Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Viewpoint: Beef farmers need to get real on BDGP

The cost of DNA testing 60pc of the herd has been described as unnecessary
The cost of DNA testing 60pc of the herd has been described as unnecessary
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Why are beef farmers so angry about the new Beef Data Genomics Programme (BDGP)?

Massive crowds of farmers have turned up at meetings around the country to air their grievances about the new €52m per annum programme.

The main complaints have been well vented by now - the requirement for four- and five-star breeding stock is too onerous for the average suckler farmer; the six year 'lock in' to the scheme is unreasonable; the cost of DNA testing 60pc of the herd is unnecessary and will eat into the payment.

In recent years I had a lot of sympathy for progressive beef farmers who felt that there wasn't the same focus from organisations such as the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) on improving the genetic base of the national beef herd as had happened with the dairying herd.

They pointed to the hundreds of millions that have been saved by dairy men through the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) focus on fertility and other traits. Bidding on replacement beef heifers in the mart was essentially a guessing game, with no ranking system to tell the farmer what they should be paying for the genes inside the animal standing in the ring.

The development of the terminal and replacement indexes was the ICBF's first attempt at addressing this issue. But the lack of clarity or understanding among farmers as to which index they should be using, the reluctance of the breed societies to engage, and a lack of leadership have stopped these indexes becoming the gold standard by which beef farmers judge their stock.

Those indexes have been reworked, with a new emphasis on the replacement index - the research shows that this is the one that will benefit the vast majority most. Beef farmers now have the chance to leverage genetics the same way their dairy counterparts have. The only difference is that beef farmers now have the chance to be paid to engage with the process.

But that's not the way that beef farmers see it. They've been led to believe that the BDGP is a payment to help them cope with the lack of profitability in beef farming - a substitute for the coupled payments that beef farmers get in France for example.

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The scheme should never have been sold this way. The Department of Agriculture secured the funding in Brussels by pitching a scheme that would help farmers breed more efficient cattle that would, in turn, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the herd. The EU Commission agreed to help fund it because of the substantial costs that the farmers would incur in the process.

Yes, the bar has been set high with the requirement for four- and five-star breeding stock, and the requirements for a six year commitment and 60pc DNA testing looks to maximise the impact. But surely fast-tracking the genetic gain of the national herd is a good thing, especially if someone else is picking up the tab…and leaving some change in the kitty?

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