Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

'Background noise' is seriously distorting beef-breeding data

John Shirley

My recent item on the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and the use and ownership of cattle breeding data triggered responses.

Several people said that I underestimated the contribution that current chief executive Sean Coughlan made to steadying the ICBF ship. They made the point that prior to Coughlan's arrival, ICBF was floundering in terms of delivering meaningful figures and indices. The highly qualified Coughlan brought IT skills which identified and removed the glitches from the system.

I also questioned the volatility and inconsistencies in beef indices and the contribution that we can expect from the maternal indices on beef bulls.

Callers agreed with this observation and quoted reasons as to why this is happening. While the Irish system of collecting commercial records and data is unique and potentially the most comprehensive in the world, there is also a lot of what the geneticists call "background noise" in our data. Some of this noise is accidental but some, unfortunately, is not.

For example, late registration of calves will cause major distortion of growth rate records. Breed societies have tried to clamp down on this malpractice, but even when caught fiddling the system, offenders usually get off lightly.

Levels of meal feeding, especially to pedigree cattle, vary enormously. This must distort indexes. Another practice popular with some pedigree breeders is the introduction of the 'Holstein Friesian cow' to rear pedigree calves. As well as giving the calf an artificial boost, being relieved of the calf gives the pedigree beef cow a better chance of going back in calf. How does this affect the data for maternal assessment and indices.

How accurate are farmers at matching a calf to its dam and sire, especially when stock bulls are used? When we use the commercial records, from marts, meat plants, etc, there is huge scope for background noise in the data.

In this, the beef records are fundamentally different from the dairy records which largely come from targeted milk recording. Even the ICBF sheep records using targeted farms are likely to deliver more accuracy than the beef equivalents.

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Nevertheless, ICBF's work on maternal indices for beef cattle must be of interest for suckler farmers who want to breed their own replacements.

Personally, I reckon that operating a suckler herd is complex enough without adding the extra layer of having to breed your own herd replacements.

Then again, what is the ideal suckler cow? Or, put another way, what is the most profitable suckler cow?

Of late, this question has received debate. I suspect that in truth there is no one cow type that fits all Irish suckler herdowners but there are traits which we all like.

In an ideal world our suckler cows should:

* Deliver a high value weanling;

* Calve at 12 monthly intervals;

* Be docile to work with;

* Calve easily and have compact udder with small teats which her newborn calf can readily suckle;

* Have longevity;

* Be an efficient converter of forage and roughage and be able to live off her back for part of the year;

* Have a high cull value at the end of her working life.

The recent history of Irish suckler herds was first to move towards late maturing Continental sires. By 2010 this had reached the point where 85pc of cows were bred to Continental bulls. The remaining 15pc were bred to traditional breeds such as Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn.

Then the daughters of these Continental sires were retained as herd replacements almost by accident or default. The penetration of late maturing Continental cows was about 30pc in 1992, rising to 52pc in 1998 and 75pc in 2011. More recently, there has been some swing back towards the Hereford and Angus as suckler replacements.

The foundation for all our beef breeding is cattle bought and bred by pedigree breeders. To a huge extent these cattle were selected on showring traits that are the result of rich and expensive feed. This is not a good place for finding maternal traits.

The two French breeds, Limousin and Charolais now dominate Irish suckler herds.

All of the seed stock in these two breeds was imported from France, but in the majority of cases the foundation animals were selected for their showring terminal traits rather than their maternal prospects.

The biggest casualty from this exercise was milk in our Charolais and Limousin cattle.

This could have been avoided. The French have very credible pedigree beef recording programmes. In the Limousin breed there is a maternal progeny test centre at Moussours which delivers bulls tested and proven for maternal traits.

In addition, pedigree breeders in France are more tightly monitored by the recording authorities than is the case in Ireland. The upshot is that French data has high credibility. I believe that the ICBF's breeding programme should be more integrated with France. The same could be said for the Irish Limousin, Charolais, Blonde, Salers and Parthenais societies.

Also, Irish suckling differs to most of the world because of our devotion to cross breeding. Over the past decade the most popular cow in Irish suckler herds was the Limousin cross from a British Friesian. This animal best ticks the criteria listed above.

It was also the cow type that came out tops in a series of comparative trials at Teagasc Grange. Yet there has been no co-ordinated effort to organise a supply of such animals from the Irish dairy herd.

Neither has there been any Teagasc or ICBF assessment of which Limousin bulls or dairy cows should be used to deliver the best suckler cows. Is a well muscled Limousin the best? Should we select for short gestation? What about temperament? Milk shouldn't be an issue, it will come from the dairy dam.

Equally, in the last couple of years there is renewed interest in Angus and Hereford cross cattle, based on the factory premiums for their meat. It looks as if more Hereford and Angus bulls will be used in dairy herds thus providing more potential suckler herd replacements. Again, which bulls should be used to provide the best suckler cows?

Can Teagasc and ICBF give any guidance on this?

Them's my thoughts this week.

Irish Independent