The Fundamentals of RFI
The Fundamentals of RFI
I had the opportunity to attend Livestock Gentec’s 3rd Annual Conference in Edmonton on Tuesday October 16th.
Livestock Gentec was created to carry out, and capitalize on, world-class genomics research, bringing commercial benefits to the Canadian livestock industry. This organization brings together scientists, producers and industry partners to ensure technology and innovation keeps Canada at the forefront of genetic improvement worldwide. It is great to have an organization of this calibre here in Alberta.
Two major factors drew me to this year’s conference – RFI and genomics. As previously discussed in this blog, for the past number of years we have been utilizing the Igenity profile for genomic testing of our walking herd, replacement females and herd bulls. We are very excited about the possibilities of evaluating RFI via genomics, and wanted to learn more about the potential of selecting genetics with this quality. With an entire morning session entitled ‘The Fundamentals of RFI’, it was a great opportunity to hear a number of speakers discuss their perspectives on this very important trait.
First, an explanation: RFI, short for ‘Residual Feed Intake,’ is a measurement of feed efficiency. In essence, it is the difference between what an animal is expected to consume and what that animal actually consumes in order to maintain or to grow. Thus, when calculating RFI, the lower the number (or a negative number) translates into a more feed efficient animal. This is an important distinction, as with all other ‘trait’ measures a higher number is generally preferred. Through-out this post, I will be using RFI and feed efficient interchangeably.
The concept of RFI has been around for decades, but has been difficult to measure. Early studies involved the isolation of individual animals, with feed monitored; but with more advanced technology, it is easier to identify and monitor individual animals in a group setting. The research presented on RFI during the conference was predominantly obtained utilizing the GrowSafe System (www.growsafe.com). This commercially available system measures the amount of food intake over the trial period of 70 days, and then provides an RFI value for each animal. The GrowSafe System is utilized in bull test facilities across North America, including three here in Alberta. Prior to the conference, I was unaware that this system was commercially available.
The financial impact for cow-calf producers in utilizing highly feed efficient animals, assuming all other traits remain equal, are substantial – upwards of $50 per cow per year savings in feed costs. A highly efficient bull has the potential to save $750-$1,125 over 3 calf crops vs. an inefficient bull. Savings come from an 11% reduction in feed required while milking, and a 21% reduction in feed when dry – leading to higher stocking densities on grass, and lower purchased feed costs. Because low RFI cattle are so efficient, they also have the ability to handle stressful weather and harsh conditions better. Death loss is lower, and calves have a lower mortality rate. Because the efficient cattle eat less, methane emissions are also reduced by 15-30%, and manure production is also lowered by 15-20%; decreasing yardage costs. Add up all these possible areas for savings, and it becomes obvious that feed efficiency has the potential to dramatically improve returns while also benefiting the environment.
For me, the most important message that I took away from the RFI session, was that RFI operates independently of ADG (Average Daily Gain). When assessing cattle for both traits, just because an animal was highly feed efficient, did not mean that they had a good rate of gain. In fact, the data presented by Dr. John Basarab (Sr. Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture) suggested that there was just as many low gain, feed efficient animals as there are high gain, feed efficient animals. As a result, it is essential that these two important traits be selected in tandem in order to make progress. From a genetic selection perspective, Dr. Basarab suggested that the focus should be breeding for low RFI, high ADG cattle while ensuring those animals remained fertile.
This message was reinforced by Stuart Thiessen, who along with his family, operate Namaka Farms Inc, a 34,000 head feedlot in Southern Alberta. In an effort to maximize productivity, Mr Thiessen has extensively examined the applicability of RFI in the feedlot environment. In his presentation, Mr. Thiessen was adamant that RFI cannot correct the cost of a low ADG. In fact, if he had a choice, his return calculations indicate that they would prefer high ADG regardless of RFI, but low RFI provided better returns should ADG be the same. Where Mr Thiessen struggled with RFI was in how it fit within the overall sector: the general cow-calf operation is not interested in adapting to RFI if they are not going to get paid for it. As ‘money’ is the signal for change within the sector, until a methodology such as a ‘Global Biddable Index’ can be created and adopted to make the system transparent to both cow-calf and feed operators, he feels there is a long road ahead before headway is made in the marketplace.
Challenges with RFI
Genomic testing represents genetic potential for high or low RFI vs. actually assessing an individual animal for RFI (which could be done via a system such as GrowSafe). The challenge then becomes linking the DNA to the actual results: can what is present at the genome level be an accurate predictor of what actual results would be in a typical commercial environment? In this regard I thought the conference missed a significant opportunity. While there were a total of 5 speakers on RFI (all of whom were excellent), there was no conversation discussing the link of ongoing research between genomic RFI and actual RFI as measured via a conventional system. It could be that the genomic technology is new enough that the research hasn’t been finalized yet, but with several genomic companies in attendance (and speaking later on other topics), I did think it was a missed opportunity to provide a clearer understanding of the relationship between the genetic potential to be feed efficient and the actual RFI results. It is my hope that this is where the research projects currently being completed by breed associations comes in to play, specifically the Canadian Simmental Association. It is my understanding that the projects they are working on should allow for enhanced EBV/EPD’s in the future that will include RFI as a trait.
Another challenge, and this refers to all cattle, is that genetic improvement is limited by the length of the reproduction cycle. With cattle limited to an annual cycle, the pace of change is very slow. Even if all the data was available and accurate, and a highly efficient, high gain bull could be identified today, it would still take 9 months for a calf to be born and a further 12-15 months for any potential sons to begin breeding. This 2 year generation cycle, combined with the necessity of stacking genetics in order to improve heritability (and avoiding single trait selection), would suggest that the pace of change within the industry will be slow. The other challenge with beef, is that the cow-calf industry is a very low margin business. There is not a lot of extra monies available for research and development compared to our peers in the (supply managed) dairy sector. As a result, unless there is an immediate perceived return, it isn’t going to change producer behavior. The lack of margin combined with a slow reproductive cycle puts cattle at a significant disadvantage when comparing cattle to our competing protein sources in either hogs or poultry.
Where We Are Headed.
The result of attending any successful conference is the ability to come home with knowledge that you can implement in your own operation. The conference certainly provided clarity on the importance of maintaining ADG while selecting for RFI, and I have modified our in-herd assessment index to reflect that change. It is also nice to see the numbers for potential cost savings verified by research as to how much improvement feed efficient animals can make toward the bottom line. As a finance guy, I certainly appreciate numbers to back up intuition!
From an assessment standpoint, we will continue to do our own research on RFI, and learn as much as possible from conferences and organizations such as Livestock Gentec. We are still very early in the process of evaluating RFI, but are also fortunate to be joined in our studies by my parents operation in Ontario, which provides both additional data, and a sounding board to discuss ideas. I think our efforts regarding RFI will echo our experiences over the past 13 years working with adding the polled gene to our cow herd. Progress happens, but it is certainly slower than you’d like, especially when you are trying to avoid single trait selection. (As after 13 years, we certainly don’t have all the horns off our cattle – only about 25% of our walking herd!) Thankfully, due to our ages, and our passion for Fleckvieh Cattle, I do feel we have a long future ahead of us in which to gradually make genetic improvements.
As you can infer from the above, I really enjoyed the Livestock Gentec sessions on RFI. I think RFI remains the biggest challenge in genetic selection of beef cattle, but am encouraged by the research being done as to how we can economically and practically evaluate genetics for this trait in the future. While RFI is an important trait, the sessions once again made clear the dangers of single trait genetic selection. While trying to reduce RFI, while maintaining or improving ADG, will slow the speed of genetic process, I think that in the long run, the cattle will provide improved returns.
For additional information on the ‘GrowSafe’ RFI system: http://www.growsafe.com
For additional information on RFI via Genomic Testing and the Igenity Profile: http://www.igenity.com/beef
For additional information on RFI research completed here in Alberta: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex10861
The data utilized in this post was gathered from notes taken during the ‘Fundamentals of RFI’ session at the 2012 Livestock Gentec Conference. Specific speakers referenced include presentations made by John Basarab (Alberta Agriculture), Monty Kerley (University of Missouri) and Stuart Thiessen (Namaka Farms Ltd). Any mistakes in interpreting the information presented is the writer’s.