Call for more flexibility in beef data scheme

At the risk of making the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) even more complicated than it already is, there is a need to consider some recourse to appealing the star rating of cows in a farmer’s herd.

This is emerging as an issue as farmers consider the ratings applied across their herd by Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF).

The BDGP is a scheme introduced to use modern technologies such as genomic testing (testing DNA) to identify the best genetics at the earliest possible stage in suckler herds.

The idea is that the scheme would help farmers to select the potentially most profitable female stock for retention in the herd as future breeding cows.

Under this new scheme, farmers are being provided with a star rating for each female in the herd which should, ideally, indicate the most profitable animals in the herd.

Defining what is most profitable is a controversial enough issue as many factors determine profitability in suckler cow.

The beef merit of any animal seems obvious enough to any competent farmer by visual assessment but of course this can be made more complex by external factors such as feeding and animal health.

In addition, there is the problem that some cows may have immense beef quality but not enough milk to adequately feed their calf.

In addition, there is a huge problem with fertility with studies showing that as little as 80%-85% of cows actually deliver a calf for sale every 12 months.

This failure to calve a live calf every 12 months is a huge inefficiency and an obvious loss of income on suckler farms.

Hence, ICBF has developed a huge database for every breeding animal in the country with a view to using analysis of the data to sort out the wheat from the chaff, in terms of animal performance.

The database is helped by the gathering of information from beef factory records but some farmers don’t sell to factories and the information is incomplete when their animals are slaughtered abroad.

In any event, farmers are reporting anomalies where cows they rate highly are achieving the lowest star ratings.

If a cow looks good but the record says she only produced three calves in four years, then farmers have to accept that she is not profitable, regardless of how fantastic the three calves were.

On the other hand, where the cow can be shown to be an efficient animal, then there is a case for contesting the rating. How could this work?

One option favoured by ICSA is that the animal could be assessed by ICBF personnel on the ground. For example, progeny of the cow could be weighed at 200 days and scored for quality.

Surely, if the objective is a really robust database, then the data needs to be backed up by independent on the ground scrutiny. In breeding, the laptop has its limitations.

Especially, when there is a considerable variation and subjectivity in the data supplied by individual farmers and breeders in respect of their own stock.

Obviously, we are not proposing a full roll-out of this to all animals in all herds. Instead it would be an option where a farmer was very adamant that some stock in the herd should be upgraded.

The cost would be shared by the farmer and ICBF, so as to discourage every farmer arguing the toss for no overall benefit to the database.

All of this is a sore subject owing to the brutally inflexible targets set out under the BDGP, where farmers have to have 50% 4/5 star cows by the final year of the scheme or potentially face heavy cuts and clawbacks of monies already paid.

ICSA has argued that the scheme is too rigid, both in terms of setting exact targets and in terms of clawbacks of money.

This might be acceptable if star ratings were an exact science but actually, the star ratings even of AI bulls, is subject to constant change and in some cases, spectacular drops.

A farmer cannot be penalised for failure to meet targets in 2018/2020 when such results are contingent on breeding decisions made in previous years. Especially when they are relying on ratings that ICBF cannot guarantee.

It seems to me that the case for more flexibility is overwhelming.


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