Genomics will be key to staying profitable in suckler farming
We get behind the scenes at Teagasc's beef research and the Derrypatrick herd
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
While debate continues to rage over the merits of the Beef Data Genomics scheme, the research behind beef genomics continues quietly in Teagasc's research centre at Grange, Co Meath.
The centre accommodates several herds that feed data into the scheme, including Teagasc's flagship Derrypatrick Suckler Herd.
It was established in 2009 to give the beef sector a constant flow of information similar to that stemming from the likes of the dairy herd at Curtins in Moorepark.
In theory the challenge was straightforward - to build on the success of the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) in the dairy herd by creating a similar but different one for the beef herd. With the EBI returning an estimated €750m to dairy farmers since its launch in 2001, researchers turned their attentions to the profit-starved beef sector to work the same magic. However it has highlighted some issues in relation to cow type.
The first beef index, launched in the 2000s, was called the Suckler Breeding Value (SBV).
It was plagued with two problems. The first was easy to spot - it suffered from low reliability because there wasn't the same flow of data coming through the beef sector as was the norm in milk recording dairy herds.
As a result, the reliability of the data was, at times, dubious to say the least.
The second problem took a little longer to emerge. The index was too heavily weighted in favour of animals that had superior beefing characteristics, and not heavily enough on key management issues such as fertility and milkiness.
In a way the SBV worked in that the carcase conformation and kill-out weights of the national herd increased significantly with each passing year.
The problem was that fertility levels were regressing, to the extent that beef farmers began to lose millions every year in reduced output.
A new pair of indexes were developed, this time with one focusing on terminal traits, and another for maternal traits.
But the indexes didn't catch on. Some felt that farmers were confused about what they should be using, and breed societies were reluctant to include genetic ratings in their sales catalogues.
In the background, ongoing suspicions that the indexes were still not reliable were borne out, with many cases of five star bulls suddenly dropping to two star ratings within a couple of years.
The focus at Derrypatrick also continued to change, with the bull-beef crisis of 2013 triggering a move from concentrating on the performance of continental offspring to more early maturing breeds like Angus that were guaranteed to produce carcases that would meet every supermarket specification.
Adam Woods is the Teagasc man charged with ensuring that the management of the Derrypatrick herd is not only best-in-class, but also generating valuable data that will help the development of the sector.
Scanning of the cows has just been completed, and Mr Woods is happy with the initial results.
"It looks like we're still on target to get 80pc of the 95 cows bred within six weeks, so fertility is on track," he said.
He acknowledges that the focus of research at the herd could go several different directions over the coming years.
At the moment we are comparing early maturing vs late maturing terminal sires and we are midway through this project.
It's a little early to draw any conclusions as we have low numbers of animals slaughtered but at the moment both breeds are comparing quite well
"But that throws up the question as to whether the Derrypatrick herd should be focusing on maximising the profitability of the enterprise, or working on figuring out research issues that we still don't have information for.
"For example, one question is whether we should be looking at different stocking rates or including clover in the system to see what effect it has on profitability."
But one issue that he is clear on is the benefit that genomics can bring to beef farmers - if they accept it en masse.
"Farmers will often point out the small cow in the corner of a field that weans the heaviest calf each year.
"They know that the big fancy cow often does not always perform to her appearance.
"This is where genomics can play an important role in identifying profitable animals from a very early age so they can be brought into the herd as replacements," he says.
"Nobody is saying for a suckler farmer to start picking their replacements off paper.
"At the same time, they shouldn't ignore the advantages of the new Beef Data and Genomics programme as a tool to accurately identify the most profitable, maternal-type cows for the future.
"This programme is a world first in beef breeding and will capitalise on years of data already generated in the Suckler Cow Welfare scheme.
"Out of all the things that a suckler farmer could do to make themselves more profitable over the coming years, I really do think that genomics has huge potential."
Weekly updates on Derrypatrick can be accessed online at http://www.teagasc.ie/beef/derrypatrick-herd