Farm Ireland

Thursday 27 July 2017

New beef index due to breed safer cows

Teagasc breeding specialist Noirin McHugh.
Teagasc breeding specialist Noirin McHugh.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Geneticists believe that they can increase beef farming profits by over €50m over the next 15 years by breeding less dangerous cattle.

Cows have overtaken the bull as the most lethal animal on the farm, and Teagasc breeding experts are convinced that animals have become more dangerous partly because farmers were "unwittingly" breeding them that way.

"The most likely explanation for the increase in the number of stock-related fatalities and injuries is a combination of genetics because farmers didn't know what we were selecting in terms of docility, and less handling of animals," said Teagasc breeding specialist Noirin McHugh (pictured).

She was speaking at a safety seminar at Moorepark, Co Cork last week.

Ms McHugh pointed to genetic studies showing that heritability of docility is many multiples higher than that of other successfully managed traits such as fertility.

She added that cow aggression at calving is also controlled by genes rather than being some type of "physiological condition".

"Some farmers might be worried that they will compromise the mothering ability of their cows if they select more aggressively for docility. Some studies have actually shown the opposite, where more docile cows are better mothers because they spend more time tending to their calves rather than being worried about interference," she said.

Researchers are looking at increasing the emphasis on docility in a revamp of the Eurostar indexes this autumn because of the increased volume of high-quality data that they are able to access from the Beef Data Genomics Programme (BDGP).

"This is a good example of some of the positive spin-offs that we get from the BDGP. We know that the data is good because it's showing up to have a heritability that is very high.

"In addition, the indexes in the autumn will be the first ones that will incorporate genomic data, which will increase the reliability of traits by up to 30pc.

"With about 30pc of the differences in docility between animals attributable to genetics, and because it's as heritable as traits like liveweight gain, we could improve docility by about 20pc in a decade, which would be worth over €18 per weanling, and €35 per cow per year," she said.

The values are based on a model developed by Teagasc which quantifies the costs associated with injuries, fatalities, along with the extra expenses incurred when handling aggressive stock.

Currently, 6pc of the maternal Eurostar index is accounted for by a docility score. This is likely to increase in the autumn when the indexes are reviewed.

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