Between 1977 and 2007, the U.S. beef industry produced 12% more beef from 30% fewer cattle, used 19% less feed and left a 16% reduction in the estimated carbon footprint1. While it is staggering in terms of increased efficiency, worldwide, ruminant feed efficiency must improve to meet demands of a growing global population, says a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Ruminants are a marvel at efficiency in producing a nutrient-dense food from forages grown on land that is unsuitable for crop production for human food use. Yet in many parts of the world, ruminants are not being efficiently matched genetically with the available forages, and with feed accounting for 60% of beef production, improving efficiency is paramount to increased production with fewer resources. Average achieved efficiency of converting feed (feed conversion efficiency; FCE) into milk or meat is considerably lower than what is possible with the genetic potential of many animals, says the FAO.

In November the FAO convened a meeting on Optimizing Feed Use Efficiency in Ruminant Animal Production Systems in Thailand to discuss better ways to improve ruminant efficiency. “A significant realignment of animal genotype is needed to better match necessary changes in feed resource use whilst recognizing the need for more realistic and sustainable measures of feed conversion efficiency achieved with increased forage/fiber use,” says an FAO report.

Among many things, the report noted that:

  • It is important to match the maternal genotype to the prevailing nutritional and thermal environment
  • The importance of growth composition as a key determinant of overall efficiency, together with strategic use of compensatory growth, is an important component in improved profitability.
  • The beef industry needs to be more mindful of important environmental, welfare and food safety/traceability issues if it is to achieve increased productivity and industry resilience.
  • A reappraisal of feeding practices, based on the importance of the rumen and the provision of physical fiber in the ration for optimal digestion of feed in the rumen and improved feed efficiency is required.
  • The importance of FCE to produce more food with lower emissions per unit feed used needs to be recognized, with strategies incorporating new forage types, the importance of physical as well as chemical nutrition (to optimize rumen function) and improved cow management.
  • Future applied nutrition research should focus on novel approaches to the development and utilization of forages and byproducts/co-products that do not compete directly with food for humans.

The FAO concludes that full engagement of all sectors of society will be needed if the world is to meet its challenging food and environmental demands, alleviate hunger, and avoid compromised human security, massive population displacement and weakened global trading economies.

Peer-reviewed papers on the topics of global ruminant feed efficiency and production will be available from the FAO in 2013.

Read the FAO report here.

1Alan Bell, Cornell University, FAO Symposium