Feed efficiency is the missing link

category Efficiency
measuring feed intake
Registering feed intake data using feeders currently delivers the most reliable data
SERIES feed efficiency

Just a minor improvement in the milk yield from a kilo of feed has a significant impact on a farm’s financial results. So, it’s hardly surprising that the feed sector and the breeding world are both investing heavily in efforts to boost feed efficiency per farm and at cow level. This series of three articles in Veeteelt outlines the developments.

This is part 2: Breeding

Breeding organisations are investing heavily in collecting feed intake data in order to calculate reliable breeding values. The breeding value for feed efficiency may herald breeding values for methane emissions.

‘After the focus of breeding efforts on production, health and longevity, the following logical step is breeding for feed efficiency.’ Pieter van Goor is emphatically clear why his employer, breeding organisation CRV, is devoting such a substantial investment to breeding for feed efficiency. At CRV, van Goor is in charge of the feed intake registration project taking place on a number of working farms. ‘Huge strides have been made over the past decades in improving the milk yield, udder and hoof health and longevity of dairy herds. Breeding for feed efficiency can be seen as further fine-tuning.’
As one of the first countries in the world, the Netherlands introduced a breeding value for feed intake in 2016. This was followed by breeding values for feed efficiency (see box). An increasing number of international organisations are following suit. According to van Goor, a very important reason is the financial gains farmers can benefit from if they select their animals based on feed efficiency traits. ‘After all, feed accounts for 60% of the production costs of milk. You are talking about significant advantages if you can reduce that figure by 10% through breeding.’

Heredity comparable to milk production

The efficiency of feed conversion has been used as a basis for breeding in the pig and poultry sectors for many years. This approach has led to substantial improvements; in broilers, feed efficiency has been improved by 65% in 25 years. So why has it taken the beef and dairy breeding sectors so long to actively adopt the same approach?

‘The challenge in the beef and dairy sectors is collecting enough feed intake data to enable reliable estimated breeding values to be calculated’, explains Roel Veerkamp, professor of genetics at Wageningen Livestock Research. ‘Breeding for feed efficiency was, in fact, already applied in the past. In the UK, for example. But the efforts stopped there when it appeared that a higher feed efficiency resulted in a lower body condition score and the associated health and fertility problems that could be expected. Those issues were already being debated at the time in Holstein breeding circles due to the one-sided breeding focus on milk yield.’

The same argument that breeding for feed efficiency results in cows with a poor body condition is still used by critics. But that argument doesn’t hold water anymore, says Veerkamp. ‘There are now highly reliable and robust breeding values for health and body condition. If you apply health and fertility criteria in your breeding goal in addition to a breeding value for feed efficiency, you can select animals that score well for feed efficiency and stay healthy.’  Veerkamp is convinced that progress can be made through breeding: ‘Feed efficiency has a slightly lower heritability than milk production, but is it practically comparable.’

Investing in data collection

To ensure sufficient feed intake data is registered, CRV has installed special feeders on five dairy farms in the Netherlands in the past two years. These feeders register data on individual feed intake and milk production.

‘The current breeding values for feed efficiency are based on data generated by 5600 animals. This data is supplied by research organisations including ILVO and the Dairy Campus. All of this data has ensured a 46% reliability in young genomic bulls. And for breeding bulls with lactating daughters, the reliability is clearly higher at 60-70%’, explains van Goor. ‘We are investing in data collection on working farms so we can increase the reliability of the breeding values of young bulls more quickly. Our aim is to have collected data from at least 10,000 animals in five years’ time.’

On the five farms in the project, the cows’ feed intake is measured in the period spanning 80 to 180 days after calving. ‘Research shows that this period gives the best prediction of the complete lactation’, explains van Goor. ‘Obtaining data from as many cows as possible outweighs the added value of measuring the complete lactation. It’s expensive to collect feed intake data so this is the best way to maximise use of the feeders.’

Feed intake registration with 3D cameras

Due to the costs of this expensive study (CRV invested 2 million euros to install the feeders at the five farms), alternatives are also being looked at around the world. For example, VikingGenetics is investigating collecting feed intake data using 3D cameras. ‘The initial practical trials are promising’, says Søren Borgersen, head of R&D at VikingGenetics.

In 2019, the Scandinavian breeding organisation launched the ‘saved feed index’, a breeding value that ranks bulls according to how much feed is required for maintenance and is based on breeding values for stature. ‘We want to expand the saved feed index by adding actual data on feed intake’, according to Borgersen. ‘We are trialling 3D cameras installed above the feed fence. These cameras register the feed intake of individual animals. We expect to add the first data collect by the 3D cameras on the farms in 2021.

Veerkamp is following international developments keenly. ‘The technical solutions will become increasingly refined and more affordable in the years ahead, but at present registration via the feeders delivers the most reliable data.’ Veerkamp is also aware of the studies being conducted in the USA by the AI organisation ST with young stock. ‘Feed intake data of young stock is valuable information, but we still lack sufficient knowledge of the correlation between feed intake in young stock and dairy cattle. But the more data is collected, the more we can start to reveal.’

Pieter van Goor is also frequently asked about collecting feed intake data, such as questions about meadow grazing. ‘What we measure is the feed intake of cows on a full indoor ration. Looked at on a year-round basis, the proportion of fresh grass in the ration on an average farm is limited. There are studies that indicate that cows that convert feed efficiently in the barn do the same with a grass ration’, according to van Goor. ‘I expect the differences to be minimal:  a cow that performs better in the barn is more likely to be a better cow outdoors too.’

There is another reason why breeding organisations are now examining feed efficiency. ‘Feed efficiency is the missing link in breeding to reduce methane emissions’, says Veerkamp. ‘Greenhouse gas emissions are high on the political agenda. These emissions can be reduced when cows utilize feed more efficiently.’ Van Goor adds: ‘For that reason, we intend to measure the methane emissions at cow level on some of the five farms in the project. The logical next step would then be a breeding value for methane emissions.’

Breeding value SFCM in NVI since 2018

Since December 2017 the breeding values ‘saved feed for maintenance’ (SFM) and ‘saved feed costs for maintenance’ (SFCM) have been published for all bulls. The SFM is expressed in kilos of dry matter, the SFCM in euros per lactation. In the spring of 2018, the breeding value SFCM with a 5% weighting was incorporated in the NVI formula. This weighting means that cows can become larger and heavier if they produce proportionally more milk. A fine good example of this is Delta Titanium. He combines a slightly higher body weight with good feed efficiency.