Technology Improving Feed Efficiency & Picking The Right Pasture Type

Years of genetic selection and improvements in feedlot management, growth-enhancing technologies - how much impact do they have on animal efficiency and performance in 2021? Going grass-fed? The grasses your cattle graze can impact their growth and meat q

Technology Improving Feed Efficiency & Picking The Right Pasture Type

In Today's R2R Edition:

  1. After years of genetic selection and improvements in feedlot management, growth-enhancing technologies are still routinely utilized in beef production systems – the question is, how much impact do they have on animal efficiency and performance in 2021?
  2. Going grass-fed? The grasses your cattle graze can impact their growth and meat quality – a recent paper reports the pros and cons of various forage and which beef taste panels prefer.


Great Then, Still Great Now

The high-points:

  • Common sustainability practices at use in feedlots, decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Some of these practices use technology like hormonal feed additives, implants, and β-agonists.
  • Still today, growth-enhancing technologies have a vital role in the efficiency of beef production.

What you need to know: As discussed in a previous R2R edition (read it here), sustainability is a growing conversation that the beef industry is at the forefront of. The world's attention is on us as they wait to see how we respond to concerns and questions. This platform gives us a unique opportunity to share cattle agriculture's sustainability practices, which have existed for many years now.

Some of these practices include using growth-enhancing technology like hormonal feed additives, implants, and β-agonists. These are standard practices in the feedlots of North America, used to improve animal performance. They are also responsible for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 Equivalent) by an estimated 14.0% per kg of live weight from the years 1981 to 2011 (Legesse et al. 2016).

The research discussed today was conducted over four years to re-establish the efficacy of these technologies, compared to their outset 20+ years ago. These researchers note that with improvements in feeding practices, genetic selection, as well as animal management and health have all improved feedlot performance over the past few decades – meaning the benefit of using growth-enhancing technologies could be negated by improvements elsewhere.

However, the researchers found that was not the case – observing marked differences between the treatment groups and control groups for each technology. In separate trials, the hormonal feed additives and implant technologies significantly improved feed efficiency compared to control animals only receiving feed. Additionally, all three technologies increased average daily gain across the entire feeding period, decreasing animal days on feed. However, steers had a more significant average daily gain from implants than heifers – a common finding in previous research.

The researchers concluded, stating, "It is clear that these growth-enhancing technologies play a central role in increasing the efficiency of beef cattle production, which logically will result in less manure production and greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced."

Important to note:

  • All three of these technologies decrease the quality grades of the carcasses, which reduces the value per pound of meat produced. However, this does not affect the growth efficiency, and sustainability, of these animals.

Industry application: Cattle agriculture has a unique opportunity to demonstrate this increase in sustainability that we have realized in the previous decades by way of technology. This paper is a great example of how beef production continues to improve and become more sustainable through the years.

Read more about it:


Are you going grass-fed? Tips for what to plant in your pasture.

GIF eating grass

The high-points:

  • The flavor of grass-fed beef is a constraint of consumer preference due to the beef often having lower "beef flavor" and greater "off-flavor".
  • The average daily gain for each of the small-grain fed steers was greater than that of the alfalfa-fed steers.
  • Alfalfa had greater tenderness, juiciness, and beef flavor when tasted by a sensory panel.

What you need to know: The flavor of grass-fed beef has historically been a constraint of consumer purchase. Grassfed beef can often have lower "beef flavor" and greater "off-flavor" when compared to the more common grain-fed beef. However, a surprising lack of research comparing beef attributes from animals consuming a single grass species makes it difficult to evaluate the effects of each grass type on animal performance and meat quality.

Researchers in Argentina compared small-grain winter annual pastures (SGWA), including wheat, rye, and triticale, to alfalfa by measuring animal growth, carcass traits, and sensory panel preference for each of the grass-fed beef varieties.

When comparing the grasses, the season significantly affected the forage quality of all of the SGWA, with decreases in protein and digestibility as the grazing season progressed. Alfalfa, however, showed no reduction of crude protein content. And of the SGWA pastures, wheat had the least seasonal change, suggesting a longer vegetative window.

As for the cattle, animals on each of the SGWA had equal average daily gain. On the other hand, the average daily gain for each SGWA was greater than that of the alfalfa-fed steers (1024 vs. 842 g/day), leading to alfalfa-fed animals taking 22 more days to reach adequate weight for slaughter. Interestingly, higher crude protein to nonstructural carbohydrate (starch) ratios led to decreased average daily gain, suggesting that alfalfa's greater protein and lower starch content was what hindered animal growth.

Finally, the end product. The beef. The alfalfa group had brighter, redder meat than all SGWA fed cattle, with wheat having the next best color. There was also lower drip-loss and cooking-loss for the alfalfa-fed beef and no difference between the SGWA, leading to alfalfa having a greater sensory panel score for juiciness. Also, alfalfa-fed beef had greater tenderness and beef flavor than all other grasses, while the rye-fed group had the greatest off-flavor score – these findings could be related to the intramuscular fat content of the beef, with alfalfa and wheat having the highest and rye having the lowest quantity.

Important to note:

  • The seasons for each SGWA and alfalfa were different, which could have led to the observed difference – June 10th through September 16th for SGWA and October 25th through January 22nd for alfalfa, due to grass growing seasons.

Industry application: As a producer looking to raise grass-fed beef, there need to be considerations of animal growth, meat quality, and consumer preference of each forage source. This research suggests that there are benefits of the various grasses, however, that alfalfa has the greatest positive impact on consumer preference, and the addition of SGWA can improve average daily gain. From this research, rye appears to be the least beneficial forage source.

Read more about it:

Subscribe to Research to Ranch

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.