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ICBF chief Wickham shares his parting thoughts

Q €50m has been poured into the ICBF since its inception 14 years ago. What has the Irish farmer got from this investment?

AMuch of the ICBF's income comes from providing services such as genetic evaluations for dairy and beef that were previously carried out by the Department of Agriculture. These are now costing 50pc of what they cost in 1998. In addition, we now include improved indices such as the EBI and the beef €uro-Star indexes, along with more data, all of which are much more widely used by cattle farmers. Few, if any, other countries in the world have such a comprehensive and integrated genetic evaluation system.

ICBF also provides the information system used by 20 Irish dairy and beef herd books to record 120,000 pedigree registrations per year. The herd books now have access to a much more comprehensive range of information than was possible previously, at a lower cost than most other countries worldwide.

The milk recording and AI hand-held insemination recording systems provided by ICBF are also cheaper than almost everywhere else. Electronic DIY milk recording, introduced by ICBF, has delivered even further cost savings. The ICBF's HerdPlus is a farmer service based on ICBF's genetic evaluations, costing €60/year regardless of herd size, that has few parallels worldwide.

Taking a step back from the individual services that ICBF supplies, the value of the genetic gain that farmers have unlocked through the adoption of ICBF indices such as the EBI is worth €80m a year to dairy farmers alone. This contrasts to the 1980s and '90s when there was zero economic gain from genetic change in the Irish dairy industry.

In addition, the information that ICBF provides is key in supporting initiatives such as the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme, the Dairy Efficiency Programme, the Beef Technology Adoption Programme, and the role out of AHI's BVD eradication initiative. The Department of Agriculture have played a huge role in facilitating the integration of the relevant systems.

Q How extensive is the database that the ICBF now operate?

A Each year the ICBF database receives the details of over 90pc of all calves born in Ireland. The benefit of this is that we have access to a vast amount of data that is key to accurate genetic evaluations.

Q You are leaving ICBF at a time of great acclaim for the organisation, but what was the low point during the 14 years?

A By the end of 2005 we had run up a loss of €500,000 and were facing an even bigger one for 2006 if we didn't switch to a full cost recovery model for the services we were providing. Effectively, we were being destroyed by our own success -- the more farmers used our services, the greater the loss we faced. As a result, fees for the AI hand-held, milk recording and herd book services all increased. That was a real turning point, as it also saw HerdPlus established as our prime tool for providing herd owners with genetic evaluations. HerdPlus is one of the most powerful tools developed by ICBF.

QWhat should the ICBF tackle, explore or develop in the future?

A There are many opportunities, and challenges, in front of ICBF and the wider dairy and beef industries. The technologies to watch are genomics, computing, semen sexing and diagnostics. Let's look at sexed semen for a moment. I expect this to be in routine use on nearly all farms currently using AI within a few years. This will have a dramatic impact on the composition of our national herd.

This is going to present both a challenge and an opportunity for farmers. The challenge will be biggest for the suckler herd, since if less than half of the dairy herd is required to produce replacements, it frees up the other half to be inseminated with beef bulls. In effect, more than half of the dairy herd will be able to act as a surrogate suckler herd. However, this presents an opportunity for beef producers to minimise the cost of maintaining a cow to produce a beef calf.

QCould breed societies have been more helpful during the first 14 years of ICBF's life?

A Breed societies engaged very actively from the day I started work for ICBF and this level of engagement has not changed since. Ireland is fortunate to have so many talented and passionate people involved in cattle breeding. What we have today is the result of many questions, much research, interesting debates and then decisions to proceed. Sure, there were times when it got personal, which didn't help anyone. But look where we have ended up.

We have systems in place today that you would have been run out of the room 14 years ago if you had suggested them. But they are the fruit of continuous improvement, which is a powerful tool, and while we may not have agreed on everything over the years, ultimately we compromised to put in place the solutions that are working so well today.

Q Herd software package providers have been critical of the 'monopoly' that ICBF has and the State support it gets. Is this a valid criticism?

A Not at all. I believe they are missing the point completely. ICBF is about providing information to help make farmers more profitable. ICBF has facilitated the full integration of this information into a wide variety of mediums, including farm package software. They have a campaign underway with the aim of either being paid to go away or to be granted a monopoly in farm software. I do not believe either of these options is the best way of solving the problems.

Q 'Data ownership' is also a prickly topic. What are your views on the subject?

A The initial data was generated from the existing databases of 40 cattle breeding bodies and the Department of Agriculture. By being the central hub for all the data, we are able to standardise it and remove the duplication that existed. The electronic sharing systems that followed are now taken for granted by our industry.

While there is shared access for multiple service providers, it is the herd owner who decides which service providers have access to the data for his/her herd. While herd owners are the source of most the data in the ICBF database, they are also the primary beneficiaries.

In addition, research scientists have ready access, with appropriate data protection in place, and make good use of the data to support innovation in all aspects of cattle breeding and profitable farming.

QYou've stated that you plan to stay for the foreseeable future here in Ireland and work within the sector. What do you envisage yourself doing?

A I am establishing an international consultancy in animal breeding and will be announcing further details in due course. My focus will be on working with those organisations that want to help ensure the future world food supply is safe, sustainable and of high quality.

Q In 10-20 years time, what type of cow will farmers be working with?

A This depends to a large extent on whether ICBF and similar minded organisations are able to succeed and thrive. If systems are optimised, there is no reason why the dairy sector should not maintain its rate of progress where the EBI of bulls is increasing by €20 per year. At that rate, bulls will have an average EBI of €400 by 2022. Australian research actually suggests that if we were able to combine the best of every gene out there in the dairy herd at the moment, we'd have a bull with an EBI of ���1,000. Even though we've made major progress in fertility in the dairy herd over the last decade, we've got at least as far to go again.

New technology and knowledge is also going to allow farmers to target breeding programmes at new traits such as disease resistance and robustness.

While the dairy herd is progressing about as fast as it can go, the beef herd is nowhere near that level. The €uro-star index is increasing annually by just €5, even though it has the potential to increase by €20/yr. There's a real battle there to find a balance between terminal traits and maternal traits, because they tend to be antagonistic.

Our initiatives in 2012 in beef cattle breeding will have a big impact on upping the rate of gain in the beef herd.

Q What single thing do you wish for in relation to the beef sector?

A A continuation and beefing up of the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme is required to ensure a good future for the cattle meat industry. This scheme has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quantity and quality of data available for beef genetic evaluations. But it has also given rise to an unprecedented level of engagement of beef breeders. This scheme now needs to be built on and developed to a new level.

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