by Dr Ruth Wonfor, Farming Connect Knowledge Exchange Hub, IBERS, Aberystwyth University
To increase livestock production to meet growing food demands, whilst also reducing the environmental impacts of livestock systems, we must strive towards more efficient systems.
For many years, we have selected our animals to be better producers – growing at a faster rate and to larger sizes, producing greater volumes of milk or meat. Yet we must now look to the future of our ruminant systems in a changing world.
Feed efficiency of ruminants is going to be an essential area to focus on in the future, both economically and environmentally. It is estimated that through lowering the feed intake of efficient bulls, whilst maintaining production, a saving of 387kg of feed dry matter per head can be made annually.
Not only is this beneficial economically, saving on feed needing to be bought in, but also on a global scale, reducing competition for land and grain for human consumption. Through selecting animals that eat less whilst maintaining production and health, we will be breeding animals that can better partition energy towards production and
reduce waste emissions, such as methane.
There are many factors which impact feed efficiency in ruminants, such as the diet
fed but also the physiology of the animal itself, primarily through the microbial community in the rumen. Therefore, if there is an animal effect on feed efficiency, we should be able to select for animals that have a better feed efficiency. Yet to be able to do this we need an easy on-farm measurement or breeding value – either an EBV or GEBV.
At present, the most commonly used measure of feed efficiency is residual feed intake, which is difficult to measure on-farm without correct equipment. Therefore, both researchers and industry are working to develop an easy indicator for feed efficiency on-farm.
Researchers in IBERS, Aberystwyth University are investigating potential phenotypic tools to measure feed efficiency, which relate back to the biology of the feed efficient animal.
The project is looking to evaluate existing methodologies for estimation of intake in sheep and relate increasing levels of intake back to the rumen microbiome.
Research in feed efficiency has so far primarily focussed on cattle, and so the study at IBERS is much needed for the sheep industry.
More information on this study is available in our technical article: ‘Feed efficiency in ruminants: Impacts on production and the environment’. Look out for future events held by Farming Connect at the Gogerddan Innovation Site at IBERS, Aberystwyth University.