Is the BDGP scheme increasing dairy genetics in the suckler herd?

Though it may not have been the intention of the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP), one pedigree breeder firmly believes that the scheme – in its current form – is promoting the increased use of dairy genetics in the national suckler herd.

Emmanuel O’Dea is a software engineer who lives close to Athenry in Co. Galway. Farming along with his father, he breeds pedigree Simmental and Angus cattle – while also managing a herd of commercial suckler cows.

As a pedigree breeder and suckler farmer, O’Dea has some concerns regarding the BDGP scheme and the direction in which it is taking the national suckler herd in.

Speaking with AgriLand recently, he wished to highlight how well beef breeds are performing in the scheme.

“Parental averaging is used to predict the expected replacement index from the cross of two animals. Put simply; if you cross a cow with a value of €80 with a bull that has a value of €100, the calf will have a value around €90.

40% of all bulls within a breed are eligible under the BDGP scheme because they will have four or five stars. However, in a lot of cases those bulls will not be capable of breeding daughters that will qualify for the scheme.

“In the latest Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) genetic evaluation run, the average suckler cow has a replacement index of €72.

“In order to produce four-star cows eligible for the scheme, they would need a breeding value of €80 or higher – which means the bull used must have a breeding value greater than €88,” he said.

How many of each breed can achieve this?

What O’Dea wished to highlight, by analysing data published by the ICBF, is how many bulls within each beef breed can achieve this.

Continuing, he said: “For example, the Charolais bull SNZ has a replacement index of €88.02 – which puts him in the 89th percentile for the breed.

What this means is that only 11% of all Charolais bulls can change an average cow into a four-star cow, even though the difference is only €8. In fact, only 8% Herefords, 42% of Limousins, 3% of Belgian Blues and 54% of Angus can achieve this.

First cross off a dairy cow

However, O’Dea stated that, by comparison, the average first cross of a dairy cow has a replacement index of €104.30 – which suggests that the average dairy animal has an index “north of €130”, he said.

“Until the actual breed percentiles are published for the dairy breeds, we can only guess their breed average.

“The ICBF has been asked to, but does not, publish breed percentiles for the dairy breed – even though they must exist for them to blend dairy genetics with beef genetics in the evaluations.

What we can highlight though is that if we cross the average first cross dairy cow with a bull with a breeding value over €55.7, their offspring are eligible for the BDGP scheme.

“This value falls in the 30th percentile of all cattle, which means that bulls as low as two-star across all breeds can be used to breed daughters eligible for the scheme,” the pedigree breeder said.

Importance of striking a balance

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the ICBF indicated that the scenarios listed by O’Dea are legitimate – but he warned that the first cross out of a dairy cow would be “very unbalanced“.

He explained that the replacement index is made up of a mixture of beef, milk, fertility and calving traits etc.

While the first cross off the dairy herd would be “sky high” for milk, as well as “probably being okay” when it comes to fertility and calving, it wouldn’t perform well when it came to the beef traits.

Continuing, the ICBF spokesperson said: “If you look at those first crosses out of the dairy herd, they are probably four and five-star for replacement index.

But if you actually look into the index itself, they are probably very, very strong on the milk part and not very strong on the beef part. People will look at them and go: ‘They’re not a great looking cow, how can they be five-star?’

“There is an imbalance in the first crosses from the dairy herd. The next calf from the first cross out of the dairy herd will have better beef traits, but it will still have milk and fertility. It is all about striking a balance,” the spokesperson said.

The ICBF representative believes that it is crucial for farmers and breeders to delve deeper into how an animal’s genetic index is calculated. The spokesperson added that a genetic imbalance can also occur in terms of terminal traits.

‘Quick fix’

Continuing, the ICBF spokesperson said: “We have always been very straight on this; we have never seen the dairy herd as being the answer for the suckler herd. We have always said that you have to have an indigenous suckler herd that is able to reproduce itself maternally.

“The suckler herd has to be able to reproduce its own replacements and not go to the dairy herd for the quick fix.”

Concluding, pedigree breeder O’Dea suggested that indexes could possibly work better if individual traits were not able to “completely skew an animal’s value”.

He stressed that there needs to be constructive engagement between breed societies and the ICBF if the BDGP scheme is to benefit the suckler system as a whole.