Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

The hard scientific data proves that farmers need to keep faith in the ICBF

Darragh McCullough

I rang a neighbour last week looking for the loan of a machine. During the conversation he mentioned how annoyed he was with his latest Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) evaluation for his stockbull, which had fallen from a five-star to a two-star bull (across breeds) in the past year.

This is a real good farmer so I knew that this was a genuine complaint.

It also came on the back of a series of chats with farmers over recent months expressing their disquiet with the apparent litany of issues surrounding the ICBF over the last year.

Here are some of those issues as I see them.

Has the National Cattle Breeding Centre (NCBC) too much influence on the board of ICBF through its direct involvement in Progressive Genetics (PG) and Munster AI?

PG and Munster board members account for almost a third of the board. Other board members would also have close connections to the NCBC operation.

But the NCBC plays a pivotal role in the national breeding programme with the most homebred bulls on annual test.

Why did the ICBF discourage any dairy farmer from signing breeding contracts with New Zealand AI company LIC?

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The NCBC had secured 32 'Keystone herds for its own breeding contracts. Talking to Keystone herd owners, they seem very happy with the three year deals they have entered with NCBC, especially given the possibility of flogging a bull calf to the stud for as much as €25,000.

This is an Irish business seeking to develop the best of Irish breeding. Should they be treated differently from a foreign breeding company? Absolutely.

Why has there been so little progress made on sexed semen when it has the potential to avoid a PR disaster with unwanted crossbred dairy bull calves?

I believe that it is up to the farmer shareholders of the AI companies to force their management to be more proactive on this. The trial some years back proved that sexed semen has a role but it needs real support from the AI studs to make it main-stream.

What about the tension between the ICBF and pedigree beef breeders and moves towards whole herd evaluations?

For me, whole herd evaluations are the only way to avoid interference by unscrupulous breeders. The introduction of a 'bull finder' function where any farmer will be able to search out the best stockbulls from any of the herds registered for whole herd evaluation will be a real incentive for more pedigree herds to go this way.

Why should the ICBF be entitled to a compulsory levy on tags, as is being mooted for next year?

Ever since the Department of Agriculture allowed tag companies to make the contribution to the ICBF optional, a significant chunk of farmers have chosen to stop paying.

That's fine if you don't care about the future of the country's breeding industry, but it ignores key contributions by the ICBF to cattle breeding in Ireland.

For example, research shows the progeny from a five star cow are 10kg heavier and a month earlier to slaughter than progeny from a one star cow.

Other studies suggest that the EBI has put an extra €631m into dairy farmers' pockets since its introduction. That figure is set to rise to over €1bn over the next five years.

If you don't believe the independent analysis, consider why geneticists from so many other countries have come over to Ireland to see how they can replicate what the ICBF have achieved.

The research and data crunching can't be funded by commercial interests because this would eventually compromise the direction of breeding programmes.

Why was there a cock-up in the most recent dairy bull evaluations, and just how long has the problem been going on for?

In the same way that you upgrade the software on your phone apps, the ICBF is constantly upgrading the software that generates the genetic info that drives our breeding programmes.

Unfortunately for the ICBF, and especially farmers, that last upgrade chose to omit certain bits of data on milk and fertility when it was transferring across the information.

Zeros were inserted instead, and bulls with minus figures in these traits got the benefit, while others with plus scores were unfairly penalised.

Because the amount of data missing altered the EBIs for bulls by no more than €40 either way, it wasn't statistically significant enough to set off alarm bells with the geneticists tasked with over-seeing this process. For this reason the problem went unnoticed for a few years before it was flagged.

Is this good enough? No, and the ICBF have since been audited in an effort to improve their cross-checks to prevent something like this happening again.

Why did some bulls' EBIs drop by over €100 when the evaluations were re-engineered?

I'm told that at the same time the reference population for fertility traits was upgraded for the first time in two years. As genetic advances continue, what was a good fertility score two years ago is now a middle-of-the-road one.

Why does this upgrade only happen every two years?

It takes more than one geneticist from two to three months to run the update. Again, this is being worked on and, in the future, updates in the reference population will be a push-button job.

So what about my neighbour's bull that was a five star chap just 12 months ago and is now rated a two star - how can we had confidence in figures that do that?

The bull was rated a five star bull on the basis of his genomic test.

These are almost twice as reliable as the old predictions based on pedigrees which had reliabilities closer to 30pc.

But no matter how good your genomic test is, it still isn't as reliable as the proof generated by the daughters on the ground, which brings a bull's reliability closer to 70pc.

The downside is that you have to wait around for four or five years to get facts on how a bull's daughters are performing from the time of his birth.

Genomics wipes five years off that timeline, and hence the massive advances in breeding in recent years.

What changed this year for my neighbour's bull was the inclusion of data from his daughters. They were scored by the farmer as having less milk than the average animal in the herd.

As he acknowledged himself, the calf from the cow with plenty of milk is always the one that kills out best at the end too - in other words, milk yield is key.

In this case the bull is producing progeny that are a lot worse than his genes otherwise predicted. You would be forgiven for thinking that the genomic test is no more accurate than the old pedigree proofs.

The reality is that sometimes genomics loses, but on average it is twice as likely to win.

Fortunately, the way the Beef Data Genomics Programme is structured, once your bull has been registered as a five star, he stays that way in terms of qualifying for the payment.

The obvious downside is that you have to work that bit harder on reversing the damage done to his daughters' indexes for future generations.

But that's the breeding game isn't it?

In the same way that breeding requires a really long-term view and a bit of faith, farmers need to keep the faith in the ICBF.

It's a strange thing to urge in relation to something that is so fundamentally rooted in science and facts, but confidence can be a delicate flower.

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