Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Multitude of cattle breeds a boon for Ireland -- long may it continue

John Shirley

'Why do we need so many breeds of cattle in Ireland?" I was asked. "We don't, but having variety in our cattle makes farming more interesting," I replied.

A garden with only sparrows in it would be a duller place, too.

Of course, cattle are not just for pretty pictures. Cattle deliver milk, meat, blood, leather and more. In parts of the world, cattle are still used as draft animals.

In Ireland, above all, cattle represent wealth and income, and at this point in time both beef and dairy cows represent an exciting opportunity. At their most basic, cattle are saleable assets that can be cashed to keep a family farm intact.

Ireland is one of few countries in which cattle outnumber humans. Others in this bracket include Uruguay, Paraguay, Botswana, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

In the recent past, Brazilian cattle outnumbered humans, but a drop of 25m has seen cattle numbers fall to 175m head, while the country's population has jumped to more than 192m. (How they count all the cattle or the people in Brazil beats me.)

Given the importance of world food security, the shortage of beef for trading, coupled with the precarious Irish economy, our cattle population was never more important than it is right now. The pity is that numbers have slipped by 500,000hd since the peak of the early Noughties. At a conservative average of €700/hd, that's a loss of €350m from our national assets.

In my memory, I recall the Irish cattle herd switching from predominantly the British-based genetics of Shorthorn, Hereford and Angus to a majority Continental-sourced Holstein Friesian, Charolais and Limousin, plus a plethora of newer imports.

Also Read

At all times we have shown a predilection for crossing all of these breeds, a trend which is almost unique to Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Britain. Irish farmers like the hybrid vigour that comes from crossbreeding.

In Ireland, we like to eat beef as a stand-alone dish, so flavour and juiciness is vital. These qualities come from the grass diet and from the marbling fat which is dispersed through the lean. Yet, Irish and British consumers are being brainwashed into avoiding fat. Consumers on the Continent always opted for soft, lean meat and depended on sauces and dressings to bring flavour.

All of this helped bring a swing to continental breeds on Irish farms over the past decades.

However, there is change in the air. The gap in the supply of beef from Argentina has triggered new interest in the marbled beef from Irish Angus and Hereford cattle. The supermarkets have combined with Irish beef processors to offer significant premiums for beef certified from Angus and Herefords.

Recently I received a letter from a suckler farmer whose son had returned from a spell in Argentina. He was interested in how most Argentine farmers had continued with pure Angus or Hereford genetics.

Our reader has based his herd on crossing Simmentals with growthy Herefords. He lists his breeding priorities as:

1) You must breed your own replacements. To keep out diseases, the only animal coming into a herd should be the occasional bull and even he should be isolated and screened for diseases before joining with the herd.

2) You must have good fertility in the herd and rear a calf per cow per year.

3) You must have quiet stock with no stress on man or beast.

Now that there are price premiums for Angus/Hereford beef, and also that there are Angus/Hereford genetics with continental-type growth rates (as evidenced from the Tully Performance Test Station), has the profit gap between the continental and traditional breeding been bridged?

With the traditional breeds, you could expect higher fertility, lower maintenance and lower cost finishing at grass. Also, you would expect good docility.

The only way to fully compare the two genotypes would be in two whole farm evaluation packages. One farm would be all continental and the other all traditional breeds, with both fully separated but forensically costed.

I've always thought that such an experiment would make an interesting and informative challenge for Teagasc.

Meanwhile, the supply of new breeds coming into Ireland may have fallen, but our Liquorice Allsorts of cattle breeds and colours will continue.

Indo Farming