Bull and heifer replacement strategy has just become a whole lot more interesting for fifth-generation rancher Tod Wallace, Oak Lake, Manitoba, Canada. No longer does he judge a candidate just by his or her good looks and lineage. Now he also can choose for feed efficiency.

“We jumped on board with this GrowSafe program. Professionally and personally, it’s a huge asset to me to find the more efficient animals on my farm,” says Wallace, who manages his family’s mixed purebred and commercial 500-cow ranch while also serving as provincial beef specialist.

Livestock can start at the same weight, eat the same diet side-by-side and end up with similar final weights – but some eat significantly less feed, says Wallace. “If a cow is efficient, she saves you money. That’s the meat and potatoes,” he adds.

The program, from GrowSafe Systems Ltd., based in Airdrie, Alberta, measures individual animal intake. Every animal is tagged with a radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag. When the animal comes to eat, a GrowSafe-equipped RFID feed trough measures how much feed the animal eats and sends the data to a computer.

The feed data is analyzed to calculate residual feed intake (RFI). RFI is a feed efficiency trait that quantifies variation in feed intake in animals.

This year, GrowSafe equipment will test an estimated 28,000 beef animals in North America, says Alison Sunstrum, GrowSafe co-CEO. The equipment has a lifespan of about 10 years. Assuming trials last 70 days, a facility can process three groups a year.

In Manitoba in 2010, Wallace calculated that an eight-stall GrowSafe system could test 64 head in each cycle, and that the installation would cost roughly $80,000. On a per-animal basis, he estimated it would cost the test station a dollar a day for each animal, or about $70 a head, to gain the RFI information.

“On today’s cost of production in Manitoba, the (feed) reduction works out to about $60 per head annually,” Wallace says. “If she’s in the feedlot 210 days and out grazing for 155 days, those efficient cows cost you $60 less.”

The RFI program now is being used across North America by about 60 research facilities in addition to commercial test stations between Alberta and Texas. The cost of feed also is driving on-farm adoption. The smallest operation with the technology is a 200-head North Carolina ranch.

RFI is a moderately heritable trait and is genetically independent of growth traits such as average daily gain and mature body weight, says Gordon Carstens, Texas A&M University beef nutritionist.

“It’s 30-40% heritable, which is in the range of heritability we typically see with weaning and yearling weight.” A bull with low RFI will have offspring that will feed more efficiently, Carstens adds.

Australian research found as much as a 15% difference in intake with no difference in average daily gain or body weight in progeny of parents selected for low or highly efficient RFI, he says.

“Within a contemporary group of calves, we routinely see a 15-18% difference in feed intake between calves ranked in the highest third compared to those ranked in the lowest third for RFI, despite a lack of difference in average daily gain or body weight.

“Moreover, there are no distinctive phenotypic differences like frame size, depth of body or temperament that are visually apparent between groups of calves that differ in RFI,” Carstens says.

That means producers can select their breeding stock for a trait that will reduce their input costs, Wallace and Carstens agree.

Some pretty heifers and sturdy young bulls may need to stand aside for less-attractive but lower-input stock, because the new beauty contests want performers.

For more information, visit www.growsafe.com.