What if you could come up with a cow that produced equal gains on a reduced amount of feed or forage? How important would that be?

It would mean extra money in the pocketbooks of beef producers, according to Robert Seay, Benton County staff chair for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Seay said a few well-known breeders have invested years of effort and money in identifying breeding lines that deliver more efficiency. He said their efforts have received extra momentum from the push to convert corn into ethanol, which has resulted in higher feed and nitrogen fertilizer costs for beef producers.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon, Mo., are working on making the concept called residual feed intake (RFI) a reality. “More of their efforts and the efforts of other groups will be publicized as RFI work continues to advance,” he said.

Seay said a Web search for beef articles on topics such as cow size and efficiency, optimum cow, mature cow size and profitability show that producers and breed associations have long identified this general area as one of continued interest.

“All producers aim for efficiency with cows and forage,” Seay said, “but a number of negative economic factors continue to create more heat around the kitchen table. Feed, fertilizer, fuel, land values and carrying capacity are only a few items forcing a review of the whole farm package.”

RFI genetic ties basically provide an opportunity for beef researchers to identify phenotypically identical animals — animals able to produce equal gains on a reduced amount of feed or forage, the agent said.

“The numbers being tossed about on the front end suggests possibilities of a 20 percent efficiency difference,” Seay said.

That would mean that producers could maintain 20 percent more RFI improved cattle on the same acreage, an important factor considering the constraints of acreage, land and forage costs, according to Seay.

“Feed, pasture and hay could all be stretched a little farther,” he said.

Another obvious goal of researchers and breed associations is to ensure the resulting genetic package retains all the amenities of production associated with beef quality.

“Beef producers have long envied the feed efficiency achievements of the poultry and swine industry,” Seay said. Maybe soon, beef producers will be able to point to their own successes in this area, he said.