As of January 2023, there were 191,000 cattle on more than 20,000 West Virginia farms, of which 98% are considered small farms. Although the profit margins are thin, West Virginia’s need for agriculture and the livelihood it provides is sizeable.
Conversely, the West is home to the biggest cattle farms in the nation. It’s also where the longest, driest droughts occur. Without rain, water must be transported for the cattle to drink and to grow the crops that make their feed.
Cutting costs on a small production farm or a large farm in the midst of a drought is difficult when cattle growth and size must be more than maintained but increased to provide more food and more profit. One West Virginia University researcher is now able to aid farm owners in breeding cattle that eat less, drink less and weigh more, benefiting both farmer and planet.
Matt Wilson, professor of animal sciences in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, started his lab, Alliance for Regenerative Livestock, with a focus on making farms more sustainable and profitable. His team’s research, published in the Journal of Animal Science, demonstrates their ability to assess the intake of individual cattle relative to their size.
“We foresee this as a steppingstone to completely changing the model of sustainability in animal agriculture,” Wilson added.
Wilson and his team aim to increase animal efficiency on small farms throughout West Virginia by givingproducers more information using the intake predictor he and his team developed.
Animal efficiency is measured by how many pounds or kilograms of food an animal needs to gain 1 pound or 1 kilogram, respectively. Using that scale, turkeys rate as a three, meaning they need 3 pounds of food for 1 pound of growth. Cattle rate as a 12.
Wilson’s ongoing research takes place at the Reymann Memorial Research, Education and Outreach Center in Wardensville alongside doctoral student Nathan Blake. During the annual Wardensville Bull Test, they measured dry matter intake, water intake and daily weight. To do so, the farm was outfitted with technology from Vytelle that recorded each cow’s eating, drinking and weight twice a second. The Reymann Memorial REOC was the first place in the world to record passive water intake; the third place was the Animal Science REOC.
During a recent 77-day bull test, one bull’s feed intake expectancy was 21.2 pounds of feed per day. At the end of the test, using the intake and weight technology, Wilson and his team found that the bull had eaten just 12.6 pounds per day. With the weight the bull gained, it measured at the same rate as turkey, needing only 3 pounds of feed to gain 1 pound. Wilson’s predictor — developed using the data collected from the test and machine learning technology — could have saved $100 worth of feed, which is what he hopes to do for farmers around the state.
The REOC has the only three mobile trailers made by Vytelle equipped with the technology used in the research. With the mobile equipment and the new intake predictor algorithm, Wilson and his team can travel and identify West Virginia farmers’ most efficient animals for breeding as well as help them more accurately predict their current herd’s intake needs.
“This isn’t just an academic thought experiment,” Blake said about the research. “There are actual stakes with this research such as providing real people with this tool they can use to improve their herd.”
Calculating how much a herd drinks and eats to reduce any leftover feed or water is difficult but can be made easier using the predictive algorithm. For example, Wilson found the difference in water intake between an animal that’s water-efficient and an inefficient animal of the same size is about 1,500 gallons annually.
“Around here we don’t worry too much about water because it rains regularly. However, if you’re out West and have to haul water to 200 inefficient cattle, that’s a lot of water and a lot of fuel,” Wilson explained.
More efficient animals cost producers less, but they also cost the planet less.
By using the predictor to choose more efficient animals, grasslands will better mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, a process that removes carbon from the atmosphere.“We need to know how much each animal will eat so we can select the ones that can grow to the same size but eat less on pasture,” Blake explained. “Breeding cattle this way will reduce the ecological footprint of the global beef herd.” Wilson, Blake and the Alliance for Regenerative Livestock Lab plan to develop a similar dry matter predictor for sheep and other small ruminants. Further research may include developing tools to predict methane emissions on pasture, as well as adding in-pen weighing to pastures to predict dry matter intake of cattle from weaning to harvest.
The research is a collaboration with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and was supported by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and its Natural Resources Conservation Service totaling $2,401,414.The Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design envisions a world sustainably fed, clothed and sheltered. To learn more about the Davis College, visit davis.wvu.edu. Keep up with the latest updates and news on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube by following @WVUDavis.
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Wilson and his research team monitored bulls for 77 days to find the most efficient animals.
Two bulls enrolled in the WVU Wardensville Bull Test at Reymann Memorial Research, Education and Outreach Center showed striking differences in feed efficiency. One bull ate 1,517 pounds more feed to gain the same amount of weight. The two lines of feed represent the two bulls’ total consumption during the 77-day test.