‘Euro-Star Indexes should not be linked to BDGP’ – Pedigree breeders

Euro-Star Indexes should not be linked to a scheme such as the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP), according to the secretary of the Irish Charolais Cattle Society (ICCS), Nevan McKiernan.

McKiernan made the argument on Tuesday evening (May 22) when a delegation from the society appeared before a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Concerns surrounding the BDGP were up for discussion at the meeting, while officials from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) were also present.

Also Read: Irish Charolais Cattle Society steps into the ring with ICBF

The indexes were initially introduced as a tool for farmers, McKiernan said.

“They are a very useful tool when selecting and buying livestock. But they are only a guide and a guide is all they can be; they cannot be linked to a scheme.

The ICBF does some great work; I don’t want to take that from it – it produces some great reports for farmers. But the indexes cannot be linked to a scheme.

“What it has resulted in is the decline in quality of our beef cattle. No matter what anyone says, the quality of our cattle is declining.”

Explaining how this has come to pass, McKiernan said that pedigree breeders are being forced to use reliable bulls due to the volatility of the indexes – meaning breeders are sticking to the same bloodlines.

Secretary of the Irish Charolais Cattle Society (ICCS), Nevan McKiernan

The secretary of the ICCS maintained that this doesn’t make sense in the long run, for both pedigree breeders and suckler farmers.

Continuing, he added: “Suckler farmers are then being forced to buy high replacement index heifers from the dairy herd; that’s all they can do.

We see that there are 750 farmers in the BDGP scheme that are not going to meet the requirements of the scheme by the end of this year; there are another 700 farmers who are barely going to cross the line.

“What are they going to do? They have to go out and buy high-index replacement females coming off the dairy herd; that’s their only choice. If they don’t, they will not meet the requirements.”

Quality concerns

Because of this influx of high-index replacement females from the dairy herd, there are increasing numbers of O and P grade cattle coming from suckler herds, McKiernan said.

In September of last year, he stated that there was a review of the quality of cattle going through the factories carried out and that almost two in every three steers were classified as O or P grades.

“There was a 100% increase in P-grade steers compared to the same period in 2012. O-grade animals were up by 20%. R and U grades declined by 35% and 26%. The same trend could be seen for heifers across the board.

This trend will continue for as long as there is a dairy influence on our beef herds.

As well as this, McKiernan outlined that he had been in contact with 15 mart managers from across the country who all agreed that the quality of cattle passing through their marts is deteriorating at a rapid rate that has never been seen before.

BDGP

“It’s plain to be seen; if we keep going on the line we are going on, a country which was once known for producing top-quality beef cattle will soon no longer have that reputation,” he concluded.

Statistics

In response, the chief executive of the ICBF, Sean Coughlan, stressed to the committee that the federation has concrete statistics to show that progress is being made through the BDGP scheme.

People have asked the question about reality on the ground? All of this information is based on reality on the ground; it is what’s coming from farms, what’s coming from marts and what’s coming from factories.

“So there isn’t this magic ball of information that we are making up,” he said.

Following on from that, the federation’s chairman, Michael Doran, explained that the BDGP scheme was introduced under the last Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform to help target money at the suckler sector.

While gains were being made in relation to terminal traits, he stated that maternal traits were suffering as a result – which led to people having to source heifers within the dairy sector in order to strike a balance.

‘Unseen traits’

Since the BDGP scheme was implemented in 2015, there has been a very strong focus around genomics and genetics – as well as the benefits they can provide – the ICBF’s technical director, Andrew Cromie, told the meeting.

ICBF technical director, Andrew Cromie

He explained that it was necessary for the correlation between the terminal traits and maternal traits – which were going in opposite directions – to be broken.

Improvements in traits relating to growth and conformation are easy to identify; it is the unseen traits that prove more challenging, Cromie said.

The challenge that we have when we look at an animal in front of us is knowing whether that animal will transmit genes for: female fertility; for milk; for feed intake and efficiency; and for health and disease traits.

“These are the unseen traits; at the end of the day, it’s a technology like genomics and an understanding of DNA that helps us see them.

“If we look at the outcomes of the scheme now, calves per cow per year within herds in the scheme has gone from 0.8 to 0.87.

“That are an extra 70,000 calves into the system; which – if you reflect it across an industry at an average value of €1,400 or €1,500 for an animal at slaughter – is €100 million of additional income for farmers, in an industry that is really challenged in that regard,” he said.

Two sides of the coin

The challenge for the ICBF, Cromie outlined, is finding a way to improve the productivity around maternal traits and not lose out on terminal traits – which was to the core of the concerns raised by the ICCS delegation.

He maintained that the decrease in carcass weights and grades witnessed in factories in recent years was due to the increase in dairy-bred steers going to slaughter, as a result of the expanding dairy herd.

Cromie also argued that statistics show that the carcass weights have increased for Ireland’s three-quarter bred suckler beef population. As well as this, the age of slaughter within the country’s suckler beef herd is also on a downward trajectory, he said.

Furthermore, the ICBF representative refuted the claim that the BDGP scheme is in some way promoting the use of dairy-bred livestock in the suckler sector.

Before the scheme started, 26% of replacement females were first crosses from the dairy herd; now the percentage of first crosses from the dairy herd that are in the scheme – which are coming in on annual basis – is 23%.

“This perception that farmers are going out and buying first crosses from the dairy herd to meet the scheme requirements is simply not factually correct,” he said.

‘What we are doing here is unpopular’

Concluding, Cromie conceded that what the ICBF is endeavouring to do at the moment is “unpopular“.

“We’re changing the approach to breeding to focus on traits that you cannot see, so that you have to be more reliant on science and technology to help you identify these traits.

That’s what the BDGP is all about. We can see that the improvement has started to move in the right direction; now the key thing is can we really generate engagement with the breed societies and the bull breeders?

“Because the commercial suckler farmers now want these bulls and they want these AI straws – no different to the EBI story. A fire has been lit in that regard; farmers see the increases in profitability, now they want more of them,” he said.

Finally, Cromie underlined the fact that the ICBF does not wish to see an influx of dairy genes into the suckler beef herd.