Across the pond in the United Kingdom (UK), there’s a quiet revolution going on that means cow-calf producers –  along with their dairy and lamb brethren – are feeding less while making more profits. Live-weight gains are 20% higher than the “old” way, so it’s no wonder the revolution in getting a lot of attention.

And now, even Wal-Mart is on board. Wal-Mart’s UK counterpart, Asda supermarkets, has a tight relationship with its meat supply chain and is encouraging its 13,500 farmer-suppliers to get on board, something that could mean an extra $15.4 million/year in the pockets of these producers.

It’s the culmination of three decades of work to develop what is known as high-sugar grass (HSG). Cows and lambs like to eat it so much that dry-matter intakes increase by around 25% in cattle, which leads to significantly higher daily live-weight gains.

Efficient rumen function

These grasses, developed by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, began as part of research into rumen function. Along the way, they discovered rumen function improves with water-soluble sugars. Grazing trials and a companion zero-grazing study run by IBERS showed that, when extra energy is provided to beef cattle by feeding Aber HSG varieties with the extra available water-soluble sugars, grass protein is used more efficiently and animal performance is enhanced.

In a separate zero-grazing trial, animals fed an Aber HSG variety recorded high levels of growth performance, with an average live-weight gain of 2.87 lbs./head/day. The bonus was the result of higher forage intakes and greater efficiency of grass utilization, researchers concluded.

Making beef production more efficient is important to producers, but the key for Asda was an anticipated reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thanks to animals eating the HSG. The theory is that when ruminants eat correctly, their bodies use the nutrients instead of producing gases. Studies on lambs showed that the improved rumen function led to reduced GHG emissions (ammonia and nitrous oxide) of up to 20%.

“Does it connect to beef?” asks Nigel Scollan, an IBERS professor and one of the lead researchers on HSG. “Studies [on GHG emissions] have yet to be conducted in other species, but I would expect them to link across because of the production responses in the earlier studies. They’re eating better, there’s higher intake, and it improves rumen function.”

Research will begin this summer on HSG in dairy cows with the results expected next fall. Scollan says the studies will be very important in terms of the move from small ruminants to large ruminants.