Assessing the reliability of plant-wax markers to delineate diet choice and feed efficiency in beef heifers
Estimating feed efficiency in grazing environments is challenging due to difficulties in quantifying food intakes and diet choices in free-grazing animals. The plant-wax marker technique may be a useful tool to redress this problem. However, its reliability needs to be validated before its wider application. This study was designed to assess the reliability of plant-wax markers for estimating botanical composition of test diets, and diet choices in beef cattle, and provided opportunities to evaluate efficiency in growing heifers. To test estimation of botanical composition, samples of red clover and fescue hay were mixed to form test diets containing 0-100% of either forage. To test estimation of diet choices, 24 heifers from large and moderate frame size lines were evaluated at two instances. Cubed red clover and fescue hays were offered ad libitum. After an acclimation period, feed intakes and body weights were collected for 10 days; fecal samples were collected for the final 5 days. Hydrocarbons and alcohols were quantified with gas chromatography. Estimates were based on least squares. Operator expertise affected measured concentrations of shorter-chained n-alkanes (P<0.041) and long-chain alcohols (P<0.02). Still, overall reliability of the technique was unaffected. Large and moderate framed animals did not differ in efficiency (P>0.05), although large framed animals had increased red clover intakes (P<0.01). Once corrected for fecal losses of n-alkanes, diet choices were estimated accurately. Plant-wax markers provided reliable estimates of botanical composition of diets, and diet choices of animals, suggesting it is a valuable tool to assess efficiencies of grazing cattle.