Improving Performance In Suckler Herds Through Breeding Plans

Breeding is the key to a successful future for suckler herds , said William Haires, Nuffield scholar at the British Cattle Breeders Conference. Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite Editor reports.
calendar icon 30 January 2011
clock icon 6 minute read

Embarking on a Nuffield scholarship in 2010, Mr Haires visited the USA, New Zealand, and Australia to find out what he had to do in order to run a successful suckler herd into the future. He specifically looked at selection techniques and performance improvements, to establish the practical benefits and application of estimated breeding values (EBVs) and Gene Marker technology.

The UK has been known as the genetics capital of the world, introducing Artificial Insemination (AI). "The industry once dared to be different," he said. "Now the UK has been left behind by nations who used to look to up to us.

"Suckler herd management must change," he stressed.

With costs of production increasing, new practices and existing ones need to be evaluated. There is no opportunity to 'get it wrong' now, especially as the value of subsidies has fallen significantly.

Judging cattle performance by eye alone, is no longer a way to run a profitable business. Improving the genetic capabilities of a herd is the cheapest and most beneficial investment a herd owner can make, Mr Haires said.

He criticised the industry for moving towards continental and other breeds, which he says have let breeders focus on correcting faults in the breeds, rather than look at improving efficiency.

"Farmers have been trying to make their farm fit the system, instead of choosing a system to fit their farm," he said.

"Because breeders have become so busy treating the symptoms, we have forgotten what the problems ever were."

UK cattle have so much undervalued potential, said Mr Haires, and producers just aren't using the resources available. With rising feed costs, why aren't producers establishing breeding programmes that allow for greater use of grass - our biggest asset, he asked.

"Ultimately we want to breed cattle that perform well, are efficient and improve profitability."

So what makes a good breeding programme?

Through travelling abroad, Mr Haires has seen the value that genetic improvement has on breeding cattle to work more effectively with the resources already available.

The following are what Mr Haires considers vital when creating a breeding programme:

Market requirements: Are cattle being produced for meat or breeding? Live or dead market? Opportunities exist to produce cattle for existing or new premium markets including those based on breed, provenance, eating quality or commercial replacements.

In order to understand market requirements, knowledge is key. "It is vital that better relationships within the supply chain are developed to share requirements and knowledge which benefit everyone involved," he said.

"The current lack of shared information is restricting producers’ ability to supply what the retailer and consumer demand because they simply do not know what is required."

Resources available: What land is available, what systems suit this land, environmental practices in place, buildings available.

This list is not definitive - as each farm is different and every farmer needs to evaluate his own, but whatever the resources are, they will determine the types of stock that can be kept, the potential markets that can be reached and the extent to which improvements can be made.

Herd records: This is to aid identification of cattle within a herd, and will help measure and identify individual traits at a later date.

Personal and financial expectations

Within herd demands: Is the herd closed, what vaccinations are required, replacement rates, stocking rates, herd docility, intervention between humans/ cattle etc.

Selection tools: This is important to assist with breeding herd decisions and culling options. Selection tools could be weighing scales, EBVs or other genetic markers. Mr Haires says that cattle performance must be measured.

"The old adage of cattle performance being 80 per cent feeding and 20 per cent breeding is not true," he said. The breeding component will determine how the non genetic component is used, when trying to maximise returns, the right genetics are vital.


EBVs should be the minimum criteria used for selecting breeding bulls, semen for AI and pedigree females for breeding, Mr Haires said.

Mr Haires found that the most successful herds he visited abroad were ones that had completely embraced EBVs. He said that whilst getting the EBV for the bull right, the bull is only half the story. Therefore cows must also be selected on EBVs.

He found that the US were struggling to get used to EBVs (called EPDs in the US), but that progressive farmers were using them successfully.

An estimated breeding value, is exactly that, he said. It is an estimation or prediction for the animals progeny, not its own performance.

Mr Haires suggests that EBV targets should be set with the system that suits the farm in mind. Bulls/ cows should then be looked at and it is vital that they fit the criteria set. This way a package of traits is acquired.

Using animals with higher indexes than the average for that herd will have significant benefits for the herd, increasing the value of the business.

DNA Based Genetics

Incredible process is being made with regard to genomics. Whilst the bovine genome has been mapped out, there is a vast amount of research still needed to identify what each single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) (found in the DNA) controls and influences.

The use of genetic markers, allows desirable traits to be recognised in cattle at one day old. Their greatest use comes with traits that have a low heritability, are difficult to measure, cannot be measured until the animal has produced progeny (by which time it may be too late), where the animal may have to be slaughtered or where the trait is not routinely measured.

"If the trait can be measured using conventional performance recording there is no need to use anything else. If there is no other method of measuring a trait, cost is not prohibitive and it is a benefit to the business, it may be worth considering genomic analysis as part of a comprehensively designed plan," said Mr Haires.

Mr Haires farms 220 acres near Belfast, Northern Ireland. The farm runs pedigree Hereford and Angus herds, and a commercial suckler herd based on Ayrshire/ Friesian X Hereford cows mated to native breed sires (Aberdeen Angus).

Mr Haires is currently looking at shortening the calving time, which is currently eight weeks. By shortening this, he hopes to be able to turn out animals earlier, at the start of May.

In the future, he is also looking at introducing a whole farm approach, including cell grazing. This, he says, will tighten control of the cows grazing, so they would eat areas that would usually be neglected.

One intensive grassland system that he saw in New Zealand was achieving a daily liveweight gain of 2kg per animal.

Concluding Mr Haires said: "The UK has some of the best conditions in the world to produce beef, with the use of EBV's and genomics, the future for suckler beef production is an exciting and profitable one."

January 2011
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