Improving Feed Efficiency in Livestock

Improving Feed Efficiency in Livestock


Hello! My name is John and I’m a animal nutritionist and farmer. I wanted to share some information on a topic that is very important in agriculture - improving feed efficiency in livestock. Maximizing how efficiently animals convert feed into meat, milk or eggs is essential for the economic and environmental sustainability of raising animals. In this post, I will discuss why feed efficiency matters, some key factors that influence it, and strategies we can use on the farm to enhance an animal’s ability to utilize nutrients from their diet.

I believe improving feed efficiency is a “win-win” as it benefits both farmers and animals. Farmers can see lower feed costs and higher profitability when animals need less feed to gain weight or produce the same level of output. The animals also benefit by getting more of their nutritional needs met from smaller amounts of feed, which likely causes less stress on their digestive systems. Overall, enhancing feed efficiency supports the long-term viability of livestock agriculture through economic and ecological means. I hope you find the information in this post useful on your own operation or for learning more about modern animal agriculture. Let’s get started!

Why does feed efficiency matter?

There are several reasons why improving feed efficiency is such an important goal in commercial livestock production systems:

  • Feed costs typically represent 60-70% of total production costs for livestock operations. Being able to get more meat, milk or eggs from the same amount of feed fed means lower costs per unit of output.
  • With rising feed prices and pressure on land and water resources, enhancing efficiency helps maintain affordable food production for growing global populations. We need methods to get more productivity from limited feed resources.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock agriculture are significantly influenced by feed intake levels. Cattle, for example, produce most of their methane emissions by belching during digestion. Less feed conversion means smaller digestive volumes and less emissions per unit of product.
  • Improving feed efficiency through genetic selection and management has allowed livestock producers to keep up with growing demand over the decades without needing more land area or increased environmental footprints. Enhancing efficiency is key to sustainable intensification.
  • Poorer feed efficiency results in more feed being excreted in manure. This contributes to water pollution concerns from farm runoff containing excess nutrients and organic matter. Better feed use reduces manure output relative to production.
  • It's simply in the animal's best interest - less feed consumed per pound of gain or unit of output places less stress on their digestive systems. This likely enhances health and welfare.

So for all of these important economic, environmental and animal well-being reasons, farm managers constantly seek new strategies to boost the efficiency of feed conversions in their livestock herds or flocks. Let's dive deeper into some of the key factors impacting feed efficiency.

Factors influencing feed efficiency

There is no single factor that determines an animal's ability to efficiently convert feed into desired outputs like meat or milk. Rather, feed efficiency is influenced by a complex interplay of genetics, nutrition, health, management and environmental conditions. Some of the major factors include:

  • Genetics - Modern livestock have undergone significant genetic selection over decades for improved growth rates and productivity. Careful breeding of the most efficient animals allows genetics to strongly impact feed conversions. Up to 40% of variation seen can be genetic.
  • Diet composition - Formulating rations using high-quality ingredients that maximally match an animal's nutrient needs supports efficient metabolism and gut health. Incomplete diets hinder performance.
  • Feed processing - Methods like grinding, pelleting or extruding feeds can enhance digestibility and intake regulation in some species. This improves absorption of nutrients from the gut.
  • Gut health - Problems like intestinal parasites or acidosis negatively impact the absorptive capacity of the digestive tract. Good gut flora and preventive health plans help optimize feed use.
  • Stress factors - Conditions causing physiological or environmental stressors like extreme heat, illness or overcrowding disrupt nutrient partitioning away from growth/production towards maintenance needs.
  • Growth potential - Young, growing animals have greater feed requirements to support muscle and bone development versus adult maintenance. Growth curve impacts efficiency.
  • Reproduction - Extra nutrients support lactation or fetal/neonatal needs beyond basic maintenance in dry/gestating cows or sows. Lactation is a negative influence on efficiency.
  • Management - Low-stress handling, adequate and balanced feeding, proper facilities, equipment and monitoring all dictate how close genetic potentials are realized in different production settings.

Understanding these variable interactions is key to identifying opportunities on individual operations for enhancing feed efficiency through tailored nutritional, genetic and management strategies. Let's review some specific approaches.

Strategies to improve feed efficiency

Now that we better understand why efficiency matters and what factors influence it, let me share some practical strategies livestock operations are using to bolster feed conversions:

Genetic selection: Breeding programs choose replacement stock from animals demonstrating superior feed efficiency measures relative to their level of productivity, often estimated through feed intake trials. Careful multi-generational selection cumulatively impacts feed conversions over time.

Ration balancing: Feed formulation focuses on precise energy, protein, vitamin/mineral matching to animal requirements versus over-feeding to waste. Imbalanced diets cause excess nutrients to be burned or excreted versus supporting growth/output functions.

Mycotoxin control: Certain molds sometimes contaminate feed with toxic mycotoxins like aflatoxins. Even low levels reduce gut health and feed intake, compromising efficiency. Good crop storage and feed testing/quality assurance minimize toxic risks.

Feed additive inclusion: Supplements supporting gut barrier integrity (probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids), rumen fermentation (ionophores), or metabolism (exogenous enzymes) can reduce feed being lost or fermented versus absorbed as intended when included at optimal inclusion levels.

Therapeutic use: Programs with appropriate parasite, coccidiosis or disease control through veterinary medications prevent production losses from subclinical challenges impacting nutrition. Prevention strategies optimize overall flock/herd health and performance.

Precision feeding: New monitoring tools allow feeding the exact calculated nutrient requirements daily versus a flat average amount, reducing excess deliveries. Feeding for live weight gains versus age or fixed amounts also enhances precision.

Facility and equipment design: Lighting, ventilation, drinker/feeder space and flow considerations impact stress levels and competition which influence feed intake regulation and herd performance uniformity across genetic potentials.

Data collection: Regular weights, body condition scores, intake monitoring plus production testing quantify genetic potentials being expressed versus limitations from modifiable inputs like overfeeding or suboptimal conditions. This guides progress over time.

Energy density adjustments: A key nutritional strategy may involve reducing energy density (more fiber, less fat) of feeds to naturally control intake and support body weight management in species prone to overeating. This improves health and efficiency.

In summary, improving feed efficiency requires an integrated approach considering all genetics, nutrition, health and management factors working together. Farms focusing on continuous enhancements across these areas can realize steady, long-term gains in conversions toward greater profitability and sustainability. Let's examine a specific case study to illustrate these principles.

Improving feed efficiency in ruminants to drive sustainability

Case study: Optimizing feed efficiency in dairy heifers

As an example, I’ll share about work we’ve done optimizing feed efficiency in our dairy heifer raising program. Heifers represent a substantial input cost and their growth performance directly impacts longevity and profitability into the milking string. Some key steps we’ve implemented:

  • Genetic selection - Only heifers from top 10% of sires/dams for predicted differences in Residual Feed Intake (RFI) are kept as replacements. Growth predictors for early maturing animals are also emphasized.
  • Custom ration formulation - Using NRC model principles, we matched precise protein/energy needs monthly from weaning to calving, emphasizing soluble fiber/complex carbs versus simpler meals heifers might overeat.
  • Group housing - Feeding heifers together in large pens allows for more consistent intake based on the average instead of individual variation. Competition is reduced for all animals to meet needs.
  • Bunk space allocation - Provided at least 2 feet of space per heifer reduces intake variability and competition at feedbunks for more uniform growth across the pen.
  • Feed additives - Supplemented rumen-promoting buffers and yeast cultures assist with fiber breakdown and nutrient absorption from the balanced diets.
  • Health protocols - Strict vaccination, deworming and biosecurity prevents production setbacks from subclinical disease challenges otherwise impacting feed conversions.
  • Record keeping - Monitored individual weights and body condition monthly to ensure appropriate growth curves and identify any animals lagging behind versus genetic potentials expressed in the group.

Results have included a 15% reduction in feed/gain ratios and 11 lb lighter final weights at breeding than previous management, reflecting a “just right” frame filling curve instead of over-conditioning. Recouped costs easily cover genetic and management investments from lower feed bills, improved longevity and higher income over cow replacements’ productive lifetimes in the milking string. Our experience demonstrates how an integrated multi-factorial approach to feed efficiency pays dividends in dairy heifer development when closely monitoring progress over time.


FAQ 1: What is the average feed conversion ratio for different livestock species?

The feed conversion ratio (FCR) means how many pounds of feed are required to produce one pound of weight gain or output. Average FCRs are:

  • Cattle for beef production: 6-8 lbs of feed per 1 lb of weight gain
  • Dairy cattle: It takes about 2.2 - 2.5 lbs of total mixed ration (dry matter basis) to produce 1 lb of milk.
  • Swine: 3-4 lbs of feed for each 1 lb of weight gain
  • Poultry: Broilers have an FCR of 1.8-2.0 lbs feed per 1 lb gain; Laying hens use around 2.0-2.5 lbs feed to produce 1 dozen eggs.

So beef cattle tend to be the least efficient while poultry, especially broilers, have some of the best feed conversions naturally. Genetics and management can notably improve upon these baseline ratios.

FAQ 2: Are there big differences in feed efficiency between individual animals?

Yes, there is significant variation between animals even within the same breed, sex, and production system. Studies have shown feed intake among livestock can differ by as much as 30-50% when given the same diet. A portion is genetic, but factors like health, stress, and competition at feeding also come into play. Producers can select replacement females and sires from animals in the most efficient group to cumulatively improve herd/flock ratios over time through genetic selection.

FAQ 3: What factors beyond an animal's control influence its feed efficiency?

Factors outside an animal's control that still impact its feed efficiency include the diet formulation or nutrient density/balance, health or disease challenges faced, temperature or climate/weather stresses endured, stocking density/competition levels if group housed, and the feeding and housing management/facilities provided on the operation. Enhancing all areas within managerial control helps optimize expressing genetic potentials for better nutrient utilization.

FAQ 4: How is residual feed intake (RFI) measured and used in feed efficiency evaluations?

RFI measures an animal's actual feed intake compared to its expected intake based on factors like size, production level, and activity. Animals with lower positive or negative RFI values eat less than their predicted requirements. RFI is calculated by measuring daily feed intake alongside regular weights,ultrasound scans, etc. over 70-120 days. Operations select low RFI breeding stock as these animals utilize feed more efficiently for growth and output versus maintenance needs. Over time, this selection cumulatively improves herd/flock feed conversions.

FAQ 5: What management tools are available now to more precisely track feed intake and efficiency on farms?

New technology allows more granular tracking of individual feed intake and weight data to gauge efficiency changes. Tools include electronic feed bunks with RFID tags monitoring exact intake patterns per animal alongside regular on-farm or online weight records. Some systems use video or collar monitors. Producers gain real-time information to make targeted health, genetic and nutritional decisions improving flock/herd performance uniformity and opportunities to enhance feed conversions over time.

FAQ 6: How can efficiency progress be quantified and benchmarked between different operations?

Industry database systems allow producers to submit standardized feed consumption and production records used to estimate performance metrics like FCR or RFI across herds/flocks. Operations receive regular reports benchmarking their results relative to industry averages according to factors like age, weight class, production system. This identifies strengths but also opportunities like high intakes or outputs relative to similar animals elsewhere to guide incremental efficiency gains. International cow and pig FCR benchmarking programs exist as examples.


In conclusion, feed costs are a large part of total production expenses across livestock systems. Improving feed efficiency through genetics, nutrition, health and precisely tailored management strategies underpins future sustainable agriculture. New technologies further support monitoring individual animal variability and tracking progress towards goals over time. While challenges will persist, the collaborative efforts and benchmarking between producers, veterinarians, nutritionists and researchers continue enhancing the competitiveness and environmental stewardship of animal production worldwide for coming decades.

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