ICBF: ‘To suggest we’re on the wrong road is simply untrue’

Suckler farming is at a “crucial turning point” with current productivity gains all moving in the right direction, the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has stated.

In light of mounting concerns from breed societies – and suckler farmers – over the ability of its services to deliver value for money, the ICBF has warned that “unhinging” advancements achieved to date would lead to a “negative outcome” for all.

The ICBF highlighted that it faced “similar challenges” with the dairy sector when its Economic Breeding Index (EBI) was first introduced 15 years ago.

Last week, the Irish Limousin Cattle Society announced that it would no longer make it mandatory for its breeders to take part in the ICBF’s Whole Herd Performance Recording (WHPR) programme.

A source within the society said that breeders have “lost confidence” in the programme due to the volatility of the Euro-Star Indexes.

Also Read: Limousin society enters into negotiations with the ICBF

Meanwhile, a delegation from the Irish Charolais Cattle Society outlined deep reservations over the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) – run by the ICBF – to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Leinster House last Tuesday (May 22).

Speaking to AgriLand, the ICBF’s top chiefs – Michael Doran (chairman), Sean Coughlan (president) and Andrew Cromie (technical director) – urged the beef sector to hold fast to the results.

Cromie said: “We are at a turning point; the industry has turned. The productivity gains are now moving in the right direction.

With that comes challenges; because we have created change and that is the challenge now. If we start to unhinge, or break apart that, it certainly wouldn’t be a good outcome for any of us.

“We are at a real pivotal moment and we must quickly now engage with breeders and AI companies to really accelerate the gains. That is what happened in the dairy sector,” he said.

In many ways, the ICBF believe its services are about trying to bring all breed societies back to an understanding that they need maternal and terminal traits together.

Cromie says current trends show that “now you can get both”.

Although the ICBF acknowledges that it took about 20 years for female fertility performance and milk sold outputs in dairying to reach desired levels; Cromie stressed that these gains were achieved “without genomics“.

“We have genomics now and that is ramping up progress and we believe we can shorten that time frame.

“We are very, very confident that we can help to maintain the one million suckler cow population – maybe it drops a little over a period of time – but, from a strategy perceptive, that is much more credible long-term than continuing to focus solely on terminal traits.

We’re trying to build the industry from within itself.

Upwards trajectory

According to the latest annual results from the not-for-profit organisation – established by Government and industry to coordinate livestock breeding in Ireland – after years of negative trends, the replacement index of the suckler beef herd in Ireland is growing at some €7/year.

This, it says, is a direct consequence of the impact of the BDGP scheme, with its focus on maternal traits – average calves/cow/year have increased from 0.79 calves/cow/year in 2014 to 0.85 calves/cow/year for 2017.

In addition to gains in maternal traits, improvements in terminal traits have also continued to increase – with the average terminal index having increased by some €70 per animal slaughtered over the last 15 years.

Reflecting this across the one million prime beef animals slaughtered/year in Ireland, this represents a gain of almost €580 million to beef farmers and the wider beef industry, according to the ICBF.

I know this is a constant point of discussion and contention in the industry with the perception that the suckler herd is on the decline – it’s simply not.

“What the BDGP scheme is helping us to do is identity, from a genetic perspective, these groups of animals that break the negative correlation between maternal traits and terminal traits.

“That doesn’t mean that you can’t find exceptional animals within breeds that can do both, and that is what we are trying to do – because we need to be able to prove the maternal attributes,” Cromie said.

Fact focus

Sean Coughlan, the president of the ICBF, is urging those with concerns to focus on the facts.

“People can have their view and perceptions on what they are seeing inside their own yard and we have to be sympathetic to that, but – on the other hand – what we are doing is looking at the broad facts and seeing what is happening out there.

“This notion that you only buy on the figures, and you don’t pay any attention to how the animals look – that is not something we subscribe to either.

Your eyes are one tool and the information we have on the genetics is another tool. You don’t use one to the exclusion of the other; you use both.

“You cannot look at an animal and say whether that bull is going to have the genes to transmit into cows that will produce female fertility or health and disease traits,” he said.

Also Read: ICBF generates ‘small’ financial surplus for 2017

Referencing Bord Bia figures, the ICBF stated that average carcass weights are increasing across suckler beef bullocks, dairy-beef steers and dairy steers.

“Of the sucker animals killed, carcass weight has increased from 379kg to 386kg in 2017 – up 17kg. The beef-dairy carcass weights have gone from 334kg to 339kg; while dairy carcass weights have gone from 314kg to 319kg.

“So to suggest that they are going in the wrong direction is simply not true,” contends Coughlan.

‘Sucklers not in decline’

Cromie also warns that dairy expansion is leading to “misconceptions” over a dilution of suckler numbers ringside.

“The growth of the dairy herd, and the integration of those dairy genes, into the broader cattle population – that is what the marts are seeing, they are seeing more dairy animals.

“At slaughter, on the dairy side, you had 144,000 in 2013 – up to 184,000 in 2017; while the dairy-beef cross was at 124,000 in 2013, up to 197,000 last year.

These animals are going to be of poorer quality, relatively speaking to the sucklers; and there is an awful lot more of them going through the marts.

The ICBF chiefs outlined that the overall objective of the BDGP scheme is for beef farmers to be more profitable with more sustainable, carbon-efficient cows.

As such, the ICBF says it is very much focused around collecting data, identifying cows, and generating genetic gain for the suckler herd – from within the suckler herd.

“We are focused on trying to help the Simmental, the Aubracs, the Limousins, the Charolais breeders. We want to help them to identify the bulls that have both maternal and terminal attributes; but, we need all this data in the programme to help us to do that,” said Cromie.

Applying dairy principle to beef

Looking back, the ICBF chiefs said the organisation faced similar challenges with the dairy sector when EBI was introduced 15 years ago.

“When EBI was introduced, and we were in the early stages of the ICBF, we were going through the same turmoil with the breed societies on the dairy side because we were changing the picture away from just productivity and milk output.

All of sudden we were talking about female fertility, cow survival and healthy disease traits – that was causing huge tax and turmoil.

“At that stage, the frustrated farmers were starting to cross breed. But – the terrible irony of it is – as a consequence of EBI and the database, all of a sudden guys that wanted stable black and white cows could find high EBI bulls that had fertility and they didn’t have to go crossbreeding.

“We’re still at less than 10% of dairy that are crossbred. The dairy farmers could see that there is science and technology here that is helping identify really profitable, high milk, high fertility animals within the breed.

“And it’s the exact same principle that we are looking to apply now in beef,” he said.

The bigger picture

However, they understand that suckler farmers urgently need to see the return on the books – as incomes are currently on the floor.

According to the Teagasc National Farm Survey – published last week – in 2017 there were approximately 19,691 cattle rearing farms, with an average income of €12,680. Suckler cow production is the dominant enterprise on these farms.

Michael Doran, chairman of the ICBF said: “We are going to see a much stronger suckler herd at the end of the BDGP scheme (which will run until 2020) as a result of people having more efficient cows.

“While the original was to get targeted money into the sector; it’s now about having an animal that is going to be more sustainable from an environmental point of view and for a better margin.

“At least if a guy has 40 suckler cows and he is able to sell 38 or 40 calves from that per year, instead of only 31 or 32 calves per year – that is massive in productivity gains.

Getting €7.50/kg or €8/kg for beef is aspirational. It would be lovely, and that is what is needed probably to give people a return from beef the same as what can be generated from dairying.

“But the reality is, we are still exporting nine out of every 10 animals that we produce here. We have to find a market for them, we have Brexit coming down the road, we see the opportunities in China – but will that deliver into a price? No one really knows.

“So what we as farmers have to do is look at what we can control inside our own farm gate and one of the biggest costs associated with the suckler herd at the moment is just the cost of keeping the cow.

“We have to operate from a national point of view. We’re looking at the data that is coming and those trends are positive at the moment. With more information coming in, it can only improve,” he concluded.