Which animal product is least efficient at converting feed consumed into the final product?

a. Beef. b. Pork. C. Chicken. The correct answer is a. Beef.

People depend on livestock for food in the form of meat and such products as milk and eggs. Farmers are concerned about feed efficiency which is the amount of body weight gained per unit of food that the animal is fed.

Photo of ground beef
Photo of ground beef (USDA [public domain])

A lower feed efficiency would mean less profit for a farmer, and therefore much research has been done on finding ways to improve feed conversion efficiency.

It is difficult to measure feed efficiency since it depends on many factors including the age of an animal and their genetic makeup. It also depends on what measure is taken of the animal, for instance, if it is the total body weight or weight of the carcass.

In addition, the measurement will vary in the case of eggs and milk in which the animal is not sacrificed, and rather some measure of the amount of milk or the size and the number of eggs is used and compared with the amount of food given out to the animal.

Selective breeding for greater feed efficiency has not always been easy since it has at times led to problems such as animals with skeletal issues or too much fat. Nonetheless, genetic research and investigations into different dietary supplements have been useful in leading the way to improving the overall feed efficiency of livestock animals.

Beef is the least efficient product when compared with chicken or pork, possible because cows are ruminants. The ruminant digestive system is very different from chickens and pigs, and cows also eat grass which is difficult to digest.

Feed efficiency

The human population relies heavily on food products that are derived from livestock animals such as cows, pigs, and poultry.

About 34% of the protein in the diet of people worldwide is believed to be due to livestock. These livestock animals have different levels of efficiency in terms of food conversion ratios.

Feed efficiency is usually measured as the gain in body weight of an animal per unit of food that is eaten by the animal.

The efficiency is also closely tied to how profitable a farm is since farmers are spending money feeding and housing livestock, so it is only natural that they want as high a feed efficiency as they can possibly get.

For example, the food used in the case of pork production can cost as much as 60 to 70% of the total cost of production, and thus farmers want a good return on such an investment.

Feed efficiency measures

To obtain an accurate measurement of feed efficiency is difficult since many factors have to be taken into account when estimating what the feed conversion value is.

Several factors affect feed efficiency including the age of animals and the natural genetic variation that is present. The type of food that is fed also clearly impacts efficiency since some foods may be easier to digest or may have superior nutritional content than other types of food.

The food that an animal eats is also needed for metabolism and maintenance of the animal and thus it is not all converted into the growth of tissues, and what tissues are formed is also important.

In fact, some experts suggest that the feed efficiency should be determined by carcass weight since this is what farmers are paid for, at least in the case of meat production. The situation is different when products such as eggs or milk are concerned.

Feed efficiency is lowest when it comes to producing beef compared with pork and poultry. This is no doubt related to the nature of the food that ruminants eat and their digestive processes.

Selective breeding

Scientists have selected for breeds that have the best feeding efficiency. Today farmers in the poultry industry are able to grow chickens much faster than in the past, mainly due to selection processes.

Selection of chickens was initially achieved by picking the largest males but it has not been without complications and in some cases has resulted in birds that contained too much fat or had abnormalities and problems with their skeletal development.

Knowledge of genetics and further research can lead to the continued selection of strains of livestock animals that not only grow fast but will have maximal feed conversion efficiency.

Pigs, chickens and feed efficiency

Researchers have found that the feed efficiency of pigs actually worsens as they grow larger and more lipids are deposited in bigger pigs.  The situation is quite complex and is concerning to livestock farmers who are seeking a maximum return on their investment.

Genetics and diet both play a big role in influencing egg production by chickens and the use of chickens as meat. Farmers are concerned about the number and mass of eggs that each chicken lays over the period of a year.

Scientists have found that certain dietary modifications and supplements can add to feed conversion efficiency and can even result in the addition of nutrients such as conjugated linoleic acid that are healthy for people when incorporated into the tissues of the chicken.

Feeding efficiency conversion has been shown to be lowest in the beef industry compared with the poultry and pork industry. Cows are ruminant animals which have thus a different digestive system to chickens and pigs, which may thus impact how efficient beef production is.

Ruminant digestion

Ruminant animals often feed on food that is very difficult to digest, and therefore these animals have evolved a specialized type of digestive system which includes the presence of a four-chambered stomach.

The grass that cattle eat is a poor source of nutrition and ruminants chew the food twice to obtain the maximum benefit. The first part of the stomach is known as the rumen which acts to soften the food first.

The food mass then passes to the other parts of the stomach, the omasum, reticulum, and abomasum. It is in these last three chambers that microbes act to break down the plant matter.

Researchers have studied the influence of different diets on the growth rates and efficiency of microbial digestion in cattle.

They have found that, for instance, peas are more easily digested than corn, and suggested that peas would be a better addition to the diet of such livestock animals. This could increased feed efficiency in the beef industry which would be helpful to farmers.


  1. A Tikkanen (2019). Ruminant. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. JJ Reed, GP Lardy, ML Bauer, TC Gilbery, JS Caton (2004). Effect of field pea level on intake, digestion, microbial efficiency, ruminal fermentation, and in situ disappearance in beef steers fed growing diets. Journal of Animal Science.
  3. DA Emmerson (1997). Commercial approaches to genetic selection for growth and feed conversion in domestic poultry. Poultry Science.
  4. JF Patience, MC Rossoni-Serão, NA Gutiérrez (2015).  A review of feed efficiency in swine: biology and application Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology.
  5. RM Koch, LA Swiger, D Chambers, KE Gregory (1963). Efficiency of feed use in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science.


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