake and Feed To Gain EBVs, which can be balanced to highlight the most profitable animals.

The selling model differs from most, with clients paying a deposit for the bulls they require in March, 18 months before they need them. Once October rolls around, the top end are auctioned and the rest are put in a ballot. That said, due to the high use of ET, the cohort of yearling bulls is very condensed.

Every year sees 250 bulls sold (50 Simmental, 100 Angus and 100 Profit Maker), and although surplus bulls are rare, there is always semen available and new clients are always welcome to come into the program at any time.

“ET allows us to generate a large number of bulls, but obviously we need to know our bull numbers 18 months in advance,” says Jeremy.

While bulls are sold to clients in the deep south, the far north and into the steepest hill country, FMG has data that proves the annual breakdowns can be counted on one hand. That’s a testament to not only carcass, growth and feed intake figures, but also to structural data – something the AngusPRO group has exclusive access to in New Zealand.

“Ultimately our clients want cattle that will eat less, produce more and when they’re killed, they will hang up well,” Jeremy says. “We don’t want to overcomplicate things with too many facts and figures, or for our clients to worry about soundness. Structure is a given because we won’t sell a bull that’s not sound.”

The commercial farmers are getting more involved with data too, by utilising INHERITSelect genomic testing on their herds. Daniel says the average farmer knows a fair bit about his bulls, but has no data on his cows and knows nothing about his calves either. “So replacement heifers are selected by eye, usually on weight. With INHERITSelect for $60 an animal you take a tissue sample at calf marking and once it’s analysed you end up with the same suite of EBVs that we get on our bulls, plus they can identify any BVD PI (persistently infected) animals.”

“Lone Star Farms in the South Island has run INHERITSelect over their entire herd,” Jeremy says. “They are targeting premium beef programs and they want to ensure they’re not carrying cows that won’t produce calves to meet those targets.”

High-value heifers can be instantly recognised and looked after to ensure they’re up to mating weight, even if they’re a bit smaller at weaning due to environmental influences.

It’s often the bigger animals that have poorer data, due to being out of a well-milking older cow, and these heifers fetch a handsome price when sold as store stock.

“Our clients get quite excited about it when they see the data progress they’re making,” says Daniel.

This progress increases demand for bulls that perform well on the $Profit Index.

Profit Maker bulls are also in high demand. Their composite pedigree dates back to when John Absolom, who passed away in 2020, was researching operations in the USA.

John developed a strong relationship with Leachman Cattle of Colorado, who convinced him to bring five different breeds back into New Zealand. John was intrigued by hybrid vigour and began combining different breed combinations to experiment with how it was expressed in the progeny. The Profit Maker herd as it is today looks much like an Angus herd from the road, and genetically is roughly 50% Angus, Jeremy says.

“If you put an Angus bull over them you’ll get three- quarter Angus progeny that can be processed into most of the premium Angus beef programs, but they are also popular with the dairy industry as it gives them a product that’s really valuable past four days old,” he says.

LIC has Rissington’s semen on hand for Simmental, Angus and Profit Maker and has even launched a program called ‘Beef Print’ off the back of the Rissington data set. Any dairy operation using Rissington sires can tag their calves with a ‘Beef Print’ tag, which verifies that there is a known feed intake record on the sire – good from an environmental perspective, and also from an economic point of view.

In the stud breeding game it’s often thought that nothing gives more quality assurance than a decade or more of experience and a few generations of skin in the game. The new age would say it’s all about data and genomics – that knowledge is power.

The Absolom family seems to have nailed both. Since 1882 six generations have been on the land at Rissington, and since 1936 they have been striving to advance their beef cattle faster than nature will allow. Cutting edge technology is their vehicle.