Sunday 25 September 2016

Proven winners in the bovine genetic lottery

Adam Woods

Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30

A key aspect of a profitable suckler cow is the ability to wean a calf that weighs at least 350kg throughout her lifetime.
A key aspect of a profitable suckler cow is the ability to wean a calf that weighs at least 350kg throughout her lifetime.

Despite the ongoing debate about what constitutes the ideal suckler cow, a few key points are clear.

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Any of the common beef breeds out there can produce efficient suckler cows. But it is the maternal traits within these breeds that will determine just how profitable that cow will be.

Here's the top five suckler cow traits that you should be looking to maximise.

1 Fertility

Fertility is the most important aspect of an efficient suckler cow. Nationally, we have taken our eye off the ball on this one. Herds should have an average calving interval of 365 days.

The reality is that the average calving interval of an Irish suckler cow in 2014 was 412 days, which meant that farmers only produced 0.8 calves per cow last year.

This means that in a herd of 10 cows only 8 calves are being weaned. Yes, part of the problem includes calf mortality, but this is also a part of the fertility picture, because we need to be able to breed cows that calve easily.

These low performance figures carry through to many other aspects of the farming operation, and not just the obvious ones such as output and profitability.

Grassland management also becomes less efficient because prolonged calving seasons results in many grazing groups, staggered vaccination periods and generally more labour as a result.

2 Milk yield and weaning weight

The beef industry here has improved its carcase confirmation and weights over the last 10 years.

But this gain has been at the expense of maternal traits such as milk and fertility.

By producing a heavy calf at weaning, you avoid having to put weight on the animal at other more expensive phases of the production cycle, such as during the finishing period.

The weaning weight also pretty much determines what the sale weight is, which of course translates into the euro being generated by the cow.

There are two ways for you to increase the milkiness of your cows, and thus the weaning weight:

• Breed your own maternal replacements through the use of maternal bulls.

• Purchase maternal replacements from the beef herd or purchase maternal replacements from the dairy herd.

There are positives and negatives to each option.

Breeding your own involves the smallest initial spend.

However, if you are starting from a low fertility base, it may make more sense to start from scratch by buying in more maternal-type cows instead of losing years gradually improving your herd through better breeding policies.

The roll out of new mart data boards showing the new replacement index in livestock marts from 2016 on will help farmers identify these animals in livestock marts.

3 Go for R grade

E and U grade animals look great in the sales ring, and certainly pull in the top prices.

But are they generating more profit for their owners than their R grade counterparts?

Excessively muscled animals can cause a lot of trouble when it comes to calving time, whereas a good R grade cow with length and a wide pelvis ticks all the boxes.

Ideally, she should be a cow that has the ability to gain condition during the cheap grazing season and call on body reserves during the expensive winter period.

Believe it or not in the dairy herd, there are animals out there that will generate identical condition and milk yields, but consume up to 2.5kgDM less per day than the average.

There's only one way you are going to identify that animal though, and that's by trusting the data being generated through the indexes.

4 Feet and udders

A cow should also have good feet for longevity and a good udder for ease of suckling for the young calf.

5 Docility

There's no point in having super productive and fertile cows if nobody can handle them without taking their life in their hands.

Suckler cows must also be docile, especially with more and more suckler farmers becoming part-time, making ease of management crucial when trying to get all the work done in the evenings or at the weekends.

Indo Farming

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