Farm Ireland

Monday 19 February 2018

ICBF has bred success but jury is still out on beef performance

John Shirley

Over the years I've watched the growth of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) with more than a passing interest. I've listened to sectors raving about the worth of ICBF, while other sectors lamented damage it has done.

I've marvelled at the early drive from ICBF, its focus, even its arrogance and its attempts at empire building. I've also observed its ability to perform U-turns when the occasion demanded.

ICBF's access to national data put it in a position of power and influence. With this power and potential for monopoly, came the responsibility to use it fairly.

The early ICBF years very much centred around the personality of the first chief executive Dr Brian Wickham who was head-hunted from New Zealand.

Mr Wickham retired last year. Even his detractors, who were many and vociferous, would now accept that he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

He had the vision to establish world-class breeding programmes for Ireland, a thick skin to deflect criticism and the focus and energy to drive them through. If, in the interim, some sensitive industry corns got walked on, then so be it. No one, vested interest or otherwise, was allowed to halt the ICBF advance.

Interestingly, Dr Wickham has now travelled back to New Zealand to help sort database issues in that country. Last year, the New Zealand AI company LIC (Livestock Improvement Corporation) lost its monopoly position on the New Zealand database to the government agency Dairy NZ. I understand that this transition is not proceeding smoothly. Hence the call for Dr Wickham.

In Ireland too, a complaint has been made to the EU Commission concerning the effect State monopolies such as ICBF and Teagasc have on small IT businesses which were up and going before ICBF was established. The companies involved are AgriNet and Kingswood.

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The two companies have been squeezed by ICBF's HerdPlus and Teagasc's new Pasture Base. The two have got sympathy but little else from their lobbying within Ireland. I await with interest to see the EU response.

It's not right that companies which were giving a good service should be put out of business by a subsidised monopoly or an arm of the State.

Actually, ICBF is industry and farmer owned. Forty-six percent of the shares belong to farmers (through IFA and ICMSA) and 18pc each are owned by AI suppliers, milk recording organisations and cattle breed societies – in essence three groups which are co-op based. ICBF was only assembled after prolonged negotiations. It wasn't easy getting farmer agreement to a levy on calf tags to finance the proposed body.

In the formative years, most of the angst about ICBF came from breed societies, AI groups and milk recording. Even though the three groupings held a majority shareholding, they were never sufficiently cohesive to control the ICBF board. There was a perception that ICBF was trying to supplant their roles. At one stage, ICBF actually got into the business of milk recording but it didn't work for it. Progressive Genetics eventually took it over. Nevertheless, ICBF managed to drive efficiencies across the industry. Efficiencies such as single animal identities, hand held computers for AI technicians, improved procedures and equipment for milk recording.


When push came to shove at board level, Mr Wickham always managed to keep the farmers on his side. His star was also always in good standing with the Department of Agriculture, which backed ICBF from the start.

Indeed, many of the supports for farming were introduced on the back of ICBF and because they contained a breeding or data collection element. The Suckler Welfare Scheme is a case in point. This has been followed by the Beef Data Programme.

Also the BTAP and STAP schemes are interlinked with ICBF's Beef Data Programme and their Sheep Ireland.

Again, even ICBF's critics would have to acknowledge that the body has made a valued contribution on Irish dairy breeding.

The issue of declining genetic fertility in dairy stock was addressed with apparent success. Some have quibbled with the lack of emphasis on milk yield and cow type, but these traits were still recorded and available for breeders.

The jury is still out on ICBF's delivery on beef breeding. Admittedly, it was a late starter because of the lack of good records.

The Suckler Welfare Scheme helped fill this gap but still the beef indexes on bulls are way too volatile. Bulls at the top of the list now were nowhere five years ago and vice versa. This knocks credibility and the confidence of farmers and breeders.

Pre-ICBF, AI stations progeny tested their bulls by bringing progeny back to a central unit and growing them in a large single group to slaughter. Bulls were compared with others and given indexes.

Should ICBF go back to this approach? It's interesting to see that the Tully Station in Kildare has been converted to this activity.

ICBF is making a big effort to carry out maternal testing of beef bulls. Is this going to make much of a contribution to the industry? I wonder about it.

ICBF is now under the stewardship of Sean Coughlan. Talking to people across the industry, it seems that Sean has made a good start. Brian Wickham has done most of the heavy lifting in terms to getting ICBF up and going.

Coughlan has already made changes but will put more emphasis on building bridges with the industry.

Irish Independent