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Benchmark brings feed efficiency home

Seedstock: Munton family aims to raise the bar on bringing up bulls

Benchmark Angus near Warner, Alta., has worked diligently to earn its reputation as “your carcass source.” Not content to rest on Benchmark’s laurels of consistently raising top-ranking marbling and muscling bulls in the Canadian Angus Association’s registry, the Munton family is aiming to up the bar by doing it more efficiently.

A year ago this fall, Benchmark became the first Angus ranch in Canada to set up a GrowSafe system to measure individual animal feed intake at the ranch as part of its bull and heifer development program. The first bulls to go through the feed-intake test to determine individual average daily gain (ADG), feed conversion ratio (FCR), residual feed intake (RFI) and genetic-enhanced expected progeny differences (EPDs) for RFI, sold at Benchmark’s 20th annual “Makin’ the Grade” bull sale at the ranch in April this year. The second set of bulls and replacement heifers with feed-efficiency credentials are from the fall-calving herd and will sell at their annual fall “Genetics Plus” sale online November 30.

Three pens, each with three individual GrowSafe feed units, can handle up to 100 animals during each 90-day test period. An antenna moulded into each GrowSafe unit captures each animal’s electronic identification number every second it is at the feed unit while the built-in load bars weigh feed disappearance every second. All information is instantaneously transmitted wirelessly to the farm’s dedicated computer with GrowSafe data-acquisition software that permanently stores and automatically analyzes the massive dataset for display in graph format. Total feed consumed by each animal during the test period along with its weights taken at two-week intervals from the start through the end of the test and end-of-test ultrasound measurements are used by GrowSafe Systems to compute its ADG, FCR and RFI. GrowSafe Systems, headquartered at Airdrie, Alta., contracts Livestock Genetics Services of Edmonton to run the RFI EPDs.

“We are always trying to make Benchmark better and this will help us build better beef at less cost, but also we are trying to make the beef cattle industry better,” Mike Munton says of the significant investment and commitment to measure and track feed efficiency at this level.

The Muntons are now set up to regularly test the feed efficiency of their breeding stock.

The Muntons are now set up to regularly test the feed efficiency of their breeding stock.
photo: Debbie Furber

Until now, they relied on other measurements that hint at feed efficiency — cow weights, weaning weights, yearling weights and body condition scoring at various times of the year as an indication of doability. With their own GrowSafe setup, the ranch will have the actual RFI data needed to evaluate progress made on feed efficiency through their breeding selections over time and be able to pass the advantage on to customers as RFI EPDs.

Munton says it will pay off in the long run for Benchmark and its customers because the research they’ve studied indicates that a 10 per cent improvement in feed efficiency leads to 43 per cent improved profit.

Genetic progress is possible because RFI is approximately 40 per cent heritable, however, they won’t be selecting for RFI alone or at the expense of other important traits and functionality. If they feel a line could use a bit of improvement, they will match the cows with a sire that can do it, just as they do for other traits, Munton explains.

The actual RFI for each animal indicates how many more or fewer pounds of dry matter per day the animal ate than the predicted requirement for an animal of its body weight and growth rate. An animal with an RFI on the plus side of zero ate more than the predicted requirement, whereas an animal with a negative RFI ate less than the predicted requirement to achieve the same growth rate.

Dr. Genho of Livestock Genetics Services contributed to Benchmark’s sale catalogue explaining that RFI is especially useful for predicting an animal’s genetic ability to put on more weight with less feed because the RFI equation adjusts for the animal’s weight and gain. Animals that eat more tend to be larger and gain more weight, so adjusting these factors out of an animal’s intake measurement gives a good understanding of which animals process feed more efficiently. Selection for desired growth traits can then be made apart from selection for intake with confidence that there is no double counting of an animal’s size.

EPDs predict the average performance of the animal’s offspring when mated with similar-type cows. Progeny of a bull with an RFI EPD of +0.50, for example, could be expected to consume 0.50 pound of dry matter per day more than the average calf its size. Likewise, progeny from a bull with an RFI EPD of -0.50 could be expected to consume 0.50 pound of dry matter per day less than the average calf its size. Comparatively, that’s a one-pound-per-day difference in intake for the same gain. Seemingly small differences add up to big dollars when multiplied by pens of calves over the entire feeding period or maintenance requirements over each cow’s lifetime in the herd.

Research has shown that feed intake can differ by as much as 8.0 pounds per day between two animals, he adds. Many trials have found that selecting for feed efficiency can decrease post-weaning feed costs by up to 10 per cent and reduce methane and manure from the cows and calves, aligning with industry’s National Beef Strategy to improve efficiency by 15 per cent within five years.

“For the feedlot, calves from efficient bulls finish quicker at less cost and for the ranch, heifers go on to be more efficient cows. Feedlots should be excited about buying calves from efficient cows and bulls, but they need to see the numbers and economics, not just hear stories. More efficient animals and superior taste drives the market and the beef economy,” Munton says.

Adding RFI testing is a natural progression for Benchmark.

The Muntons have always participated in the Canadian Angus Association’s record-of-performance program, collecting birth weights, weaning weights and yearling weights, and for 18 years have had certified ultrasound technicians measure marbling, rib-eye area, rib fat and predict lean-meat yield.

When genomic-enhanced EPDs became a reality, they added genotyping (DNA profiling) with the Zoetis 50K panel. The animal’s genetic information along with that on the Canadian registry for its parents and other relatives is merged with phenotypic records to increase the accuracy of the EPDs, adding the equivalent of records from 15 to 30 offspring (depending on the trait) even before a young bull or heifer produces a calf.

All of the EPDs available on each Benchmark animal are genomic enhanced and presented in the catalogue alongside each animal’s actual RFI, growth traits (birth, weaning and yearling weights) and carcass traits (marbling, rib-eye area, rib fat).

Benchmark Beef

There’s no better way to learn about carcass traits than seeing the end product for yourself.

Their branded beef program, Benchmark Beef, started out of necessity after BSE shut borders to Canadian beef and cattle. Munton remembers bulls and heifers that didn’t sell as breeding stock bringing 47 cents a pound live when they could find a packer with space to process them.

They were able to find local plants to process their animals and he went calling on Lethbridge restaurants to sell the merits of serving Benchmark Beef. Not only was his pitch a success, but he met his wife, Daicya, a Red Seal Chef, who says that chefs mainly look for utilization of the product.

Between their restaurant customers and friends buying freezer beef, the brand was born and also turned into a way to assist their seedstock customers to get more value for their calves. Benchmark was able to purchase or share proceeds from finished calves, or bought calves as feeders and finished them at the ranch. They continue this program today for their Benchmark Beef brand and will bid on calves for other buyers looking for Benchmark-sired calves.

Today, they have their own plant at Picture Butte to process the Benchmark Beef line and a commodity line. It’s a co-ordinated effort to make sure that they have product every single week of the year. Their cattle have the genetics to finish out at 12 to 13 months of age for the premium product line and they can stretch that out a bit with their feeding program. They also run a dedicated fall-calving herd that is a nice fit for the beef program as well as bull customers who prefer long yearlings.

“We have a phenomenal staff who are so good at their craft of meat cutting. They really do put everything they have into what they do and you can see the difference. That summarizes the rest of our operation as well,” he says, including their herdsman of 15 years, Dale Fehr, and his family who reside at the ranch, about 45 minutes southeast of Lethbridge, where the Muntons live.

The experience has proven to them that people will and do pay for a better product. “In beef, if you can deliver a superior product consistently you will have a customer for a lifetime. They are 100 per cent committed. There is nothing more rewarding, for customers because they have a connection with the ranch and for us because of finding value in our product,” Munton says.

Drive for efficiency

Munton’s grandpa, Stanley, ran a commercial herd with a few purebred Angus cattle and his dad, Doug, developed a keen interest in Angus genetics after buying his first bred purebred Angus heifer for $400 when he was 14 years old. Doug ran the purebred herd under the name of Alcan Angus until 1990 when they made the change to Benchmark Angus with the stated mission to raise profitable cattle. The herd has grown to 300 Black Angus and 120 Red Angus cows with bred heifer numbers differing from year to year. This fall’s sale marks the first time that a select group of bred heifers will be on offer.

Another milestone since Mike joined his dad full time has been the purchase of the permanent home for the herd at the Warner ranch in 2000 after years of operating on rented land. They have been able to build efficiencies into the facilities for housing and handling cattle as well as a new building four years ago to host sales at the ranch. This saves the time and expense of transporting the calves to Lethbridge for a sale and back to the ranch until delivery to the buyers. It’s less stressful for the calves to remain in familiar surroundings and prospective buyers appreciate the opportunity to see the dams, sires and siblings.

Most recently his thoughts have turned to ways to improve efficiencies in forage production from their limited tame-forage acres. Located on the Milk River Ridge, the 9,000-acre range is largely native grass with the built-in efficiency of holding its nutritive value from early summer through late in the year. Their practice of managing the grass for carry-over to see the herd through at least one dry year has served them well.

Moisture conditions were much more promising this year than in 2015 when they ended up purchasing standing crop for silage. The sorghum grown for the first time that year turned out to be a nice surprise, though. It’s a warm-season grass well suited to the growing region because it does best with lots of heat and makes efficient use of moisture. This year, he upped the sorghum acres to 400 and tried a triticale-oat mix for the first time. Looking to do more with the same resources, these alternatives replaced the barley they’d normally grow for silage. He grows some alfalfa for haylage and this year was also a first for a mixed stand of alfalfa, with the non-bloat legumes, sainfoin and cicer milk vetch.

The yard is set up nicely with pens and an adjoining barn for spring calving from February into March, but they definitely appreciate the advantages of fall calving on grass from August into September. The lower labour requirement and fewer health issues even had them toying with the idea of moving the entire herd to fall calving, however, running the two programs works best to meet the needs of their cattle and beef customers.

The spring-born calves are weaned at the end of September and go into the GrowSafe pens November 1 for the 90-day test. The fall-born calves are weaned in mid-March and start the GrowSafe test May 1.

GrowSafe Systems

GrowSafe Systems Inc. CEO Alison Sunstrum says the company offers full support and service to its customers from helping with design and financing to daily monitoring including early sickness identification, in-herd evaluation and contracting Livestock Genetics Services to provide genomic-enhanced EPDs. In the U.S., GrowSafe Systems works with breed associations to provide enhanced data.

This is a long-term investment for herds like Benchmark, Sunstrum adds. The typical cost to test for feed efficiency, growth and novel behavioural traits ranges from $19 to $35 per animal depending on how many years animals are tested and the number of tests each year. Most GrowSafe clients try to maximize the investment by testing at least their spring and fall bulls and many are now testing their replacement heifers as well.

For more information, visit www.benchmarkangus.com or call Munton at 403-394-4903.

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