Big divisions have opened up in the beef sector on the merits of the star ratings system. Some farmers and breed societies claim the ratings and BDGP scheme have reduced the quality of the national suckler herd. The ICBF insists that the science backs up its position that the ratings are the way forward
For generations, the experienced eye was the only metric farmers used to evaluate cattle. “He’s a great judge of cattle,” beef farmers would be heard saying of certain men at the mart. The art of ‘judging’ cattle has long been a highly regarded skill, with many noting that “not everyone has it”.
However, the status of such judges has been under pressure in recent years as farmers moved to peering up at the plethora of information on mart boards before making a decision on an animal.
This trend first appeared in the early 2000s when farmers would check if an animal had the required premiums for EU payments. And since then the data on age, movements and export requirements have all become important variables in evaluating an animal.
For suckler farmers, it has all been about the stars when it comes to choosing replacement stock since the 2015 launch of the Beef Data and Genomics Scheme (BDGP) — a €300m initiative established to halt the decline in key maternal traits within the national suckler herd.
As part of the scheme, farmers committed to increasing the number of heifers in their herd that would be genotyped 4-5 star. To achieve this and to ensure payment under the scheme, the star rating of an animal became critical and started to significantly influence the value of breeding stock in the mart ring.
This drew the ire of many farmers who had for years judged cattle by their eye or how the individual cow had performed on their farm and not what it said on some board.
The scheme also came in for heavy criticism from breed societies, some of whom claimed it was reducing the quality of the suckler herd.
Noel McGoldrick, president of the Charolais Society, maintains the implementation of the BDGP scheme has not improved stock quality.
“Whether ICBF wants to admit it or not, the quality being sold through our marts nationwide is in decline and if we are to have any hope of retaining our reputation as a producer of top-quality stock here, change within the structure is needed,” he says.
It was with criticisms like this in mind that Chris Daly of the ICBF undertook an analysis of data from the first four years of the scheme to answer the question: ‘Did the BDGP programme really reduce the quality of cattle coming off the suckler herd?’
“It has been claimed by some that the ‘quality’ of stock coming forward from the suckler herd has been deteriorating and that this decline can be attributed to the emphasis on the Replacement Index since the advent of BDGP. My analysis shows clearly that this is not the case,” he says.
As part of the analysis, he looked at the performance of suckler-bred steers born in BDGP herds, which have been focusing on improving the Replacement Index of their breeding animals.
By limiting the analysis to the carcass performance of steers from these herds, the effect that improving maternal traits through BDGP is having on carcass traits can be examined.
“We choose steers coming out of BDGP herds because if we took data from the entire suckler herd one could argue that animals outside the programme are holding up quality,” says Mr Daly.
“We focused on steers for the simple reason we have 900,000 suckler cows having 50pc male and 50pc female; the vast majority of the males are slaughtered as steers so that was the best cohort to look at. Females less so because a certain amount are kept as replacements.”
However, Mr McGoldrick disagrees and says a wider analysis, including young bulls and heifers, would provide a more accurate picture of the state of the suckler herd.
Age at slaughter
The accompanying table details the results of the ICBF analysis. The average age at slaughter was unchanged from 2015-19 and Mr Daly points out that there were two significant increases in 2018 and 2019.
“2018 saw very difficult weather conditions with a fodder crisis in the spring followed by a prolonged drought in the summer, while 2019 saw processing plants closed for long periods due to protests.
“These are environmental factors that undoubtedly affected the average age of slaughter of animals in both of these years,” he says.
However, according to Mr McGoldrick, given the pressure put on farmers by factories during this reference period to reduce carcass weight — policed by what he calls ‘ridiculous penalties’ — it’s surprising this has not dropped considerably.
Carcass weight \u0009\u0009& conformation
Carcass weight increased by 6kg from 2015 to 2019 and carcass conformation has remained unchanged with an average grade of R=.
“Animal conformation is often used as the main indicator of animal ‘quality’ by farmers. The fact that it has remained unchanged since 2015 shows that animal ‘quality’ has not deteriorated in recent years,” says Mr Daly.
However, the Charolais Society claim “it is simply not true” that the carcass weight has increased by 6kg.
“The average carcass weight over the five years is 391.8kg which is actually 0.2kg below where it started. The fact that 2019 showed an increase can be largely attributed to the fact that factories were closed for long periods of time due to strikes,” says Mr McGoldrick.
Mr Daly says a number of factors drove the reduction in the number of steers killed from the BDGP herds over the five years.
“One reason perhaps is a move towards young bulls on the back of increased profitability,” he says. “Another reason was the beef protests which saw a significant delay in slaughtering, while an increase in cattle exported was also a factor.”
But Mr McGoldrick says this is the “most alarming figure” in the analysis: “It’s a drop of 36,638 steers slaughtered between 2015 and 2019.
“That equates to 21.3pc and I would assume it is mainly as a result of the decline in suckler cow numbers.
“I am not here to simply knock ICBF — they are the body entrusted with the future — but I do believe that they need to reassess where we, as an industry are going.
“As a society, we are fully behind progress, but our general opinion is that the implementation of the BDGP scheme has not been of benefit to the quality of stock produced.”
Mr Daly counters that one of the key reasons the BDGP was introduced was to get farmers to focus more on cow efficiency rather than just focusing on carcass quality.
“Prior to the BDGP, weaned animals off the suckler herd were performing quite well because they had strong terminal genetics. However, there was a cost in the system too. There are a million suckler cows in the system, and if they are getting more and more inefficient, there is a cost to the farmer,” he says.
“If calving interval is getting longer, if cows are getting bigger and bigger they are going to be eating more, and if they have less milk they are producing lighter calves. That is not a sustainable model really.”
Farmers in the mart buying cattle are still going to do a certain amount of judgement with their eye, but science and data need to also be included, Mr Daly says.
“We are not trying to say it’s all about looking at figures on a sheet of paper, but there are certain things you can’t see, and that is where science needs to be brought in particularly with breeding females,” he says.
“Which ones will have more milk? Which ones will be more fertile? That’s the value of the replacement index.”
He also says that as the index of the national suckler herd increases, improvements will be seen not just in cow efficiencies through better fertility and improved weaning performance, but also in progeny efficiencies such as age at slaughter, feed intake and carcass weight for age.
But the sceptics will remain unconvinced about the merits of the scheme. For many farmers, what they see with their eyes and not what it says on a mart board will still determine how they judge an animal.
Despite this, maybe the principal benefit of the scheme has been to encourage farmers to question what ‘quality’ really means in terms of judging cattle and if traits such as fertility and milk need more priority.
Perhaps there’s more to a heifer than meets the eye?