Making feed efficiency a priority is critical to beef unit profitability

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Beef cattle housed image

With improvements in feed conversion ratio (FCR) having three times the impact on grower and finisher profitability than increases in liveweight gain (LWG), it’s a topic that needs to be taken much more seriously by UK beef producers, claims KW nutritionist Dr Anna Sutcliffe.

“Feed accounts for around 60-80% of beef production variable costs, yet is typically converted into growth with a relatively poor lifetime FCR of more than 6:1,” she explains. “It means that across the entire life of the animal, an average of six units of feed are required to produce one unit of growth, compared to ratios of just 2:1 for poultry or 3.5:1 for pigs.

“Ruminant FCRs are so high because 40-70% of dietary energy is used for body maintenance, with the proportion rising as animals get larger. But it also means that even small improvements in FCR can have a substantial impact on overall production efficiency and, ultimately, profitability.”

Factors affecting FCR

In beef cattle, FCR is affected by a number of factors, the most important of which are genetics, sex, age, health, environment and feeding. And while the potential efficiency with which each animal converts feed into growth is set by genetics, other factors can be influenced by the producer to improve overall efficiency and reduce feed costs per kg of gain.

“Even at the same age and health, in the same environment consuming the same feed, the most inefficient cattle can be up to 15% less effective at converting feed into LWG,” Dr Sutcliffe highlights. “That alone can cost up to £30/head during a typical finishing period.”

“…1kg LWG in cattle at 750kg LW costing 51% more than…at 450kg LW…”

Regardless of the genetics and sex of the animal, significant gains are possible, such as by adapting systems to make the most of the much higher FCR in younger animals. The effect can clearly be seen in Table 1, with 1kg LWG in cattle at 750kg LW costing 51% more – in terms of feed costs – than when the same cattle were at 450kg LW.

Table 1 – Example alternative feed strategies to reduce feed costs and maintain performance1



Daily LWG

(kg feed:kg LWG)

Cost of gain1
(p/kg LWG)

Efficiency loss
























1 Based on typical ration cost of £145/t DM

Minimise stress effects

Stress in any form – including mineral deficiencies – will impair efficiency, so a focus on minimising parasite burdens, disease challenge, lameness and metabolic disorders like acidosis is also critical. Environmental factors can have particularly strong impact, with easy access to feed and drinking water, good ventilation and adequate space to lie down on dry bedding all important.

British wheat distillers' feed image
British wheat distillers’ feed supplies both digestible fibre and high quality protein.

“So aim for group sizes of 20 at most, and keep those groups consistent to avoid fighting and other aggressive behaviour which can divert energy away from growth,” states Dr Sutcliffe. “Efficient handling systems and calm staff can make a big difference, too, and the most efficient units tend to be those where such details are a high priority.”

The same applies to ration formulation. Ensuring adequate access to straw (in the mixed ration or in racks) will provide the structural fibre needed to promote good rumen function, for example, whilst using digestible fibre feeds like soya hulls, sugar beet feed and British wheat distillers’ feed to balance the starch energy in the ration will reduce the risk of acidosis.

Driving early growth

“Where the acidosis risk is high, feeding (Vistacell) a live yeast or (Acid Buf) slow-release rumen conditioner – or both – can improve FCR by 5-10%, with the latter also reducing mounting and fighting behaviour in bulls,” Dr Sutcliffe adds. “Other trials have shown that better matching the supply of protein to the rate of energy release in the rumen can produce a 9% gain in FCR.

“Even individually, these gains are significant, yet it’s when they’re combined as part of a system that minimises stress, maximises early growth and finishes at lighter weights that the greatest benefits are seen.

“Driving growth when cattle are most efficient…will reduce total feed costs…”

“Driving growth when cattle are most efficient and slaughtering before FCR really deteriorates will reduce total feed costs and improve margins. And with the higher turnover of cattle allowing more to be finished each year, plus the lighter carcases better matching processor requirements, the overall impact on profitability can be substantial.”

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