Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

ICBF has revolutionised cattle breeding and it is still driving development hard

When the board of the newly formed Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) hired Dr Brian Wickham in the late 1990s the face of Irish cattle breeding was set to change utterly. This highly focused New Zealander took over the controls of the Irish breeding bus and drove hard. He is still driving hard.

Cattle breeding and genetics always had potential for tension between scientists and breeders. A new cattle breeding omelette was never going to happen without breaking eggs. Over the past decade of driving change Dr Wickham has attracted strong supporters and equally strong detractors. The ICBF discussion document envisages more revolutionary change and further expansion in the ICBF 'empire'.

To appreciate just how much structural change has occurred over the past dozen years we need to go back to pre-ICBF days. Before ICBF came on the scene, the processing of data and the issuing of annual bull proofs was largely carried out by one man, Dan Murphy, at the Department of Agriculture. Every spring we waited for Dan to deliver his magnus opus.

Compared to then, today's dairy indexes are hardly recognisable. Beef proofs too are different, but are they any more accurate? My belief is that in the vital area of AI beef bulls, trust in the breeding indexes is just now recovering to the level of pre-ICBF. Pre-ICBF beef bulls were centrally progeny tested in AI feedlots. Measurement was simple and each bull received an index from that first calving survey and first progeny evaluation which was never subsequently changed.

In contrast, ICBF-created beef index values have oscillated widely. Doonally New, the most widely used Charolais ever, had a suckler beef value of €199 in November 2008. It rose to €242 by April 2009, but had collapsed to €130 by January this year. All the time the index reliability was listed at 99pc. Farmers, who like absolutes, are not impressed with such drastic fluctuations.

ICBF was born out of a need to bring further order and to deliver faster rates of genetic gain. After a long gestation, farm organisations, AI providers, milk recording and herdbooks reached agreement in the late 1990s on the structure and financing of the new breeding body. The farmer contribution was via a cattle tag levy. At the start ICBF was chaired by the Department of Agriculture's most senior executive, John Malone, and the Department and its minister has remained very supportive of ICBF.

Almost uniquely Ireland gave the cattle breeding programme access to the national cattle database. ICBF's initial challenge was to bring together all the disparate sources of information into a one-stop shop. This has been successfully achieved.

Other far reaching progress pioneered by ICBF included the expression of indexes in money terms, the introduction of 'across breed' indexes and the extension of indexes to all cattle, not just AI sires.

Also Read

In the dairy breeding programme ICBF introduced new emphasis on cow fertility, a trend that is now being followed by the rest of the cattle breeding world. Along with the industry ICBF promoted initiatives on hand held computers to AI technicians and DIY milk recording.

However, relations between ICBF and AI/milk recording have often been strained. Herdbooks and ICBF too have not always seen eye to eye. This contrasts with the generally close ICBF relationships with Teagasc, the farm bodies and Department of Agriculture.


Given the strong Department support for ICBF and cattle breeding, it was a surprise that the Department left it to ICBF to trawl for access to individual herdowner's records but this was changed in 2008 with the introduction of the Suckler Welfare Scheme. Access to herd data was conditional in this scheme and it has brought an avalanche of new data into ICBF, making the Irish cattle breeding programme probably the world's most comprehensive.

However, ICBF does not come cheaply. The 2008 annual report shows ICBF is funded by €0.9m from tag levies, €1.4m from industry fees and a massive €3.4m from State subvention of one sort or another.

The drive for more self-financing is probably behind some amazing suggestions in an ICBF discussion document just released. This document envisages ICBF getting more involved in commercial AI.

Incredibly, in the light of the hard won self-financed rationalisation of AI centres in Ireland, ICBF is suggesting a return to six AI centres and 10 assembly points for young bulls in which they would be involved. These suggestions are made under the guise of what is termed in the document as "a more holistic view of breeding" and a "sharing of costs among shareholders".

While ICBF's record on the science of breeding has been good, its limited commercial involvement has been very patchy.

It's of interest to note that in other countries, after the state helped organise a cattle database, this facility was handed over to the industry to organise breeding programmes.

In today's society, ownership of knowledge and data is power. Being the sole keeper of the national cattle database is a position of great power and privilege. But it should also bring with it responsibility and an undertaking to ensure that it is not taken for granted.

Irish Independent