The dictionary defines efficiency as “the ratio of the effective or useful output to the total input in any system.” The influence of efficiency in the beef industry transcends just production – it includes all aspects of production, marketing, environmental impact and economics.

Production efficiency in cow herds

Under the definition of efficiency, a cow herd becomes efficient when there is an optimum output in the form of weaned calves compared to the total amount of inputs that were required to get the calf to weaning. Of course, this covers a lot of territory. The following are some of the important issues of efficiency:

1. Reproduction. It is well-documented that reproductive efficiency – measured specifically as the ratio of the number of calves weaned and sold compared to the number of cows exposed to breeding to produce those calves – is the single most important factor in profitability of the cow-calf enterprise. Proper cow nutrition, cow and bull health, cow and bull fertility, sufficient bull numbers, calving management, early calf health, optimum lactation for the cows and good weaning management all are factors in this measure of efficiency. This result is documented in the Table 1 data from Iowa State University.

These data clearly show the price received for the calves will not be nearly as important as weaning and selling more pounds of calf for each cow in the herd. A lower feed cost for each cow is also an important factor in profit. This implies the supply of forages to the cow herd should be at the lowest cost possible, which usually means pasture.

2. Efficiency of pasture use. An Irish researcher, Dr. Sinclair Mayne, once described grazing nutrition in cattle as the sum of three factors:

  • The density of the forage in the sward
  • The energy value of the forage
  • The biting rate of the cattle

These three issues, while simplistic, characterize the extensive management needed on the farm. The amount of forage available is a function of pasture management, weather, fertility and forage variety. The nutritional value is derived from pasture management to keep the plant less mature and fibrous, available on a consistent daily basis, and palatable to the cattle. Finally, how much the cattle eat every day is determined by animal weight, nutritional needs, weather, humidity, animal health, the distance to water and other physical factors. The efficient use of pasture, according to our definition, implies the cattle are maximizing the use of the pasture resource for production while keeping total feed costs low. Extended grazing, proper forage combinations, and pasture and water source design will be important factors in this response.

3. Hay storage and feeding. Hay is a cost to a cattle enterprise. Financial purists would say the cost of hay fed to the cow, even when harvested on the farm, is the value of the hay in the marketplace. No hay is free. Consider the estimated costs for owning and operating hay equipment in Table 2. These data clearly show hay made on the farm is a significant cost to the beef enterprise, and owning equipment for smaller herds for harvesting hay will add a large cost per cow or calf sold. There are two options for mitigating this cost. First, buying all hay for the herd. This option makes economic sense for the smaller herd, because the fixed costs of equipment ownership are eliminated. For any herd, the quality of the hay – and subsequent greater animal performance or lower feed intake – can be more completely controlled. Secondly, storage and hay feeding equipment can reduce the amount of hay that is needed. This result lowers variable costs for hay harvest, makes more land available for cows, or makes land available to stockpile forage to reduce the hay requirement. Results in Table 3 describe the total savings in hay available through storage and feeding.

Methods to improve feed efficiency in feedlot cattle:

1.Properly balanced rations. Rations that are not properly balanced may have a higher cost without the desired or optimum response. Protein is a case in point where overfeeding protein will significantly increase the ration cost and may not increase the response in the cattle.

2. Proper and complete mixing of ration components. Sorting or inconsistent intake of ration components will reduce animal performance or cause greater feed waste.

3. Good bunk management to keep feed fresh. Galyean et al (1992) showed a 7 percent increase in feed efficiency by feeding at the same time each day compared to a 10 percent variation in feeding time. Bolsen and Pollard (2003) reported consistency of ration fiber length; age, sex, weight and health of cattle; temperature, humidity and rainfall; water quality; bunk design (smooth surface); and the time of day of feed is offered all contribute to feed efficiency through effective bunk management.

4.Reduction of feed waste. Proper storage of feed components, augering cleanly into bunks, freedom of feed transportation losses, and not overfilling bunks are “human efficiency” factors that contribute to feed efficiency on the farm.

5. Impact on the environment. Recent data have shown that efficiency of livestock production has significantly reduced the impact of livestock production on the environment. Consider the following historical data for beef production in the U.S.

The beef industry is consistently becoming more efficient. Data in Table 5 show there is a 4 percent increase in total beef production in the U.S., with 1 million fewer cattle. This reduction in animals translates into significant positive impacts on the environment through reduced manure production, reduced fossil fuel use to produce feed grains since the cattle need less grain to produce a pound of beef, reduced water use, and reduced methane and other greenhouse gasses produced in the environment. Mitigation of the environmental impact of livestock production will continue to improve with continued improvement in the efficiency of food production from cattle.

Efficiency in all aspects of beef production will be a powerful component of protein food production. All phases of beef production – processing, marketing and consumption – can be improved economically and environmentally through improved efficiency. Farmers have the ability to contribute to this result by using many tools of production and management to enhance efficiency in their operation.

Dr. John Comerford is associate professor of dairy and animal science at the Pennsylvania State University. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.