Beef farmers to benefit from new genomics project

Dairy farmers say genomics technology has enabled them produce calves which are each worth €100 extra.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has kicked off a new €23m effort in 2014 to extend the benefits of genomics to beef farmers.

Dairy farmers who have gained the full benefits of genomics technology say it has enabled them produce calves which are each worth €100 extra.

But the first reaction of beef farmers is, will genomics deliver calves which beef processors will eventually pay top prices for?

The farmers say they are already breeding the best cattle they can, but they are still not making enough profit out of them, this winter.

And those farmers who followed advice to go the bull beef route with their calves are facing the possibility of major financial losses.

As a result, bankers are slower to fund their continued operations, and many beef farmers are looking at switching to milk production, or to heifer rearing for dairy farmers.

According to IFA’s beef spokesman, Henry Burns, the objective is clear for dairy farmers. Produce protein, butterfat and the other milk constituents as efficiently as possible.

Ireland’s progress in the science of genomics has helped farmers breed the best cattle to do that.

But what is missing in the beef industry is processors “coming to the table” to give farmers clear specifications on what to produce, says Burns.

He says farmers have bred good quality cattle but processors say they do not want them now, just as the cattle are ready for sale. As a result, cattle farmers do not know what calves to breed today, according to Burns — a stark contrast to the dairy farmer’s more straightforward decision making.

Dairy farmers making breeding decisions have been able to use one figure, the EBI or Economic Breeding Index, to calculate which option will be best for the fertility and milk production of the animals which will come into their herds in two years’ time.

The Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has updated the EBI along the way, in line with the changing values of milk constituents on global markets. But can an EBI or its equivalent, based on improved genetic information on the beef herd, be calculated, in order to help beef farmers decide what cattle processors will pay them the best price for, about two years down the road? That is the question now being raised by beef farmers, as the full benefits of genomics are coming within reach.

Nevertheless, IFA has welcomed the new genomics technology, which is aimed at suckler farmers, and which can earn them payments of €60 per calf this year, and €80 in 2015.

And Mr Coveney has welcomed the commitment of farmers to his bid to use genomics to bring Ireland to the forefront globally in beef genetics, which he says will enhance our reputation as a sustainable food producer, and increase the carbon efficiency of beef production. In other words, it will enable processors find the best export markets for their beef.

Mr Coveney says genomics will also drive efficiency and increase the profitability of suckler farms. He wants suckler farmers to maximise their return from the marketplace, rather than rely heavily on EU and exchequer supports — which is the current situation.

He says he is a “huge” convert to the science of genomics, and this is why he opted for a beef genomics scheme in farmer support up to 2020, rather than pay the same €80 per calf as a coupled payment with no strings attached.

However, farmers can be forgiven for their misgivings over how much processors will pay them for cattle in a proposed future when breeding decisions will be much easier, thanks to genomics and collection of full genetic data on the beef herd.

The farmers only have to look at current markets.

Milk prices are at record levels globally, and in Ireland also. There are record high beef prices in the UK and many other countries, including the US.

However, Irish beef cattle are selling for €350 per head less than comparable cattle in the UK, our nearest neighbour, where nearly 60% of Irish beef is consumed.


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