Beef feed efficiency research project delivers cost saving for farmers and the environment

Investigating new systems which will make beef cattle more efficient to produce, less damaging to the environment and yet still more cost-effective for farmers has never been more topical. Livestock producers are regularly falling under scrutiny about the efficiency of their systems and the measures they are taking to reduce their carbon footprint, and yet the price they are receiving for the end product remains unfavourable.

The Beef Feed Efficiency Programme is a major industry project which started in 2015 and has been led by the Agriculture and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) and the Scottish Rural University College (SRUC), while being jointly funded by Defra, AHDB, the Scottish Government and ABP. The project studied Limousin and Angus store cattle to identify animals and sire groups that eat less for the same growth rate. The project has completed its first phase and has defined a number of estimated breeding values (EBVs) for feed efficiency traits, along with a sub-index, which will enable beef farmers to select cattle for improved feed efficiency.

The study has shown that by using the selection index tools which have been created, animal feed bills will be reduced by £12.5 million per year across the industry, as well as reducing beef-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 27% over a 20-year period.

Industry benefits

Measuring individual feed intake of cattle is challenging. However, technology now allows recording in a commercial setting with high levels of accuracy. The programme has established facilities across the UK that can be used to measure individual feed intake of beef cattle in batches of up to 120.

Understanding the management and genetic drivers of feed intake offers huge benefits to the industry. Feed costs account for approximately 70% of variable costs in most beef enterprises and reducing these can deliver a substantial increase in profit margins.

International research has demonstrated that selective breeding for cattle that eat less improves feed conversion efficiency by 10–15%, which, in turn, reduces the cost of production by 10–15p/kg daily liveweight gain (DLWG), for the same growth rate, with no negative impacts. Since the trait is moderately heritable, the effect is transferred to the breeding herd, where a 10% reduction in maintenance requirements has been reported.  Results to date show a difference in DLWG of 1.8 kg (DM) between the best- and worst-performing animals. This equates to a difference of 23p per head per day feed saved. In addition, animals that eat less while performing at the same growth rate need 1.3 kg/hd/day (DM) less forage, with a reduction in GHG emissions due to reduced intake. 

Genetic improvement plays an important role in developing ruminant systems that will be sustainable in the future and produce food in an environmentally friendly manner. Also, genetic improvement of livestock is a particularly cost-effective technology, producing permanent and cumulative changes in performance.

Natalie Cormack, Beef Feed Efficiency Manager, said: “We are excited to be delivering this cost-saving tool for beef farmers at this crucial time and, more importantly, identifying the positive effect it will have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions for our industry.

“Reducing feed costs significantly, while maintaining other production parameters such as growth rate, is a game changer for the UK beef industry. We are now able to provide genetic selection information at breeder level that can implement the reduction in feed costs across the industry. 

“Animals that eat less while maintaining performance will reduce their greenhouse gas production, as well as needing less ground to sustain them. The programme provides a solution to these two issues, which is impacting our industry.” 

Defra has recently confirmed funding for the second phase of the programme, which will extend feed intake measurements and also study how increased feed efficiency relates to meat quality. An additional 1,500 cattle will be assessed for meat quality, and the results of this programme will be measured over the next three years.

For more information about the project, please visit: