I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to appear before them again. I welcome the opportunity to provide them with an update on progress and some technical aspects of the scheme from a breeding perspective. Given that we were here just a few months ago, I will try not to cover the same ground again. However, it might be useful to recap a little. By way of background, the ICBF is an independent, industry-owned agency responsible for the generation of genetic evaluations for cattle in Ireland, and it is licensed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have attended the various farmer meetings around the country over the past couple of months and have fielded many queries and concerns on the technical breeding and genomics-related aspects of the scheme. In that context and the context of the invitation to attend again today, I propose to cover some of the key issues from a breeding perspective, and my colleague, Dr. Andrew Cromie, and I will be more than happy to attempt to answer any questions asked.
The first question concerns the nature of the core issue in terms of genetic gain in the national suckler herd. The reality is that farmers have done a very good job in increasing the genetic merit in the terminal, or meat, traits of their animals. Unfortunately, these gains have been offset by continued decline in the maternal traits, concerning milk and fertility. The current make-up of the replacement index is contained in figure 1 of my submission. Members will see that the five key aspects are calving, feed intake, carcase weight, maternal milk, female fertility and, carrying some weighting, docility. The key point is that genomics can bring to bear the ability to predict how animals will perform in the more difficult to measure traits of milk, fertility and docility. When one looks at an animal, one cannot necessarily tell how well it will calve, its feed intake, the amount of milk it will produce or its fertility or docility levels. One could have a good stab at guessing its carcase weight or other traits. Unfortunately, the terminal, or meat, traits that the industry has been chasing are negatively correlated to the maternal traits, which are key for the profitability of our cows. That means that as we breed for more muscle, a higher growth rate and other traits in our animals, the calving, milk, and fertility traits go in the opposite direction.
Why is fertility in our cows important? Members should consider figure 2 in my submission, which refers to two herds, the first of which is a high-fertility herd of 20 cows producing 19 calves. There are 0.95 calves per cow per year, with an average weaning weight of 350 kg. The total weaning weight produced in that herd would be 6,650 kg. The second example is a low-fertility herd, again with 20 cows but producing only 14 calves. Those calves are heavier than in the first herd, averaging at 400 kg and with a total weaning weight of 5,600 kg. However, although the weanlings in the second herd are heavier, because there are more in the high-fertility herd the latter produces 1,050 kg more. At a weanling price of €2.20 per kilogramme, there is a difference of €2,310 between the prices achieved from both herds.
With regard to how farmers have come to know the Euro-star evaluations of their cows, in September beef data and genomics programme Euro-star reports were sent to participants in the scheme.
An example page is contained in figure 3. It contains details on the animal, namely, the jumbo, the tag, the date of birth, the sex and the star rating of the animal. Most farmers were pleasantly surprised regarding the status of their herds, and the reports have significantly eased the concerns of many of the scheme participants. However, one of the key messages coming from the reports is that the majority of four and five-star cows are the older cows, as terminal breeding continues to flush the maternal genes out of our cows. Thus we need to pay much more attention to the bulls and cows we are using to breed the next generation of replacement females. That is a key focus of the scheme.
To recap on how Euro-stars are calculated and what the Euro-star rating means, there are two parts to it. One is the Euro part, which represents the additional profit an animal, male or female, will deliver compared with another animal. If one animal is rated at €50 in that respect and another animal is rated at €100, the latter animal is predicted to provide €50 more profit per progeny than the animal rated at €50. In terms of the stars, the animals are ranked into quintiles, in different 20 percentiles. For example, the five-star animals are the top 20%, the three-star animals are the average, and the one-star animals are the bottom 20%.
The majority of the data used in genetic evaluations come from the individual farms. The 2008 suckler scheme changed the landscape in terms of data for suckler cattle in Ireland. The culture of data recording on suckler farms that this scheme brought about has had a dramatic impact on the quantity and quality of data that are available for use in genetic evaluations. The use of on-farm recording has also facilitated the linking of mart and factory data, which are very powerful data for genetic evaluations. That is why the evaluation system available to Irish farmers is as powerful as it is, because of the high levels of integration in the various industry data capture systems.
A key question is whether the adoption of Euro-stars takes the industry in the right direction. Figures 5 and 6 show the results of some analysis we have done of around 100,000 replacement females that were born in 2008, the first year of the suckler scheme, and that subsequently came into current beef data and genomics programme participant herds as female replacements. We then analysed the data we had on the offspring of these females to see how we performed.
Figure 5 contains the weanling performance. I would point out a few key points. In terms of the percentage of animals that are still alive, 79% of the five-star females are still alive versus 63% of the one-star females, so there is a difference of 16%. The five-star females have had 4.57 progeny, on average, versus 3.94 for the one-star animals, which is 0.63 of a calf more for the five-star versus the one-star animals. The five-star animals are 27 kilos ahead of the one-star animals in terms of the weanling weight, and the value achieved at the marts is €786 versus €757, a difference of €28. When we add up all those figures, the offspring of five-star animals has averaged €3,587 versus €2,980 for one-star animals. Five-star cows have had more progeny, are lasting longer, have had heavier weanlings, albeit at a slightly low price per kilo and have generated €28 more per weanling and a total of €600 profit more per date over the one-star animals.
If we note the carcase performance in terms of the factory output, we see a similar profile. The five-star animals have had more progeny go through the factory. The animals are being slaughtered significantly younger, almost 39 days younger. They are slightly heavier in terms of carcase weight. There is no difference on average in terms of the confirmation, and with respect to the price achieved at the factory, they are ahead by €17. When we add more progeny and a higher carcase weight, there is a €600 difference between the offspring of five-star animals and that of one-star animals followed through to slaughter.
Figure 7 is a graph that was presented at the Teagasc national beef conference by Nóirín McHugh from Teagasc in which 1,200 cows and calves across 40 herds were weighed. The results showed that, on average, five-star cows were 26 kg lighter than the one-star cows, thus costing less to maintain, but that the offspring of five-star cows were 30 kg heavier at weanling. Five-star cows are producing more from less, the essence of the scheme in terms of increased profitability at farm level, and this is more environmentally sustainable in terms of more outputs from fewer inputs.
Will the four and five-star cows move us away from the breeds we have been using? The graph illustrates that there are four and five-star cows across all breeds and although some breeds will have more of a challenge, there is no need for herds to change breed in order to meet the four and five-star requirements of the scheme. What happens when the Euro-star indexes move? It should be noted that the indexes will move over time as we get more data into the system. Some will move more than others but there will be movement in all species, including dairy animals, sheep, pigs and chickens. Beef will be no different. The key from a scheme perspective is that once an animal has a four and five-star index at the required time, when it is genotyped, it will be eligible from a scheme perspective, even if its rating subsequently drops to three stars or below.
In terms of the current status of engagement with the scheme by farmers for the 2015 requirements, over 19,000 herds have returned samples for genotyping. In terms of animal survey requirements, over 20,000 herds have returned some data on the survey forms for their animals. We are currently following up with farmers to ensure maximum levels of completion ahead of the December payment runs by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
We are very confident in the ability of genetics to deliver improved profitability for Irish suckler farmers. Five-star cows have the potential to deliver an extra €100 profit per year to farmers and, as a result, we strongly believe the scheme has the capacity to deliver long-term benefits to the Irish suckler industry well beyond the six year timelines of the scheme. The most recent engagement with thousands of farmers across the country has served to reinforce our view.