Research shows selecting better bulls results in at least 13pc emissions reductions on beef and dairy farms
The completion of the latest round of discussions between Government parties about the reduction target for agricultural emissions by 2030 is not the end of the process.
The ambition to reduce total national emissions by 51pc by 2030 is a legally binding target, so as the clock ticks down towards 2030, if the national target is being missed, then a mid-term review will take place and sectorial targets may well increase.
Failure to hit the 51pc target will leave the Government open to legal challenges by environmental groups. This is what has happened in the Netherlands, where failing to reach targets forced their government to take drastic action with their new agricultural policies.
In the final weeks of the emissions debate, Irish political discourse focused on the potential of culling part of the national herd, an unfortunate slant, as the agricultural sector has many more options to offer in a proper dialogue.
The difficulty with the debate around the national herd is that apart from a cull, all the options relating to genetics require years to bear fruit, which means they need to be acted on now, not some time in the distant future.
A failure to do anything pro-active at the start of this year means that 2023’s calf crop has been already decided on the vast majority of farms.
The question is: will agriculture make plans before the end of 2022 to change 2024’s calves? Or will yet another year slip by without maximising the potential gains that can be achieved using science and better genetics in both our dairy and beef cattle?
I attended a farm walk recently on ABP’s research farm in Carlow. It purchases 400 dairy cross calves each year, finishing heifers at 19 months and steers at 21 months.
Environmental performance and carbon efficiency by dairy-beef progeny are areas of particular interest. One of the presentations that shocked the attendees most was the research around Sire Performance Evaluation.
To start with, calves are purchased directly from farms that have proven to produce healthy calves over the last five years. Any farms whose calves were not up to scratch were excluded from purchase for future years.
The results show significant differences in performance between the calves purchased. On a national scale, the differences would be even more alarming if the poorer calves produced were included.
The difference between the top 10pc of herds and the bottom 10pc of herds in the research programme is 100kg, with genetics and colostrum management being vital areas for improvement on the poorer-performing farms.
If the bottom 10pc of the national dairy herd progeny was included, the range would be significantly more than 100kg.
The facilities on the research farm are standard farm sheds, typical of the type of sheds found on dry-stock farms in the area. Feed intake and methane emissions are measured and recorded, along with the calving difficulty, health, age of slaughter, carcass weight and grade. Taste quality is also measured.
Data from the research shows clearly there is a larger difference within breeds than across the breeds tested.
The difference in average progeny live-weight between the best and the worst AI Angus bulls on their progeny’s July weighing was 491kg versus 421kg, which is 70kg extra live-weight just for using a better bull. For Limousin, it was 66kg live weight.
When carcass weights of the Angus cattle were looked at over a five-year average, there was a 46kg or €173 at historic prices (€225 at current prices) advantage for the high-genetic merit cattle over the progeny from low-genetic merit bulls. There was also an advantage in feed efficiency leading to reduced emissions.
As farmers always love to see livestock at events like this, there was a guess-the-weight section, where two heifers by different sires were weighed. They arrived on the farm on the same day. The two heifers were of similar age and received the same treatment, but one weighed 572kg and the other only 408kg.
There was a good mix of both dairy and beef farmers present, with plenty of discussion. The difficulty for the beef farmers purchasing the calves are two-fold: firstly, dairy farmers control which bulls are used.
Unless purchasers of calves become more selective when purchasing and leave substandard calves with those that chose to breed them, there is no incentive for dairy farmers to change to the best bulls available.
Secondly, without a national genotyping programme, it is impossible to judge the real economic value and parentage of the calves.
The environmental benefits of using the best beef bulls could dramatically reduce the emissions from our theoretical “national herd”, which includes both dairy and beef farms.
Using the higher-genetic merit beef bulls has the potential to reduce emissions by 13pc from the beef animals originating from the dairy herd, without affecting calving difficulty. The figure is significantly higher when compared to the sub-standard bulls used to mop up on some of the larger, more intensive dairy herds.
We should not have our dairy and beef sectors sitting in different rooms during the various Food Vision Group meetings. If the dairy spokespeople could avoid focusing solely on milk production and take a look at the bigger picture, they might realise they hold the key to reducing emissions in the beef sector, which will benefit the theoretical national herd.
The biggest beneficiaries of that would be dairy farmers. Given that suckler cow numbers are already declining, it is the dairy cow herd that is most in need of reductions that could be achieved by using good beef bulls on dairy cows.
Unless a plan is put in place very soon for the 2023 breeding season, the 2024 calf crop will remain unchanged.
Farmers should not think that the recently agreed 25pc emissions reduction target is the final time reducing emissions is going to be discussed. If they do, they will be disappointed.
There will be progress reviews long before 2030 and if agriculture is not seen to be making progress, then the mountain may get a lot steeper.
Angus Woods is a drystock farmer in Co Wicklow.