There is ever-increasing financial pressure in the UK beef sector due to volatile feed prices, consumer requirements for cheaper produce and competitive beef imports from abroad. Optimising animal productivity is critical to maintaining a competitive and sustainable UK beef industry with production efficiency the greatest single opportunity to reduce primary production costs. At present, there is considerable inefficiency in the UK beef sector which increases variable farm costs, reduces the yearly capacity of beef finishing units, and reduces profitability due to sub-optimal marketing of animals. These inefficiencies are estimated to reduce overall profitability of the UK beef production industry by approximately £500M per year (Morrisons estimate based on their experience from their integrated beef supply chain). The reduced revenue associated with these inefficiencies arise for three main reasons: (1) retaining cattle on-farm beyond the optimum point of marketability leading to extra feed, bedding and fixed costs; (2) reductions in sale revenue due to these over-finished cattle being out of desired specification (i.e. too fat) and (3) loss of productivity and efficiency due to poor animal health.
From a biological perspective it has been shown that there is a large between-animal variation in feed efficiency; early results from the TSB-funded Net Feed Efficiency project (BIG/NFE), have suggested a variance of up to 30 percent in feed efficiency of groups of growing and finishing cattle of the same age/breed/sex. The differences between groups of more divergent genotypes might reasonably be expected to be greater still. Profitability and efficiency are also inhibited by illness, with efficiency often dropping well in advance of any clinical signs of illness.
In practice, it is difficult for farmers to measure the performance efficiency of individual animals. Currently, animal growth and performance is determined through visual assessment or by weighing the animals. However, growth rates alone are not a measure of efficiency; in order to calculate efficiency of individual animals an accurate measurement of feed input is also required.
The project addresses some of the key challenges facing the sustainable intensification of beef. The overall aim is to develop a state-of-the art solution for beef farmers to optimise the efficiency of their businesses. At the core of the project is the development of a near infra-red (NIR) system to characterise feed (dry matter content, nutritional composition) as it exits a feeder wagon. Also pivotal to the project is the development of animal-mounted sensors to measure feeding behaviour (eating and rumination patterns). The bulk feed characteristics will be integrated with the feeding behaviour data with a target of providing a robust, accurate and innovative method of determining individual animal feed intake. The final solution will be a cloud-based decision support platform integrating individual animal feed intake and behaviour data, with measures of animal performance e.g. growth rates. This will provide the support tools necessary to quantify performance and efficiency of individual animals and improve the sustainability of the production process. It is anticipated that by closely monitoring individual animals using the system proposed in this project, the finishing period of the animal will be reduced on average by 14 days, while animals performing poorly due to illness will be flagged up to the farmer allowing for earlier intervention.