Breeding For Improved Feed Efficiency

Published on Thu, 04/12/2012 - 4:35pm

Breeding for feed efficiency can save $55/ cow/ year in feed costs, said Dr. John Basarab, University of Alberta, at the British Cattle Breeders Conference 2012, highlighting the importance of feed efficiency.  Feed efficiency is crucial, Dr. Basarab said, when you consider that 50-70 percent of production costs, whether it be for the cow-calf herd or in the feedlot are associated with feeding. In fact two thirds of the energy that cows consume is used only on maintenance.


Genetic improvement in feed efficiency is estimated to be valued at $50-100 million annually to Alberta’s beef cattle industry.

However, increasing average daily gain is not increasing feed efficiency, Dr. Basarab said.
Over the last 100 years, no improvements have been made in maintenance requirements. In the 70’s cattle weights increased, however maintenance requirements remained the same.

While other livestock industries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential through genetic improvement, Dr. Basarab pointed out that beef cattle have made no improvements since 1988.

Other livestock industries have actively increased feed efficiency. Poultry produces 1.9-2.9 kg CO2 emissions per kg of chicken, whereas cattle produce 18-36 kg CO2 emissions per kg of beef produced.
Dr. Basarab noted that carbon footprint per kilogram of beef varies by region and beef production system. A US calf/ year-fed implanted feedlot system has half the carbon footprint of a long fed Brazil fed with deforestation system.


RFI is the key for measuring feed efficiency, Dr Basarab said. It reflects an animals’ energy requirement for maintenance.

The lower the RFI the more efficient the animal. If an animal has a high RFI this suggests that the animal consumes more feed than required.

There can be a $36 difference per head between animals. This is a significant cost saving and must be captured in genetics, he said.

Selecting for low RFI has no affect on average daily gain (ADG) or animal size, he said.
It can also lead to feed conversion rate (FCR) improvements between nine to 15 percent, and reduce feed intake by 10-12 percent.

RFI must be adjusted for fatness, to demonstrate that there is no effect on carcass fat, Dr Basarab explained.

Dr. Basarab discussed research carried out at the University of Alberta which looked at the effects of low RFI on body composition and carcass fat.

He said all in all, animals selected for RFI were much more efficient, also emitting less heat as the animal retained energy for feeding or liveweight gain.

He said that these improvements in feed efficiency can lower methane emissions between 15-30 percent, and manure production by 15-20 percent.

Higher RFI animals have higher methane emissions,” Dr Basarab said.

One interesting thing that Dr. Basarab noted was that efficient dams had a higher calf survival rate. This he suggests is due to more efficient cattle being able to respond better to stress.

Lower maintenance animals may have more nutrients available to better look after their progeny and provide a healthy uterus environment.


In conclusion, selecting for RFI can:

Reduce feed intake by 10-12 percent

Improve FCR by 9-15 percent

Lower methane production by 20-30 percent

Reduce feed costs by up to $55/ head

Reduce net energy required for maintenance

Positive effect on body fat and weights

No negative effects on carcass yield/quality grade/growth/body weight/calving pattern/pregnancy/calving or weaning.