Beef sector must embrace the power of genetic data

Dairy cows
Dairy cows
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

In Donagh Berry's office in the new Teagasc innovation centre in Moorepark, there's a series of computors arranged across the desks. Initially I think they are for students to beaver away on under the watchful eye of the lead researcher.

But Donagh explains that the PCs' only job is to crunch billions of pieces of data all day long.

Delving into the mechanics of what any breeding index is trying achieve also reveals a scary level complexity and apparent contradiction.

If you only use easy-calving bulls that throw small calves, do those calves grow into small cows with narrow pelvises that find it difficult to calve?

But the geneticists are confident in their ability to identify the outliers, such as the bulls that throw smaller calves that have wider than average pelvises.

In the process, you slow down the rate of gain in any one particular trait. The rate of increase in milk production in dairy cows has halved in the last decade as more emphasis goes on fertility through the EBI.

However, both of those crucial traits are now going in the right direction, and New Zealand research estimates that the EBI has benefitted Irish dairy farmers to the tune of €750m since 2001.

This turn-around in breeding direction was not plain sailing. Initially there was ferocious criticism from much of the breeding establishment that the lower heritability of fertility would render efforts to improve it pointless. Pedigree breeders that had spent a lifetime trying to maximise milk production claimed that Ireland was just going to end up with a herd of small, round cows that had no milk.

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In many ways they were right - our highest genetic merit dairy cows tend to be smaller, jack-of-all-trade types, but every single study has shown that these are the ones that are most profitable.

And genomics and the power of the masses of data that course through the likes of Donagh Berry's computers have allowed the scientists to overcome the lower heritability of traits such as fertility.

The green revolution changed the face of grain production in India in the 1960s. The gene revolution is doing the same in Ireland right now.

So it's time that beef farmers got on the bandwagon and embraced their own indexes.

Getting fancy prices for weanlings will not translate into good profitability if the herds producing them are struggling with fertility.

However, the whole industry needs to work together. For example, if marts don't display the genetic information on breeding stock in the sales ring, a cow with a great beef maternal index won't make as much as the big beefy cow.

The science works, and the tools are there. Now it's just a case of putting it into practice.

dmccullough@ independent.ie

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