It all started nearly five-and-one-half years ago with installation of an electronic system for recording how much an animal eats at West Virginia University’s Reymann Memorial Farm Experiment Station at Wardensville. Now it is well on its way to revolutionizing the performance testing of bulls, ram lambs and young male goats throughout the country, and has become a major research tool in studies of animal intake and efficiency.
WVU, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Cattlemen’s Association collaborated to obtain a USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service grant for the first GrowSafeŽ system to be installed in the United States for the purpose of sire performance testing. Using electronic sensors, load cells under each feed bin, and a radio frequency identification ear tag in each animal, the system collects real time data in second intervals each time an animal eats. Data are collected and transmitted via wireless communication to a centralized computer.
The system records when feeding began and ended and how much the animal ate during the visit as well as behavioral data such as time spent eating and meal size.
“The amount of data the system collects is mind boggling. There is so much data that we haven’t yet used all of it,” said Dr. Gene Felton, Assistant Professor of Animal and Nutritional Sciences in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry and Consumer Sciences, and dynamic leader of the project.
“The weight gain and feed consumption of each animal can be related to the average for its contemporary group during a test period,” said Dr. Felton.
Performance efficiency is expressed as residual feed intake (RFI), which is a positive or negative deviation from the overall mean. The more negative an animal’s RFI, the more efficient that animal is for maintenance and growth.
The GrowSafeŽ system was obtained initially for use in the West Virginia Young Sire Performance Test for beef bulls, which is operated at Wardensville by the WVU Extension Service, the Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with beef seedstock producers. Dr. John Warren, Professor in the Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences, has been a project leader since the use of the system in the first bull test.
“It is truly amazing how this system has expanded our testing and research capability,” Warren commented. “Dr. Felton has used it to collect data on weaned calves, heifers and on cow-calf pairs.”
Kevin Shaffer, a graduate student from Moatsville, in Barbour County, is currently working with Felton and Warren to evaluate use of the system as a tool for heat detection in heifers.
“Cattle are known to be more active when they are in estrus. If a heifer that is in estrus goes to the feed trough more often, or if she goes off feed that day, the system might be a good tool to help in an artificial insemination program,” according to Warren.
Felton and Warren have already evaluated performance of calves sired by high and low efficiency bulls. The RFI trait has a high heritability; possibly 45% or more of the variability is genetic, based upon the data available so far, Felton said in a recent presentation to the West Virginia Cattlemen’s Association. That means rapid progress can be made in selecting for greater efficiency in the cow herd.
In addition, Felton and his colleagues have shown cattle that are efficient in the test system on harvested feeds are more efficient on pasture. For West Virginia producers, efficient use of pasture is the key to increasing profit from their cow herds, as grass is what they are marketing through their cattle. As Felton put it in his talk to the producers, “How would you like to keep 11 cows for every 10 you are keeping now, on the same land?”
The success of the project has led to installation of systems in Illinois, Texas, Montana and other states. WVU’s Small Ruminant Project, led by Grant County Extension Agent Brad Smith, has adapted the system for use with ram lambs and buck goats. Consignments to these tests have come from as far away as Michigan and Missouri and interest in them is growing.
“We in West Virginia are truly leaders in the use of RFI,” said Smith. “Workers at Montana State contacted us for advice on adapting their system to measure feed efficiency in range ewes. By taking advantage of what we had learned, they had it functional in a week.”
Dr. Felton is in great demand to present results from these studies. He has spoken at numerous field days and cattle meetings. This past month, he was a featured speaker at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Phoenix, AZ.
“They have earlier adopted our recommendation for shortening the test period for beef bulls, and the West Virginia work with RFI will be the key basis for that adoption.”