COLUMBUS - On a raw, wintry day, Larry Gran braced himself for 12 hours of pulling hairs.
Gran, a Pfizer rep, was collecting samples from the tails of roughly 1,300 bulls and another 100 heifers at Midland Bull Test east of Columbus. The hairs, combined with blood samples, would be shipped off to a lab in New Orleans, where researchers would attempt to identify genes from the DNA that they could correlate to feeding efficiency.
Although the DNA research remains in its infancy, Midland Bull Test has already introduced a new technology that measures feeding efficiency - and it has the potential to transform the industry.
"If we can reduce feed costs by $60 to $100 a head, that's huge," said Leo McDonnell, one of the owners of Midland Bull Test. "In the state of Montana alone, you're looking at a trait that has the potential to mean $100 million to $150 million more in revenue."
And that's precisely the objective of the latest technological advance adopted at Midland. The GrowSafe system, perfected by a Canadian company, promotes the technology as a means of identifying individual animals that grow as quickly as possible but on less feed and with fewer medical treatments. Midland's capacity to run 2,800 head through the system annually makes it the largest privately owned facility in the world benefiting from the technology.
Introduced at Midland in the fall of 2007, the system has revealed what the eye cannot, which individual animals are the most efficient feeders. In barely more than a year's time, McDonnell and son, Steve Williams, believe the tool can yield double-digit savings for cattle producers.
"You're looking basically at reducing feed needs by 15 to 20 percent, but retaining the same production," McDonnell said.
The key to the system resides in a small round electronic device that's attached to the animal's ear. When the animal comes to one of the electronic feed bunks, it's instantly identified. As the animal feeds, the sensor measures the amount it consumes. The information - 7.5 megabytes per day - is transmitted via antenna to computers at Midland, and from there directly to Montana State University and Texas A&M, where the information is continually analyzed and verified.
But computer bytes and feeding habits mean nothing if not corroborated with weight gains.
"They have to have production with that reduced intake or they're absolutely no value - it's just low intake," McDonnell said.
The computerized system allows Midland to measure two traits: feed conversion and residual feed intake, or RFI. According to John Patterson, Extension Beef Specialist for Montana State University, the RFI is the difference between the actual feed intake and the expected feed intake. It's a true measure of the difference in metabolic efficiencies between animals, he said.
What they're looking for at Midland are animals with a negative RFI, which translates into an animal that needs less feed to make the same average daily gain.
Lindsay Williams, Steve's wife and a partner in the business, is well versed in the operations at Midland, where the path to improved performance (growth) is measured through inheritable traits.
"Leo is famous for saying, 'How can you select for a trait if you can't measure it?' " she said. "Well, we're measuring efficiency."
What makes that measurement so valuable is tied to the genetics of feeding efficiency. There's no visual expression of the characteristic, but it's a "clean" trait that has a relatively high rate (0.38) of heritability.
"If you select for efficiency, there are no other traits that are affected by it," she explained. "You won't have any negative impacts on other important traits. That's what makes it so neat."
Over the years, there have been other systems to measure intake and growth. But GrowSafe is the first to allow the producer to track individual animals feeding from common bunks. In that way, it's much more applicable for the feedlot and it allows the producer to feed a high roughage ration.
"Just so we know what animal is eating what feed - that's what we care about," Lindsay said.
Besides allowing the producer to measure the RFI of each animal, the new system yields added benefits - some of them indirect. McDonnell pointed out that producers, by selective breeding, could reduce impacts on the range by 15 to 20 percent.
"Anytime we can utilize our resources better, it's going to benefit the industry," he said. "And if you're looking at less intake, you're also looking at less manure."
Likewise, the system gives the producer a heads up on the health of each animal. When a bull or heifer cuts back on feed, it's readily apparent on the computer screen in the office two to three days prior to the animal showing any sign of sickness in the pen.
"So if its feed intake is low, you can go check the animal and make sure it's not sick," Lindsay said.
No doubt, McDonnell's father, Leo Sr., could not have foreseen such advances when he and a small group of breeders started Midland Bull Test in 1962. But in the decades since, the test center has continually aimed at perfecting performance through cutting-edge science and technology.
McDonnell sees great potential for the latest breakthrough. But he emphasizes that Midland sees it as only the latest tool to factor in with the traits they've already been measuring - traits like birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight and carcass quality.
He smiles, saying he regrets not adopting the system sooner. But he wanted to be convinced of its efficacy before making the sizable investment. Now, he's so sold on the GrowSafe system that he's already added 56 more automated bunks.
Apparently, he's not the only one sold on the technology. Last spring, only months after GrowSafe was launched at the test station, he had customers bidding for bulls based on their RFI.
"We had some people come in, basically that's what they were looking for," he said.
Yet, the tool is still relatively new in the industry. Some cattlemen are aware of the technology and others are not, Lindsay said.
"It's an educational process," she said.
Meanwhile, the McDonnells and Williams aren't letting the dust settle. And that's why Pfizer rep Gran was pulling hairs several weeks back. Using Midland's high tech system to corroborate their findings, researchers hope one day to discover a shortcut to perfecting performance.
"They're trying to map the gene so in time we won't have to go through all of these tests," McDonnell said, smiling.