"We're already seeing the potential outcomes of this technology. This is a game changer."
director, agricultural division
On a late summer morning, Billy Cook, Ph.D., wheeled his pickup truck onto the Noble Research Institute's Oswalt Road Ranch. Cook, the director of the Agricultural Division, drove by the first pasture and nodded in the direction of a few dozen black cows eating from a single long metal trough.
"That's how we've fed cows since the 1940s - one trough, a bunch of cows," said Cook, watching the cows jockeying for position. "Historically, individual feeding allocations have been based on whole herd consumption. A farmer feeds 1,000 pounds to 100 cows, calculating that each cow will receive 10 pounds of feed. In reality, some eat more than 20 pounds while others may eat only 5. That's what makes this new technology so important."
Cook drove closer to the ranch's cattle handling facility while discussing the need for better technology in beef cattle research. While the cattle industry has improved various performance characteristics of beef cattle, like yield and quality grade, "feed efficiency" remains the Holy Grail - revolutionary if ever attained, but continually elusive. Infusing the industry with such efficiency would be the single most important advancement made because of the potential impact on the input costs and thus a farmer or rancher's bottom line.
Feed efficiency ranks among the top categories to study because feed can be 75 percent of the total cost of a beef cattle operation so any improvement in this area can mean significant savings. However, it usually goes unstudied because of the difficulty and expense associated with measuring it.
Farmers and ranchers look for animals that will produce more body mass on the same amount of feed. Research has shown there can be as much as an 8 pound difference in feed intake for animals that produce the same body weight. "That means that two steers gain similar weight, but one eats half a ton more and costs an additional $150 to feed," Cook explained. "It all comes back to genetics and how efficiently each animal's body turns the feed into weight."
To measure feed efficiency in the past, individual animals had their feed intake and weight gain calculated by hand. Measuring a cow's weight required a producer or researcher to round up their herd and run them through a chute, giving one data point per animal. For a producer and most researchers, this process was so time consuming and detrimental to cattle performance it was only done a handful of times a year.
Calculating intake is even more cumbersome. Animals are separated and fed by hand two or three times a day. Results from this method are unreliable because the data is skewed by the lack of animal socialization and restricted behavior which results in unnatural feed consumption.
Various methods have been developed to measure feed efficiency since the 1950s with different degrees of success until GrowSafe Systems Ltd., a technology-infused feeding system with the potential to revolutionize the cattle industry.
This spring the Noble Research Institute became one of the primary testing sites for GrowSafe. "In just a few months, we're already seeing the potential outcomes of this technology," Cook said. "This is a game changer."
The GrowSafe Way
GrowSafe incorporates advanced feeding systems that record precisely how much an animal eats and drinks. The GrowSafe feed intake system, which looks similar to a regular trough system, has individual feed bunks that allow only one animal to feed at a time. When an animal enters a bunk, GrowSafe recognizes that animal specifically through a special electronic ear tag, then relays information back to a central computer. This means the animal can feed at any bunk and the computer will compile its feeding behavior.
The second system, GrowSafe Beef records the animal's weight and water intake. Each cow stands on a front-end scale while drinking at a water trough. The scale can estimate actual body weight with up to 98 percent accuracy. The system runs continuously, collecting thousands of data points to study.
"Think of the data as a picture," Cook said. "Traditional feed efficiency research would be like looking at one of those children's View-Masters, where you clicked from a single image to the next. With GrowSafe, it's like watching high definition television."
GrowSafe, which requires little specialized labor, interacts with the cows like a traditional feeding system, so they maintain near normal feeding behavior not altered by human interaction.
"We can accurately determine individual feed efficiency on a large scale for the first time in history," said Ryan Reuter, assistant professor on Noble's agricultural research team. "And we can accomplish this without biasing results related to animal behavior or human interaction."
By identifying which animals are naturally feed efficient, researchers can then breed for this heritable trait. Initial studies have shown that, after just two generations of selecting for this trait, steers and heifers consumed 11 percent less feed, but had similar weights and performances to randomly mated groups.
While feed efficiency studies will certainly be a key outcome, GrowSafe also allows researchers to sneak a peek into animal behavior, which has been a hallmark of the technology since it was first developed.
From Ostriches to Cattle
GrowSafe was founded in 1990 by three engineers, one of who was Camiel Huisma, a mechanical engineer from Holland.
In the early 1990s, the ostrich industry was booming; an egg could be imported from South Africa for $150. When hatched and raised under quarantine, the ostrich chicks could be sold for as much as $6,000 each; however, survivability under quarantine was only 8 percent.
Huisma invented a piece of technology (the predecessor of GrowSafe) which weighed the bird and measured the frequency and duration of its intake. Using this system, Huisma discovered that chicks would visit the feeder about 500 times per day. When chicks became ill, feeding behavior changed and visitation dropped rapidly, declining to about 50 visits per day.
This visitation decline could be trended over short time intervals, usually within 4 to 12 hours. In response to the data triggers, avian specialists developed responsive treatment protocols. Survivability was improved from 8 percent to more than 92 percent using the technology and responsive animal health treatment protocols.
The ostrich industry bubble quickly burst, but the fledgling company earned enough capital to start development in the cattle industry. Alison Sunstrum joined GrowSafe in 1999 as part owner and sought to grow the company by expanding the cattle market.
Sunstrum reached out to the Beef Development Center of Texas (BDCT) where a number of producers tested cattle. The farmers and ranchers referred Sunstrum to Cook, the former manager at the BDCT.
"We needed help making the connection to real producers. We're the data side, the technology side. We don't have biological overlay or the cattle background," Sunstrum said. "We produce a lot of data and some of it is noise. We needed people who can interpret the data and focus the research with a practical application. The Noble Research Institute was just a logical fit. They bring all the pieces together - a highly knowledgeable operations group, research geared toward the farmer and land resources."
The application of GrowSafe to beef cattle has already yielded promising findings. Like the ostriches, cattle exhibit similar disinterest in feeding during illness or reactions to medication. "Behavior is a better indicator than you can imagine. They start acting differently before you can see that anything is wrong," Reuter said. "We're now able to manage individual cattle. In the past, we managed groups of cattle."
A potential next step for GrowSafe will be to combine identifying a sick cow with marking it. When an ill animal comes to a feed or water bunk, a special spray paint will mark its back so a producer can easily pull it from the herd and treat it.
"We're just scratching the surface of what this technology will allow us to do," Cook said. "We're certainly going to try and use it in every possible way."
Using GrowSafe, Noble Research Institute agricultural researchers are seeking answers to a variety of long held ques-tions that come directly from farmers and ranchers.
Researchers can test types of feed to determine the most efficient gain. They have already tested how different management practices impact feed yard performance and carcass merit of retained calves. Previously, researchers could only make assumptions about the individual animal outcomes of management styles. Now they know that a variety of management styles are successful in producing similar results.
"GrowSafe removes the guesswork and provides producers with data-driven answers," Reuter said. "It will improve the way we manage the animals, which is better for the people and better for the cows. It's a win-win."
Initial projects have also included transportation stress on weaned calves.
Noble researchers collaborated with Drs. Ron Randle and Tom Welch, as well as Andrea Lloyd (former Noble intern, 2005) from Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton on the project.
They divided a set of calves into two groups, shipping one directly to the Noble Research Institute, while the other group experienced a longer trip that included unloading and loading.
After the trip, they monitored feed and water intake for 28 days using GrowSafe. The researchers discovered that the second group did experience some initial weight loss, but after the month there was no difference in performance, health or well-being of the cows.
"This means a producer can ship cattle a little farther to get a fair market without any long-term impact on the well-being of the cow," Reuter said.
GrowSafe also allows the research to be done more affordably. "Beef cattle research is increasingly expensive," Cook said. "Now we can improve the functionality, quality and cost of research with one piece of technology."
The next step is to apply GrowSafe technology to forage-based beef cattle systems, taking the technology out of the feeding pen and putting it in the field. This fall, GrowSafe Beef systems will be installed on small grains pasture where weight gain from grass, not feed, will be measured. Researchers will now be able to get multiple readings on weight gain as well as the advantages of monitoring cattle behavior through water intake.
Soon, Sunstrum hopes the technology will become cost-feasible for many operations, allowing them the benefit of increased individualized management to increase efficiency, animal health and profitability.
Until then, the benefits to the Noble Research Institute's research are immeasurable.
"The GrowSafe technology means the Noble Research Institute will shape research regarding beef cattle," Cook said. "The results generated from these research projects will have a significant impact across the cattle industry. This is the next generation of cattle research that should allow us to address beef production and forage management issues that previously were impossible or impractical to tackle."