WVU adds state-of-the-art livestock feeding system; offers selection input

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – At a time when many are working to shed excess weight, a team of West Virginia University researchers are looking to pack on the pounds – to cattle.

And they’re using cutting-edge technology to do it.

The university’s Reymann Memorial Farm in Wardensville is now home to one of the most advanced pieces of feed efficiency technology in the nation, the GrowSafe 4000E.

It’s one of only a handful of these systems in use in the United States, and WVU animal scientists think it will have significant benefits for the state’s beef producers and the WVU young sire evaluation program.

Feed efficiency. “Feed efficiency is a measure of how much animals eat as compared to how much they grow,” explained Gene Felton, assistant professor of animal and veterinary sciences.

Ideally, cattle will experience maximum growth with a minimum input of feed, saving production costs and increasing profitability.

“Feed costs account for about 60 percent of production costs in cattle production,” Felton said.

Consequently, it’s in a producer’s best interest to select an animal on the right side of the feed efficiency equation, requiring as little feed as possible to create a pound in weight gain.

Removes guessing. The GrowSafe takes a lot of the guesswork out of the selection process, according to Felton.

The system includes a feeding station that only one animal can use at a time. Each bull or cow is tagged, allowing a system of sensors to record how much it consumed and how that feed consumption was broken down over time.

At the end of the test period, system users can compare consumption quantities and rates with weight gain in the test herd, finding animals that are making best use of the feed provided.

“Even a one-pound improvement in feed efficiency can lead to significant savings for cattle producers,” Felton said.

First test. WVU faculty and staff at the Wardensville facility have just completed a study of the bulls and will now focus on cows in the research herd.

“If feed cost savings could be applied to the 200,000 calves in West Virginia alone, the impact could be approximately $1 million annually for the state’s beef producers,” said John Warren, professor of animal and veterinary sciences.

Additionally, a 10 percent gain in feed efficiency may mean producers could increase cattle inventory by 10 percent on the same land base, he added.

While the technology is state of the art, Felton said they were taking its applications to another level, applying what they find about feed efficiency to the genetic level.

Link to other traits. The team has already compared its results to see how feed efficiency links to other desirable production traits in cattle.

“Early results suggest that producers can select for improved feed efficiency without negatively impacting other important production traits,” Felton said.

“This just reinforces the importance of this technology and eliminates guesswork and reduces risk in the herd selection process,” explained Wayne Wagner, animal husbandry specialist with WVU Extension.

It also improves the possibility that beef producers, through careful selection, will be able to breed feed efficiency into their herds, creating long-term feed savings and increased income.

Leading the way. In addition to its benefits to producers, Felton says the technology is a point of pride for WVU.

“This is at the forefront of animal science,” he said. “We’re not jumping on the bandwagon; we’re pulling it.”

Funding. Acquisition of the system was made possible through $435,000 in funding over three years from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, with the support and input from the West Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, Davis College and WVU Extension units, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Farm Bureau.

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