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Automatic cattle sorting

Many agricultural producers are extremely peeved about $5 to $6/bu. corn prices. They're livestock producers. And cattle feeders are among those trying every angle to improve their feeding efficiency.

A unique cattle feed intake system that helps identify efficient sires in the feedlot should help beef up those efforts. GrowSafe Beef from GrowSafe Systems, Alberta, Canada, is designed to help feeders and producers market cattle based on their determined optimal market end point and provide information to improve herd genetics.

GrowSafe Technology installed on the ranch, the feed yard or dairy enables continuous individual animal monitoring. Other systems designed to provide individual animal management include Accu-Trac electronic cattle management (ECM) from Micro Beef Technologies, Amarillo, TX, and the Calan Broadbent Feeding System from American Calan, Northwood, NH. All aim to help cattle get the most from their ration and help producers enhance their genetics.

Alison Sunstrum, GrowSafe vice president, says that, in three separate commercial feed-yard studies involving several thousand head, cattle managed on data provided from the GrowSafe Beef system showed $12.48 to $19.34/head more income than cattle fed under normal conditions. She says returns could be better, because those results were gained when corn was $2.60/bu.

At a cost of about $5.00/head, the system is set up at pen watering areas. As animals come to drink, their front legs activate the system. The system scans the animal's partial body weight, which is converted to the full body weight.

“In a typical day, at least four to six weight points are measured by the GrowSafe Beef system when an animal gets a drink,” Sunstrum says. “As soon as the animal comes into the feed yard, the system begins monitoring it to determine when the point of cost of gain begins to exceed the value of gain. This provides the feed yard with a unique growth curve and prediction into the future. It also monitors an animal's frequency to and duration at the trough for water. We can get a better idea if it is becoming sick.”

University of Missouri professor Monty Kerley is providing validation of the GrowSafe system. The system also is being tested at five commercial feed yards in the United States and three in Canada.

“With this system, we can calculate average daily gain (ADG) after 15 days on feed, then project that growth accurately 45 days into the future,” Kerley says. “We've never had a chance to say ‘When is that calf ready to go to market?’”

How it works
The system features fully automated real-time technology that continuously monitors and measures individual animal performance in the pen. One unit is equipped with six watering positions. It measures one pen, typically containing about 40 to 300 animals.

As cattle arrive at the feed yard, they receive an electronic ear tag. When the animal steps to the water, system hardware automatically reads the ear tag. The system converts partial body weight to full body weight. Data acquisition is continuous and is sent by a wireless system to a data acquisition computer, with up to a 30-mile line-of-sight range.

“Software automatically analyzes data to determine poor performers, animals requiring treatment and animals ready to be marketed,” Sunstrum says.

When an animal becomes sick, it is automatically marked with spray paint at the waterer station. “Pen riders can easily remove the marked animals,” she says.

Residual feed intake
Beef producers have historically measured feed efficiency as a feed-to-gain ratio. Sunstrum says the feed-to-gain ratio is a good pen measurement. “But if you want to know how efficient an individual animal is, it will likely give you a confusing result, as this ratio is tied both to intake and rate of gain,” she says. “For a genetic selection program, feed-to-gain [ratio] is just not accurate enough.”

Residual feed intake (RFI) was proposed in the early 1960s as an alternate measure of feed efficiency. In contrast to feed-to-gain ratios, RFI is independent of growth and maturity patterns.

“RFI is defined as the difference between actual feed intake and the expected feed requirements for maintenance of body weight and for weight gain,” Sunstrum says.

In the system, efficient animals eat less than expected and have a negative or low RFI. Inefficient animals eat more than expected and have a positive or high RFI. Selection for low RFI can reduce feed intake by up to 12%, or 3 to 5 lbs. of feed/day. This and other data can help producers know which bulls or cows produce the best-performing calves.

Optimum end point
Micro Beef was a pioneer in using electronic animal ID to manage performance. Accu-Trac started in 1994 and has continued to improve. “ECM allows us to ID individual animals and manage them to their optimum economic end point,” says Allen Jackson, ECM representative, adding that the system costs about $9.00/head.

“The system can manage an existing population to a higher value. But the real value is in using that animal's ID to get data back to the producer so he can make genetic and management changes and upgrade his production in the future.”

ECM combines multiple objective measurements on each individual. They include weight, ultrasound for internal tissue characteristics like back fat thickness, and video imaging for external dimensions, along with a science-based projection model, to sort finished cattle into a uniform marketing group. “This approach extends to the packing plant as well, with automated live and carcass identification transfer and matching,” Jackson says. “We have enjoyed a surprisingly good track record at matching the correct carcass and feed-yard performance data back to the animal's ranch ID.”

Accurate data
The Calan Broadbent Feeding System provides individual electronic recognition and feed security that is used worldwide, says Douglas Briggs, a spokesman for Calan. In the program, which is used for university research and smaller feeding programs and dairies, each animal wears an electronic sensor key around its neck. The key activates a feed door. The animal pushes open the door and feeds.

“The narrow feed barrier opening prevents other animals from stealing its ration,” Briggs says. “It's one door, one key, one animal and one ration. The system provides absolute animal security [accurate feed intake data].”

For more information about the Calan system, go to More information about GrowSafe Beef is available at Further information about the Accu-Trac system is available at Research data can be found at the sites.

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