Best cow is still a best cow but it's time to adjust to EBI changes

Ranking our cows from a cow born over 20 years ago was considered out-dated.
Ranking our cows from a cow born over 20 years ago was considered out-dated.
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

The Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) recently announced significant changes to the Economic Breeding Index (EBI).

The EBI is an index that ranks all cows in the country against a base cow, thereby predicting the potential profitability of individual cows.

Until a month ago, that base cow was a cow born in 1995 and milk recorded in 2000. However, a lot has happened to our national herd in the past 20 years, so to be ranking our cows from a cow born over 20 years ago was considered out-dated.

Our new base cow was born in 2005 and milk recorded in 2007.

There were 61,000 such cows in the country at the time, and the base cow is an average of their performance. So what was the performance of this new base cow?

If she milked for 305 days, she would have produced 6,500l of milk with 3.39pc protein and 3.90pc butterfat (490kg milk solids).

However, she had a calving interval of 400 days which meant that her calving date slipped by 35 days every yea. This also meant she most likely was only milked for 270 days and fell out of the herd after 3.5 lactations.


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So, while genetically she was capable of doing 490kg, the reality is that herds on the ground are actually producing around 100kg of milk less.

This is because they are missing days in milk and there are less mature cows in herds due to high replacement rates.

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of the new base cow?

With a potential milk output of 6,500l she has plenty of milk in her (500l more than the old base cow).

Protein has risen from 3.30pc to 3.39pc and butterfat from 3.79pc to 3.90pc (which equates to roughly 0.01 of an improvement annually) so solids, while moving slowly, are going the right direction.

However, fertility is still the big weakness of the base cow.

She has knocked four days off the calving interval, but 400 days of a calving interval is still far too long. The easiest way to get more milk out of our cows is to have them in the parlour milking for longer, and the most efficient way to do this is to reduce the calving interval of our cows.

There are seven traits included in the make-up of the EBI, with milk and fertility the two largest, accounting for roughly one third each. The other five traits make up the final third (calving, beef, maintenance, health and management).

Many farmers feel that fertility is too heavily weighted in the EBI, but based on the base cow, fertility needs to weighted as heavily as it is. Until we reach a stage where cows are having a calf every 370 - 380 days, then fertility needs to have a strong emphasis.


So what do the changes mean for the farmer on the ground? Every cow in the country has had €71 knocked off her EBI - so your best cows are still your best cows.

When it comes to selecting bulls, we are still going to look for the same traits as we have previously; good solids combined with good fertility.

Ask most farmers what is their ideal cow and you will get the same type of answer every time; "a cow that calves early every year, milks well, achieves a good milk price and lasts in the herd for more than seven or eight lactations". Using the EBI is the best way of achieving this cow.

The EBI has changed but it is still one of the most important tools we have for our national dairy industry.

Our national herd is heading in the right direction but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Spring calving farmers have six months to get their heads around the new changes before selecting bulls for the next breeding season so we can continue improving our herds.

Joe Kelleher, Business & Technology Advisor, Teagasc, Newcastle West

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