Efficient animals produce more food

Animal feed, like this haylage, requires natural resources and money to grow. When animals are more efficient, we can have more animal products at a lower cost.In animal production, efficiency is when animals can quickly convert their feed into meat, milk or eggs. Efficient animals require less feed, and they produce more food for humans without increasing the environmental impact of production.

John Patience is a swine nutritionist at Iowa State University, and his research focuses on how pigs turn nutrients into energy that can be converted to protein. By studying the right combinations of ingredients like amino acids, carbohydrates and minerals in a diet, scientists can improve feed efficiency.

“We’re becoming more sophisticated in how we design our diets,” said Patience. “Pig carcasses are getting larger. That’s really a function of efficiency.”

Monty Kerley, a professor of nutrition in the college of agriculture, food and natural resources at University of Missouri, explained how energy metabolism works in cattle. Kerley has spent a lot of time studying mitochrondria, the tiny structures that produce energy in cells. This energy, called ATP, is dependent on the nutrients an animal consumes.

“An efficient animal can generate that ATP quicker,” said Kerley.

Kerley sees cattle gain the same amount of weight on different amounts of food. In every herd Kerley has studied, he has measured about a 1.4-fold difference in intake between the calf that eats the least and the calf that eats the most.

“Yet there won’t be a difference in the weight of those calves or the rate of gain,” Kerley said. “The thought, at least now, is that efficient animals have figured out how to make energy quicker, more efficiently. They reach satiety quicker. That sort of explains the difference we are seeing in intake.”

Kerley recommended that animal producers use tools to measure individual feed intake for their animals. That way, they will know which animals convert feed to protein most efficiently. Once producers identify efficient animals, they can adjust how much feed they give their animals and not waste feed or money. Identifying efficient animals also helps producers permanently improve efficiency by breeding together the most efficient animals.

Some pig producers are improving feed efficiency by using computerized technology. At the International Conference on Feed Efficiency in Swine in November 2011, researcher Kees de Lange described how computerized liquid feeding systems are useful for producers who want to adjust feed amounts and nutrients on a pig-by-pig basis.

“You can really separate, quite conveniently, little batches of feed,” said de Lange, a swine nutritionist at the University of Guelph.

He said that though systems are expensive to install, liquid feeding can improve pig health and weight gain. de Lange cited data showing that liquid feeding can benefit swine gut microflora. Gut microflora are the beneficial microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. These microflora help pigs—and humans—synthesize nutrients like vitamin A and B12. Microflora also convert undigested carbohydrates and fiber into energy. The computerized systems store feed in tanks, which promotes fermentation and the development of beneficial microbes. A pig with healthy microflora can be more efficient, and in de Lange’s studies of weaning-aged pigs, a liquid diet improved health in portions of the intestines.

New technology can also help with Kerley’s goal of measuring individual feed intake. Recently, equipment company GrowSafe Systems Ltd. (Airdrie, Canada) unveiled a feeding system that weighs individual animals when they walk up to feed at a trough. The system uses special ear tags to track how much an animal eats and how much that animal weighs.

Pigs are just one animal that scientists are working with to increase efficiency. There have also been advances in efficiency of beef cattle production.

Why do we need animals to produce food in the first place? Read about the nutrients in animal products.