Annual feed bills across the UK beef industry could be reduced by up to £12.5m due to the development of new selection index tool that allow animals to be selected for feed efficiency.
The tool, which was developed by the Beef Feed Efficiency Programme, will also enable the rate of reduction of beef-related greenhouse gas emissions to be accelerated by 27% over a 20-year period.
The programme, established by the AHDB, Defra, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the Scottish government and ABP, studied Limousin and Angus store cattle to identify animals and sire groups that eat less than others but achieve 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 farmers to select cattle for improved feed efficiency.
Natalie Cormack, who manages the programme, said reducing feed costs significantly, while maintaining other production parameters such as growth rate, was a 'game changer' for the industry.
"We are now able to provide genetic selection information at breeder level that, when implemented, can achieve a clear reduction in feed costs," she said.
“Animals that eat less while maintaining performance will also reduce their GHG production as well as needing less ground to sustain them.
"The programme therefore provides a solution to two key issues which are impacting our industry.”
In practical terms, the difference between the top and bottom 10 percent of Limousin animals measured was 1.93 kg of dry matter (DM) per head per day.
The 10 percent of animals that had the lowest residual feed intake (RFI) on average ate 1.93kg less DM of ration than the 10% of animals with the highest RFI.
For the finishing ration, there was a saving of 25 pence per day per animal for the lowest RFI group as opposed to the highest RFI group.
If this sample is representative of all prime slaughtered beef cattle in the UK then, if scaled up, it would equate to a saving of about £61m across all cattle finished over a 120-day period and a reduction of 13,000 hectares used for grazing and forage production across the industry.
Defra is funding 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 measured for meat quality, over the next three years, in conjunction with a small group of UK processors.
Sarah Haire of Dunbia UK, who are working with the team to collect samples for meat quality analysis, said there had been 'great findings' from the first phase.
"Further work focussing on meat quality will give a complete view of the industry and importantly the quality of the product the consumer is getting," she said.
"This will help provide farmers with more tools to increase efficiency at the same time as having a positive environmental impact and producing a quality product.”