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Beef data scheme delivering the goods for farmers - ICBF

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Progress: The BDGP scheme has seen the rate of genetic gain in the suckler beef herd increasing to €5/cow/year which is comparable with that being achieved in the national dairy herd

Progress: The BDGP scheme has seen the rate of genetic gain in the suckler beef herd increasing to €5/cow/year which is comparable with that being achieved in the national dairy herd

Progress: The BDGP scheme has seen the rate of genetic gain in the suckler beef herd increasing to €5/cow/year which is comparable with that being achieved in the national dairy herd

The €300m Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) has been a huge success, the ICBF insists, even though the scheme has been dogged by farmer scepticism, breed concerns and high dropout rates since its launch in 2015.

The BDGP was introduced with the objective of using genetics/genomics to address the decline in key maternal traits within the national suckler herd.

Getting the scheme, which is co-funded by the EU, over the line in Brussels was a dogfight for the Department of Agriculture.

It eventually had to package the scheme as an agri-environmental measure rather than purely a support for the suckler industry.

This meant carbon efficiency measures became a critical part of the programme.

For the designers of the BDGP, one of the main questions was, could the success of the EBI in the dairy sector be replicated in the suckler sector?

According to ICBF's Dr Andrew Cromie, the answer is a resounding yes.

Speaking at the Teagasc National Beef Conference last week, he explained that in the early 2000s genetic gain in the dairy sector was stagnant.

"Then the EBI came in 2002-03. The first years those heifers calved into the herd was 2005," he said.

"Since then, you can see a sustained increase in genetic gain for EBI, to the point that as you talk to dairy farmers from an initial point of scepticism and uncertainty, the EBI is now a core part of profitable dairy systems."

On the suckler side, he pointed to stagnant genetic gains over many years.

In 2017, the first heifers calved under the BDGP programme, and there are now 150,000-180,000 heifers coming into the herd per year.

This has led to the rate of genetic gain in our suckler beef herd increasing to €5/cow/year, which is comparable with that being achieved in our national dairy herd, Dr Cromie said.

"What we have seen is that there was a significant spike up in the average genetic merit of the replacement indexes coming into the suckler herd, to the point that the shape of the growth is now the same as the dairy EBI (see graph)," he explained.

"We are now moving at the same rate of gain in the suckler herd as in the dairy herd - the only difference is that in terms of a starting point, the suckler herd is 13 years behind."

What did the scheme do for the farmer?

Providing farmers with the information they can use to improve the performance of their herds was a critical objective of the programme.

"Farmers are faced with a group of heifers standing in a field and they are wondering 'which ones should I bull?'," said Dr Cromie.

"The big positive around the BDGP was the use of the Eurostar indexes and also overlaying the additional genomic data to get a more accurate indication of a heifers potential.

"As we get that data, some of those heifers are going to increase in value, and some will go down. What the scheme was looking to do is give more confidence to the farmer around the selection of replacement heifers.

Farmers committed to bringing replacement heifers that would be a minimum of 25pc by 2018 and 50pc by 2020 genotyped 4-5 star.

So has this stacked up? If a farmer brought in a 4-5 star heifer that was born in 2015, bred her in 2016 and she calved in 2017, what was the outcome?

The ICBF undertook an analysis of the first females that calved into BDGP herds based on the use of these new genomic predictions.

By looking at their performance in terms of female fertility, cow live-weight, calf growth rate and progeny carcass performance, it set out to establish the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the Eurostar genomic evaluations as a means of predicting real change in key traits linked to profitable suckler beef production.

A total of 59,466 heifers were included in the analysis, with all of these having calved into BDGP herds for the first time during the period January 1 2017 to June 30 2017.

The animals were ranked on their genomic evaluations from August 2016, which Dr Cromie said ensures that it assessed the effectiveness of the initial genomic evaluation, independent of the animal's subsequent performance.

Results

Looking firstly at female fertility performance (see table 1), on average, 5-star females calved 59 days earlier than 1-star females (in terms of age at first calving) and had a 13.6 days shorter average calving interval (across completed calvings to date). Furthermore, 77pc of these females are still on farms compared to 70pc for the 1-star females.

Of the first females that calved in BDGP herds and were weighed as part of the BEEP, 5-star cows were, on average, some 16 kg lighter than 1-star cows and yet had an 8kg heavier weanling, representing a 2pc gain in weanling efficiency.

In terms of progeny carcass performance, 5-star females were generating progeny which were slightly lighter in terms of carcass weights but were significantly younger in terms of age at slaughter, representing a net gain in the profitability of almost €60/animal.

Dr Cromie said that while the suckler sector is going from a low place, it is going in the right direction.

"As those genetic trends kick in and those genes start to accumulate up in the herd, they will start to move the industry in the right direction.

"And that took a few years in the context of the EBI - the real benefits from the dairy farmer's point of view weren't seen for five years after its introduction," he cautioned.

However, he said it is a really positive story for the beef sector with the benefits worth cumulatively €300m by 2030.

"And it also tells us very confidently if we continue with programmes such as the BDGP our suckler herd in terms of the type of replacements calving into the herd year on year, the type of suckler cows you are going to get is going to improve into the future," he said.

The €300m Beef Data and Genomics Programme has been dogged by controversy but the ICBF insists it has achieved its core objective of improving genetic gain in the suckler herd

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