Comment: sexed semen and the Friesian steer conundrum

There seems to be some momentum building around the idea that a combination of sexed semen and the use of native breed sires within the dairy industry will sort out the problem for the beef sector that is Holstein/Friesian steers.

Currently, this category of animal ticks none of the boxes within the current Meat Industry Ireland (MII) specification grid: they are shapeless, take too long to finish and, by the time they have put on a bit of flesh cover, they are far too old!

On first reading, the sexed semen solution seems to be spot on. But, unfortunately, it is fundamentally flawed. In the first instance sexed semen is – and will remain – extremely expensive. What’s more, conception rates – particularly with cows – are unacceptably low, particularly in the context of Ireland’s very seasonal calving pattern.

Yes, there will be a significant Irish number of dairy farmers who will seek to use sexed semen on heifers, particularly against the backdrop of a good milk price. But come the day when milk prices fall – as they undoubtedly will – farmers will revert again to the use of standard semen and/or a black and white stock bull.

The most recent figures indicate that black and white cow numbers will increase by around 300,000 head over the next couple of years. And, even if some of the aforementioned steps are taken by milk producers, it is still realistic to assume that the meat industry will be processing around 100,000 extra black and white steers/bulls by 2017.

Given this fundamental reality, surely it is up to MII’s members to come with a plan of action now, which will identify how best to utilise this dairy beef resource in ways that will benefit farmers and processors in equal measure. The last show in town that we need is for the factories to wait until 2017 and then announce – without warning – that they are slashing the prices paid for Friesian cattle. And they have a track record in doing exactly this. A case in point was the decision taken by the factories to slash the rice of young bulls at the start of this year.

Friesian cattle should be as valued by the beef industry as is the case with all other classes of livestock. In fact, repeated research projects have confirmed that the meat percentage secured from a black and white carcass is higher than that yielded by Continental steers and heifers.

Meanwhile, this week has brought confirmation that beef imports into China will double over the next five years. Not wishing to put thoughts into the heads of MII members but perhaps looking East could be part of the real solution that could be arrived at when it comes to marketing Friesian beef to best effect.

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