The sustainability of the beef industry continues to be a real issue in agriculture today.

Will the industry be able to survive high feed and land prices? A $5 million USDA-NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant has been awarded to a multi-disciplinary group of researchers from eight institutions to develop DNA-based technology to predict genetic merit for feed efficiency.

"Currently, we have no highly effective tools to improve feed efficiency, which can lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and demand for additional land to produce feed," said Jerry Taylor, Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics in the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and project director.

"Historically, the only way we have improved the efficiency of cattle growth was by selectively breeding cattle that grew fast. While this reduced the time it took to bring an animal to market, it did not tackle the fundamental issue of improving the efficiency of converting nutrients from feed into beef."

In this study, phenotypic data will be collected on 8,000 cattle representing eight breeds, including Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Charolais, Hereford, Limousin and Wagyu. Researchers will evaluate intake, performance and carcass traits.

In addition, they will collect DNA samples for gene mapping. After the data are compiled, the team's goal is to deliver tools and knowledge which enable genetic selection for feed efficiency.

However, one of the major challenges of feed efficiency research is the need to collect and measure individual feed intake, said Dan Shike, University of Illinois assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. Cattle are fed in pens, so it's difficult to determine individual intake, which is necessary to calculate efficiency.

"U of I will be instrumental on the front end of this project," Shike said. "In order to complete this study, we need information on thousands of animals to have a cross-section of phenotypes to work with. Our beef research center is state-of-the-art and with our GrowSafe technology, we can obtain individual feed intake data within a pen setting."

U of I has one of the largest beef research facilities in the country, and because of this, they will be able to collect data on more than 3,200 head of Simmental, Angus, Red Angus and Charolais cattle.

They also plan to evaluate intake differences between concentrate-based and forage-based diets to see how they relate to each other. This is important because the cow herd consumes primarily a forage diet as compared to high-concentrate diets in the feedlot, said Dan Faulkner, U of I professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. The goal is to identify cattle that are efficient on both types of diets.

Feed efficiency is a complex trait that takes many factors into consideration. This trait considers intake, gain, host specificity for microbial populations in the rumen, protein turnover, heat production and a whole list of things that will improve feed efficiency, Faulkner said. Hundreds of genes work together to regulate efficiency in cattle.

"Our goal is to develop DNA-based technology that breed associations can use to develop EPDs for feed efficiency," Faulkner said. "Once purebred producers incorporate these EPDs in selection decisions, we will see more bulls being utilized with increased feed efficiency. This will then trickle down to the commercial industry."

Shike believes this research is critical to the future of the beef industry.

"In order to ensure that we can produce the food demanded by the world more efficiently on the same amount of land, we have to find ways to more efficiently utilize our available feedstuffs," he added.

Improving feed efficiency will also reduce the amount of methane per pound of beef produced, he said. Reducing the amount of feed consumed per pound of beef produced directly reduces methane emission and manure production.

"Exploring ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and develop a more sustainable system that's ultimately a more profitable and efficient way to produce beef cattle is a win for everyone," Shike said.

Collaborating institutions in the "National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle" include the University of Missouri, the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Minnesota, Texas A&M University, Washington State University, and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.