Livestock Production Efficiency

Gordon King, Department of Animal & Poultry Science, University of Guelph

Primitive societies first domesticated animals as a convenient means of meeting immediate needs for food clothing and transport. Subsequently, for many thousands of years, livestock remained only one component of a regionally self sufficient and sustainable method to satisfy human demands. Even in the more developed countries, subsistence agriculture persisted until near the end of the nineteenth century. The pattern of family operated mixed farms, loosely organized into self contained rural communities and providing food for a number of small but growing urban centres, predominated until after the first world war throughout much of the world. Subsequently, mechanization and technological innovation produced substantial challenge, transition, change, consolidation and uncertainty. In many regions the surviving farms are now highly specialized, labour efficient, capital intensive and management demanding components of an integrated agri-food industry producing for both a regional and global market. Successful operation of any farm demands sound planning and astute decision making throughout all stages of the production sequence.

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Agriculture will likely remain the most important source of human food and, although the outputs of convertible products and draft power will still be substantial, food production should continue as the major agricultural activity. Within the last few decades the concerns that fossil fuels may become depleted and the escalating costs for many inputs has focused attention on efficiency and agricultural activities are constantly being re-examined. Efficiency, usually expressed as the ratio of inputs to outputs, this can be calculated in biological or economic terms and often per unit of time.

Input/output ratios for various farms

Energy inputs and outputs per unit of land under various agricultural production systems.
Points below the dotted line represent systems in which energy input is greater than output. Note that animal systems are all low in comparison with crop production or mixed farming.
Prepared from data calculated by Leach, 1975.

These ratios for energy inputs to outputs for many different farming systems around the world illustrate that livestock production systems are relatively inefficient in using support energy when compared with plant systems. They also show that subsistence farming practices and hunter-gathering lifestyles can be just as efficient as industrialised agriculture when evaluated on input/output ratios.

The Meaning of Efficiency.

The most common method for expressing efficiency is the ratio of selected inputs to outputs, as in the preceding example for energy. Although the procedure remains constant for almost all circumstances, various inputs may be chosen so that the ratio could be calculated and expressed in biological, physical or economic terms. Biological efficiency might include energy conversion, protein conversion or the number of offspring produced in a given time period. Physical methods relate productivity to units of land or actual weight of product. Inputs and outputs can also be converted into similar units of value for calculation of economic efficiency. Comparisons are usually made to determine which systems are most efficient in converting the main resources (inputs) with useful products (outputs).
Protein and Energy Output per Unit of Land
 Plant Products
  Dry grass**  1,100  180,000
  Cabbage  1,100  33,500
  Corn  430  83,700
  Wheat  350  58,600
  Rice  320  87,900
  Potatoes  420  100,460
 Animal Products
 Rabbits  180  7,400
  Chickens  92  4,600
  Lamb  43  4,800
  Beef  42  7,900
  Milk  115  10,460
 **Not readily digestible by humans  Data from Spedding & Hoxey, 1975
Land area is an important input measurement since its amount and suitability (profitability) for other uses dictates how much will be available for growing of animal feed. The feed conversion efficiency for energy and protein in feed, or even for total energy inputs, by various species is often expressed. However, this can be misleading, since poultry or dairy cattle cannot achieve high biological efficiency unless many other expensive inputs are provided. Although the biological and physical efficiency of livestock is substantially lower than many plant systems, affluent consumers will pay more for animal products so that, where suitable markets exist, production is profitable.

Improving Efficiency

{short description of image}Animal production is a value added system which processes various inputs through livestock with the expectation that outputs will be worth more than the total input costs. Both natural factors and human interventions force domesticated animals to live under conditions that may not always be ideal for production or even for health. Since livestock exist, grow and reproduce within a given set of physical and climatic factors, this animal-environmental relationship suggests several possible strategies for production enhancement. Many livestock improvement programmes commence with the introduction of "exotic" genotypes with the potential for greater productivity. These often fail because the necessary feed, disease prevention and environmental conditions required for expression of the "exotic's" genetic potential cannot be provided. Emphasis should be placed on improving feed resources, health care and the physical conditions in which animals must exist in conjunction with of even before adopting new genotypes.

The science of animal production has advanced to the state where knowledge exists on how to improve many of the components involved with performance. Unfortunately, for some of these procedures, the cost associated with providing the required inputs may exceed market value of the additional commodity produced. An additional challenge for producers, and for their professional advisors, is the initial and continuing evaluation of each new or existing technology to determine whether it should be cost effective when used on particular farms. Academics often propose "high tech" and therefore costly solutions for almost everything without appreciating the financial risks associated with farming. Fortunately, most farmers are usually much more conservative than their supporting R&D or extension officers.

Poor performance efficiency is often a symptom of some problem in the total production system. A holistic approach, considering all components and their interrelationships, is necessary to identify any underlying deficiencies and the weakest link in the sequence from conception to consumption. Once this comprehensive examination is completed any subsequent actions can focus on correcting the major problems rather than simply treating the symptoms.

Perhaps the most pressing challenges currently facing the global livestock industry are: