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Selby ranchers install state-of-the-art feed efficiency system

Courtesy photoThorstenson Gelbvieh and Angus of Selby, SD has recently installed a GrowSafe Residual Feed Intake (RFI) system to help cattle producers identify cattle that gain more efficiently

With the current economic trend of ever-rising input costs combined with stagnant cattle prices, it is imperative for cattle producers to find ways to increase efficiency in their ranching operations.

In an effort to aid their customers in achieving this goal, Thorstenson Gelbvieh and Angus of Selby, SD has recently installed a GrowSafe Residual Feed Intake (RFI) system to help cattle producers identify cattle that gain more efficiently.

“After studying what the GrowSafe system offers and seeing those features implemented at the Midland Bull Test Station in Montana, we decided that it was something our operation was definitely interested in pursuing,” said Vaughn Thorstenson, one of the owners. “We feel over the next 10 years we should be able to increase feed efficiency enough in our operation to pay for the system.”



Last summer, the Thorstensons installed a 16-bunk system that allows 128 head of cattle to be feed efficiency tested at a time. The ranch’s GrowSafe system is one of approximately 30 in place across the United States including several currently utilized in university and feedlot situations.

“Basically what the system does,” he said, “is measure every bit of feed that the animals on test eat during a 90-day period.”



An electronic ear tag is inserted in every animal on test and an electronic antenna identifies the animal each time its head is in the individual feed bunk. The feed bunk’s scale system weighs every pound of feed the animal consumes. Cattle are on test for a 90-day period with weights recorded every 14 days. The cattle are also weighed two consecutive days before and after the test to ensure accurate starting and ending weights.

The system is monitored by GrowSafe in Canada through internet technology. “The technology is quite impressive,” Thorstenson added. “Their staff will contact me via computer and tell me which calves are eating less feed than normal and we can treat them long before we would have visually noticed they were sick.” The monitoring allows the owners to know immediately if one of the bunks isn’t working properly or if an animal loses an identification tag so problems can be fixed quickly to save the data.

The data generated by monitoring the feed consumption of an animal is then converted into results that identify whether the animal is above or below the average of the contemporary group in its feed efficiency – the amount of feed needed for the animal to gain one pound. Scientists are currently working on feed efficiency EPDs that should be available soon as another way to measure the feed efficiency data collected.

“Research in Alberta and Australia has shown that selection for low RFI cattle decreases cow maintenance requirements by 10 percent and feed intake by 11 percent,” Thorstenson said.

All this can be obtained with no effect on average daily gain or mature size, according to the studies.

“RFI is a trait that is 40 percent heritable so by using those numbers there is the potential to generate more profit in your cowherd than by any other measured trait,” he said. “By incorporating feed efficiency data into the herd bull selection process and then keeping daughters of that sire for his herd, a producer can make his cowherd more efficient and thus cut hay costs and pasture costs to leave more profit for the rancher. Montana State University is currently testing daughters of high RFI sires and they feel increased stocking rates of 20 percent are not beyond reach.

“We currently have our second set of cattle on test and that data will be available on every bull offered in our March 6 bull sale,” he added.

Results from the first data collected were very telling.

“On the first set of data we gathered, the feed conversion ratios generated varied from 4.9 to 10.5,” said Thorstenson. “In other words, the most efficient bull ate 4.9 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef and the least efficient ate 10.5 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef.”

Thorstenson cautions his customers to continue using the many other selection tools available when picking out a herd bull.

“While RFI data can be a great tool to build a more feed efficient cowherd, you still need to balance that with all the other data available,” he said. “Choosing for only one trait is never a good idea.”

In the last 20 years, feed conversion has improved by 300 percent in the chicken industry and by 150 percent in the pork industry. “As a competing protein source, beef producers can’t afford to ignore the highest input cost in finished beef – feed,” he said.

“If you feed your own steers, the research indicates that progeny sired by high RFI bulls will finish for $50 to $70/head less. That’s profit and loss on a set of steers in today’s cattle industry,” he added. “Take that times the 150 calves a bull sires in his lifetime, and there is real value to this information.”

Thorstenson encourages anyone with more questions about the GrowSafe System to call him at 605-649-6262 or stop by the ranch to tour the facility. Other partners of Thorstenson Gelbvieh and Angus include Ken Thorstenson 605-649-7304 and Brian Begeman, 605-649-9927.


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