Genetic selection and management protocols have gone hand in hand for years to improve on-farm productivity. Optimizing practices for milk and component production is aligned with herd genetic selection for milk and component traits. Same for reproduction, dairy farmers constantly seek the best reproduction protocols, including heat detection systems or technology to constantly improve herd conception rate, while they use genetics like DPR, HCR, CCR and SCR to seek the best conception results when it comes to picking bulls. Udder health and milk quality is another example where management such as milking system, cow stalls and comfort are also aligned with genetic potential, considering traits such as SCS, Mastitis Resistance, udder depth or teat placements in the selection process. Productivity, reproduction and udder health are just a few illustrations to clearly show that management and genetics are aligned on dairy farms in order to maximize each of those major operating sectors.
With the recent global situation creating a rapid increase in the cost of valuable resources for dairy farmers, the cost of feed and feed production for dairy cattle is greatly impacted. Management around cattle nutrition is under heavy scrutiny and alternatives to control the costs of feeding cattle are constantly being revisited and challenged. These measures are about optimizing feed resources and management. But what about aligning genetics for Feed Conversion Efficiency with management? What is the value of including these traits into the genetic selection process to optimize a herd’s future cattle to be as efficient as a farm’s management direction? Two of those opportunities will be highlighted in this article, the Feed Saved Index and EcoFeed®.
Dr. Kent Weigel, Chair of the Animal and Dairy Science Department at UW-Madison, has been working with collaborators in various industry capacities to develop genomic predictions for feed efficiency, namely Feed Saved, introduced in December of 2020.
“With feed costs being the largest single expense on most dairy farms, small improvements with feed efficiency impact farm finances, the environment and land utilization,” says Weigel. “While measuring individual feed intakes to determine feed efficiency can be difficult and expensive, genomics has made the process more feasible.”
Feed Saved is an estimate of residual feed intake (RFI) plus excess maintenance costs during the lactating and rearing periods, minus added salvage value. Weigel says this trait captures energy wasted due to biological inefficiency and excessive body size and has higher reliabilities than RFI itself. Feed Saved favors medium sized cows that produce milk efficiently.
The EcoFeed® Index from STgenetics® is another genetics selection tool available to assist in improving feed efficiency. This integrated index measures feed conversion efficiency by encompassing environmental, metabolic and genomic factors that affect dairy cattle profitability from birth to when the cow leaves the farm. Juan Moreno, STgenetics® CEO, says EcoFeed® genetics were developed to address rising feed costs while also impacting overall farm sustainability.
“The EcoFeed® program at STgenetics® is directly measuring feed conversion efficiency and to date, we have 1,600,000 daily intake records and genomic results on nearly 562,000 females for the trait,” states Moreno. “Having this information is important not only to reduce the cost of production on the dairy, but also assist in efficiently producing a sustainable product, while reducing the carbon footprint of the industry.”
This EcoFeed® Index was developed to identify genetics that more efficiently convert feed to a unit of milk. Research has shown that high EcoFeed® cattle consume 15% less feed per day and ingest 21% less water than their herd mates to produce one unit of milk. And, EcoFeed® genetics are highly heritable at 26%, making it more heritable than milk production, which seems to be an impressive feat for the R&D team STgenetics®.
With no end in sight when it comes to rising input and feed costs, making more feed efficient animals through genetic selection is another long-term tool to address those costs. Furthermore, breeding moderate sized, more feed efficient cows can reduce waste, ultimately increasing profitability and sustainability.
For more information about Feed Conversion Efficiency Genetics, go to this webinar: