Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Tully regime has responded to breeder and farmer concerns and is a safe place to buy a bull

John Shirley

The Curragh is a Mecca for horse racing and stud farms. But tucked into this corner of Ireland you will also find Ireland's National Bull Performance Test centre at Tully. This centre, too, aims to makes its presence felt.

With another bull sale taking place at Tully on Easter Monday, it is timely to review the centre's progress.

Briefly, Tully should be at the top of the country's beef breeding pyramid. Its role is to assemble the cream of the country's young beef bulls at seven to 12 months of age and assess and compare their breeding merit under controlled conditions. From this transparently competitive arena the genetically elite should be identified. Hopefully, they will be used for AI and by top of the pyramid breeders.

Other aspiring beef nations have similar, but not identical, breeding programmes.

The centre has been in existence for 35 years. Over 10 years ago the Department handed over the cattle-breeding edifice, including Tully, to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF).

By its nature, cattle breeding is fraught with passions, prejudice and even dishonesty. Both breeders and scientists have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Into this maelstrom, ICBF were charged with bringing order and transparency.

Closing Tully and putting the money saved into on-farm recording was an option, but the ICBF board chose to keep it open and make a renewed effort to get the centre to fulfil its objectives.

So where are we in this regard? Is Tully attracting the top bulls? Have the top breeders got sufficient confidence in Tully to hand over their top young candidate bulls?

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Is the feeding regime at the centre the most appropriate for stock bulls going back to farms? Do farmers believe that the Tully bulls are worth buying? Is there confidence in the ICBF indexes?

Like any institution, Tully has its supporters and detractors. There are top breeders who support Tully, but there are others who do not. After having many of their issues addressed, the breed societies now support Tully and urge their members to enter their top animals. At this stage, health issues, primarily IBR, are the biggest obstacle to taking in the top index bulls. Of the potential intake in November 2009, 47 were excluded for not passing the pre-entry IBR test. A number of others were lost because their dams failed the Johne's test. Unfortunately, it's the bigger, and higher-index herds, that are most likely to be exposed to IBR infection. Conclusion; work in progress and it's not Tully's fault that the country is riddled with IBR.

Some breeders will always prefer to keep their star animals at home where they can show their bulls and groom them up for the society premier shows and sales. They will cite issues such as the feeding, feet and hair of the inmates at Tully. However, Tully management has addressed these concerns with quite a bit of success. All Tully inmates are trained to a lead and bulls are groomed pre-sale.

A small number of breeders will still shy away from the transparency of the Tully regime.

The core of the Tully performance test is a 90-day period of ad-lib meal feeding. The regime allows the bulls to exhibit their full genetic potential for growth. Management at Tully have fine-tuned the ration to minimise digestive upsets and any health issues arising from ad-lib meals. Most breeders seem happy with the feeding regime but traditional breeds, such as Hereford, would prefer a less intensive ration.

The jury is out on this one.

I spoke to a number of farmer customers and advisers on this issue. Reaction was mixed. One customer suggested that it was ICBF and not a scribbler that should be ringing him on such a survey.

Overall, the farmers still think that the very best bulls are retained for the society premier sales such as Carrick-on-Shannon, Roscrea, Tullamore and Roscommon. However, Tully bulls enjoy a crucial advantage in their guaranteed health status. The entry health conditions in Tully are the same as for bulls going into AI and the same tests are done on bulls leaving Tully.

A major concern surrounding Tully bulls is that they are too well done and will 'melt' when they go to commercial farms. This exact same concern is expressed about bulls from breed shows and sales. It is a fault of the Irish bull-trading system that bulls are pushed too hard, people are over influenced by show ring traits and bulls are marketed too young.

Some Tully customers from a few years back said they would never again buy from the centre because of the melt factor. Others are happy with the Tully bulls and have made multi-purchases. They tended to buy the bull six months before putting him with cows.

To be fair to newish Tully manager Stephen Conroy, he has addressed the melt issue by winding down the bulls off strong feeding over the last month pre-sale. An indication of the growing status of the Tully bulls is the number being purchased for AI and also the numbers that are being sold for export. The melt factor can be managed.

ICBF are now publishing an astonishing range of beef-breeding information on pedigree animals under the Eurostar banner. Occasionally, we see figures which are hard to explain. At the recent Limousin sale in Roscrea one bull had a Suckler Beef Value of €198 compared to a parent average of €126. Once a figure is printed it receives gospel status, but people should look at the index reliability. Reliability ratings on young bulls will rarely pass 50pc. In general, the ICBF ratings are gaining credibility with the industry but from a low base.

Regarding the bulls in Tully, ICBF still relies on breeder honesty regarding a bull's birth date. Some may try to influence the performance test by underfeeding bulls pre-entry but overall the Tully regime has responded well to breeder and farmer concerns and is a safe place to purchase a bull.

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