Beef Data Genomics Programme: Irish Cattle Breeding Federation

We will resume in public session.

I welcome Mr. Sean Coughlan from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, and Dr. Andrew Cromie, the federation's technical director. I thank them for appearing to update us on the progress on the beef data and genomics programme. Members will recall that both gentlemen were before us in July. We are anxious to hear the updated position.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that evidence connected only with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Witnesses and members should note that the Dáil has agreed to observe a minute's silence at 3.15 p.m. At that time, I will be calling a halt to proceedings and asking members to stand and observe a minute's silence in unison. We will take our lead from the Dáil. I invite Mr. Coughlan to make his statement.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

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.

Is Deputy Aylward taking the first line of questioning?

No, I am not a member of the committee.

Okay. Deputy Fitzmaurice is deputising for Deputy Pringle on this matter.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Am I correct that the statistics are based on 40% accuracy through the years?

I ask that members put questions as a block rather than going back and forth.

Are figures worked on with 40% accuracy through the years? Am I correct that with people producing for the Italian trade - for example, the weanlings - generally the cows are rated with one or two stars? That is generally what I have seen through the years. If we move the way described by the witnesses, will we produce a replacement animal closer to the milk or dairy sector with a smaller carcase? Would it be a smaller-framed animal, to put it simply? It would not be as attractive for the likes of the Italian trade as a live export. With regard to replacement of cattle, we have seen a problem detailed at meetings where an animal had twins and one had a different rating, despite being from the same cow. I do not know if that has been sorted out and perhaps the witnesses could further inform me.

I welcome the delegation. I hope to be just as brief with my questions, which arise as a follow-up as I know the witnesses tried to address many of the issues. With regard to the purchasing of a bull with a rating of four or five stars, the witnesses stated that indexes will move. Has that always been stated publicly at meetings as some farmers are confused because departmental officials and officials from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation have given conflicting views? Will the witnesses confirm today that this is the case and there is no change?

With the calculation of different percentages, how is docility only given 4%? A number of farmers might say a quieter animal would thrive much more. Why is such a small percentage given in the importance of the overall scheme? The last question follows on and relates to Deputy Fitzmaurice's comment. One farmer has given an example of six animals with the same bull and dam which seem to have different ratings. Four were born in 2008 and two in 2009. Why have the indexes moved quite widely although they come from the same gene pool?

Perhaps the witnesses will be able to explain it in a way that puts people's minds at ease because the goalposts seem to be moving, which is causing confusion.

I thank Mr. Cromie and Mr. Coughlan for coming before the committee. I found our previous meeting with them very informative. I will go over some of the issues raised by Deputy Fitzmaurice. I am participating in the scheme, and last year I bought 16 heifers as replacements before the scheme was introduced. They happened to be Black Angus, which is an Angus and Hereford cross, and when I received the ratings, 14 of them were five-star heifers and two were four-star heifers. This was because they are from a dairy herd. The witnesses can produce figures to state animals are more profitable if they come from dairy herds, given the milk rates, but I am concerned we will lose the Italian and Spanish trade because these animals will not breed E and U grade animals, which are required for the Italian market in particular. We may lose this trade because we will not have enough of them.

The Irish Cattle Breeding Federation's website states 17 traits are taken into account. We have a list of six here, which means there are 11 more traits. According to the list we have, weanling weight is the first trait, which can be established through the mart. Will people such as me, who do not sell weanlings but continue to slaughter, be asked to weigh animals? With regard to calving intervals, we all want a calf within 12 months because this is the ideal situation, but if farmers change the calving date from September to the following January for a cow which was a four-star or five-star animal, it may be downrated. Calving difficulties are very hard to rate. I still have to fill out my form about calving difficulties. We want everything right, but will somebody state he or she had to jack 10, 11 or 12 calves and one was harder than the other? This will be very difficult to establish. Establishing progeny carcase weight is fine for someone slaughtering animals in this country, but when animals are exported, is there a follow-up process when they go to feedlots in Italy or Spain? Do we have any way to establish that an animal was slaughtered in Italy at 350 kg or 360 kg?

I am concerned about the dairy element. I have a number of five-star cows which are either Angus or Hereford crosses. My own cows, which are very good breeders, calve within 12 months, and produce a lot of milk and good calves, are only rated as one-star or two-star cows. I am concerned we will go too much towards a dairy element. I have a five-star bull, which I bought this year. If I cross him with the five-star heifer, the next breed will be half-Limousin. Will this animal have a five-star rating or will it go down to a four-star rating because the milk rate will drop because of not coming from a dairy herd? How many generations of breeding does it take to drop the rating of an animal?

We cannot establish docility. Nobody wants a wicked animal on the farm, whether a bull or a cow. This is about honesty.

The minute's silence in the Dáil is scheduled for 3.15 p.m.

I propose that we suspend proceedings for five minutes. Senator Comiskey will be next to speak when we return.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.25 p.m.

I will make a short comment because I have to go to the Seanad. I thank the witnesses for the presentation. The more information we convey to farmers, the better. There was a lot of fear when farmers joined the scheme, but as information became available it became more acceptable to them. I know one farmer who was very concerned and was going to withdraw from the scheme. He brought his data to me one Sunday evening and we went through it, and he found he was at 68%. All he had to do was continue.

Senator O'Neill referred to dairy herds which are of concern. My part of the country along the Border and the west produce a lot of good quality weanlings that would be exported. We do not want to lose that important market.

Do the witnesses find that milk and fertility are linked in herds? Many still hope the system will be reduced to three stars, particularly in the initial stages. A review was promised and perhaps that is being considered at the moment. The scheme could be reduced to three stars and then perhaps increased in a year or two as people become more used to it. As people were breeding bulls, in particular, it may be a bit of a problem for them to achieve five stars on the bulls they are producing.

I think the witnesses for coming before the committee. This is one of the days when the gift of bi-location would be quite handy.

The witnesses said survey forms, in one form or another, for 20,000 herds have been sent in and samples have been returned for 19,000 herds. I understand that initially about 27,000 filled out the form. What is the latest date this year for sending in data in order that farmers can get paid before Christmas? If farmers do not submit data for this year, does this mean they are out of the scheme or not? Can they join at any stage for the five years of the scheme and can the scheme run for five years from that date? Of the 7,000 who have not yet submitted data, do the witnesses know whether there is any correlation between them and herd size? Does the figure involve predominantly large, small or medium-sized herds?

I tabled two parliamentary questions to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and to say that I did not get very clear answers is putting it mildly. I asked him if a person who buys a five-star bull could find that in subsequent years the star rating of the same animal was reduced and if he would make a statement on the matter. He told me that it could reduce, but if a bull was in a five-star category it would remain so. My second question was if there was any guarantee that bulls currently rated star five on artificial insemination, AI, catalogues would retain their star rating in the future, what effect it could have on farmers if it was subsequently found that AI bulls had been overrated and if he would make a statement on the matter.

The Minister did not really address the issue at all. I will try to clarify for the officials the point I was trying to make. I listened to an expert on the subject recently in a southern county. I went all the way down to listen to him. He said that the reliability of many of the AI bulls in terms of the star rating was actually rather low. For example, I could go to the catalogue and decide on a five-star bull. Then my 50 cows could produce 50 calves. The same would apply if it were 20 cows or ten or whatever. However, I could easily find out two or three years later that I had actually mated the cows to a one-star or two-star bull. It does not matter, except that the progeny, accordingly, would not be what I had thought they would be. It would have been as if I had got a one-star or two-star rated bull. In fact, the speaker was recommending that farmers should not use only one AI bull and that they should reduce their risk. For example, if a farmer had ten cows he could use five bulls and mate two cows per bull to insure against one or more of them proving to be a gliogar. I am not sure whether the witnesses know what a gliogar is - it is a term for a rotten egg in the Irish language. Anyway, if a bull proved to be something other than what it was meant to be, then I would not have bought into it.

The Department seems to be concerned about the AI bull, but that would not be on my register as a farmer. The progeny of the AI bull would be my problem. Four or five years later I could find myself with a major pain in my head, having thought I had done everything correctly. In fact, I could be left with progeny that do not match the specification of what I bought. In that case I would face a severe penalty, if I understand the system correctly. If a farmer was not knowledgeable beyond my understanding of genomics, he might not pay much heed to it.

I am actually in favour of genomics. I like the concept and I believe in science. I believe that over time, once we have enough data collected to start rating things on past performance and so on, we will have a useful tool. However, I think we are rushing our fences in demanding that farmers have X or Y number of four-star or five-star animals in the coming years. To my mind, that is how everything works according to the plan of the Department. I accept the basic science, but I think there are many variables in it. If I accept what Department officials are saying in terms of output, then obviously farmers are going to move toward the four-star or five-star bulls over time for good reason, since the economic return on the market is going to entice them, just as the economic return from the factories moved farmers towards the confirmation of the animal in the factory or whatever the factories wanted. When this data becomes available, it will move people. However, the problem is not that people will not want to move. The problem is the unintended consequences, since the data they are being given at the moment may be unreliable. This particularly relates to people who use AI bulls or people using what are now rated as five-star stock bulls but which may subsequently turn out to be one-star bulls. The original bull is only one animal, but the fact that his progeny might not have the traits he was meant to deliver as a five-star bull could have major consequences for the herd.

Does the system include some type of in-built guarantee for farmers who act in good faith, based on the information given to them, and subsequently find that this information was less than optimum and a reclassification was required, specifically in respect of the bull - the paternal side is likely to produce a large number of progeny - where it fails to live up to its record and produces a large number of sub-optimal cattle?

On the conditions, the help sheet provided states that if a holding decreases by more than 20%, in other words, if the number of animals falls by more than one fifth, the farmer would be disqualified under the amount set out in 2014. I presume force majeure would apply in cases where depopulation is caused by disease or similar factors. In the event that the number of animals increases by more than 20%, is provision made to readjust the entitlement? As Senators are taking part in a minute's silence, I ask Mr. Coughlan to address the questions posed by the three Deputies, some of which overlap.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

I will deal first with Deputy Fitzmaurice's query, after which Dr. Cromie will respond on the issue of accuracy. In terms of the weanlings produced for the Italian trade, it is not true to suggest that four-star and five-star cows will not produce animals that are fit for the weanling trade. The key is the bull that is used on the four or five-star cow. If one uses the bull on the right cow, the cow will have enough milk to feed the calf, drive it on and ensure it grows and is ready to go-----

Would such a calf be as big as a one or two-star cow? Would confirmation be provided that it is a one or two-star animal?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

It certainly could be one or two-star animal; some will be and some will not be. We included six competing areas within the index. Some animals will be better on the carcass, some will be better on milk and others will be better on fertility. Obviously, one wants an animal that is good on the carcass and milk if one wants to mother a weanling for export. There is no reason that cannot be the case for four-star and five-star animals. The final graph shows the breeds of four-star and five-star cows. There are plenty of four-star and five-star cows in the west in the Charolais and Limousin breeds.

Most farmers with whom I have spoken informed me that the cows that returned from Italy were one, two and three-star animals, whereas the cattle that were sent for slaughter were four-star and five-star animals. They would not be given confirmation. In fairness to farmers, however, they are not fools and will not breed poor animals.

Is there a method of obtaining information about the weanling that has been exported live once it has been slaughtered? Is feedback provided? That is the nub of the issue. This information could be fed into the data system for assessing the mother's traits.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

We do not get data back from the slaughter factories in Italy, for example. However, we have the mart data and the price per kilogram data which are very good indicators of the confirmation. We also have the farmer scoring the calf quality of the animals. Those data are all feeding into the prediction of carcase information and they are very good predictors. While it would be optimal to receive information from the Italian factories, it is not necessary to make a good prediction.

Deputy Fitzmaurice asked the reason twins could have different Euro-star ratings given that they have the same father and mother. This issue arose at a few of the meetings we held. To take one example, there should be no difference between young twin calves.

In one example I looked at, the sire had been recorded on one of the calves but not on the other. Immediately there was a clear reason they would be different. I was asked about animals with the same sire and dam and why their Euro-Star ratings would vary. As we get data on the animals themselves, it is only natural that they start to separate. Full brothers or sisters will perform differently depending on the data that are recorded. That includes the weights of the calves they are weaning, calving intervals and how long they stay in herds. Those will have different influences on the star ratings. Just because they are from the same sire and dam, as they gather more data of their own, they will start to differ in terms of their star ratings.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

I will pick up on the 40% accuracy question and genotyping and genomics. I note to Deputy Fitzmaurice that the accuracy of genotyping is 100%. That is the first point. When we think about accuracy, how accurate is the process of taking the DNA and establishing a genotype? That is 100% accurate. The next question, which is in essence the one Deputy Fitzmaurice is asking, is how confident we are in converting that genotype data into a star evaluation. This is where one has that figure of 40%. In effect, that is the reliability, which is what Deputy Ó Cuív also referred to, of the Euro-Star evaluation. In many ways, these questions are at the nub of one of the issues. We are dealing here with Euro-Star evaluations which by their nature are based on data and more data. As a consequence, the evaluations will change over time. As my colleague, Mr. Coughlan, has indicated, we are absolutely confident at a high level when one looks at it based on lots of data that these four and five-star animals will lead to more profitability for farmers. People are generally acknowledging that right across the board, but that does not get away from the issue that at the individual animal level, some will go up and some will go down. In the case of an AI bull or a stock bull, that can, as Deputy Ó Cuív indicated, have a profound impact, particularly when it relates to potential progeny. That is why education and training is such a core part of the beef data and genomics programme. It is covered as a cost associated with the scheme and is going to start in February.

There are approximately 27,500 herds in the scheme. We have done the initial analysis of how many four and five-star cows there are and farmers have received the reports. While they are generally happy, there are some herd owners who are in a more challenging place. This is where we need to have a discussion with them regarding their replacement strategy to ensure they meet the 2018 and 2020 requirements. In those circumstances, their options will include the use of artificial insemination. At the information meetings, we saw that while 20% of the progeny from the suckler herd or the cows in the scheme were from AI, almost 60% of herd owners in the scheme were using some level of AI. That is a very interesting and relevant statistic. It tells us that guys are engaged with using AI but we need to get them to use it more.

The next advice we must give those individuals who are going to use AI is that it is not one AI bull. I take Deputy Fitzmaurice's point about what would happen where a bull dropped. If they use a very reliable AI bull, the likelihood of that bull dropping is very small.

The accuracy figure alluded to by Deputy Fitzmaurice is like a confidence interval. How confident are we that this index is going to change? Certainly for an AI bull with 90% reliability, we would be very confident that the index will not change. However, for a young AI bull who is down at 40% or 45% reliability, the same as a stock bull, the index could change. The advice to herd owners in that regard is they need to use a team of AI bulls. They will need three or four AI bulls. Generally if one looks at the herds that are involved, in Gene Ireland or the various AI-based initiatives, they would use three or four different beef bulls across different breeds. Using a team of bulls has worked very effectively in the context of the dairy herd. The benefit is that one mitigates against the risk of any one individual falling. One could go up, one could go down but the average of the group stays the same. Using four young AI bulls is the equivalent of using a very well-proven stock bull. That is work that Teagasc would have done in the context of strategies that herd owners can use to try to offset the risk around reliability or the potential fall in reliability. We are always talking about the bull that goes down, but for every bull that goes down, there is another bull that goes up.

The issue of drops in proof will only affect a proportion of herd owners. The advice is that if they are using AI bulls, they should use a team. The other piece of advice from Teagasc and the AI companies and which is a core part of the education and replacement exercise is that if they want to guard against this issue and if the cut-off is €74 - the four and five-star cut-off on the replacement index is €74 - then, on average, the progeny on a €74 cow will be €74 and they will be fine. However, that is not good advice if they want to cover off some risk. In that case, they should go higher than that because the bull could potentially fall. The advice is that if herd owners are going to buy a stock bull, they should look at one at €120 to €150 in terms of the replacement index to give them some ability to offset this potential risk.

We have spoken about the information meetings and Pearse Kelly and Aidan Murray from Teagasc would have presented much of this material at those meetings. More than 5,000 farmers attended 12 information meetings and they understand this. They understand that this issue is a part of the Euro-star indexes. At an individual level, this is how one guards against a problem with an individual animal. The key point is that it applies across many animals, whether farmers are buying in heifers, breeding on their cows or using AI. Over the course of the six years of the scheme, these issues dissipate. They also dissipate across the 27,500 herds in the scheme. That is why, at the high level, from the point of view of the ICBF, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we are confident that the genomic base and the science behind it will take us to where we need to be at the end of this scheme, which is delivering €150 per cow in terms of additional profitability.

There are a few questions which have yet to be answered.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

Deputy Connaughton asked about the position between the Department and ourselves vis-à-vis the star ratings and whether there was any mismatch, but I can assure the Deputy that there is no mismatch. Once the animal is genotype four and five-star for the purposes of the scheme, it is eligible until the end of the scheme. In the intervening period, that index may move but that animal remains eligible.

The Deputy asked another question which was similar to the one Deputy Fitzmaurice asked about different embryos. As those animals get their own performance, they will establish different values. They will perform differently because they will have received different sets of genes from their mothers and their fathers.

The docility question has come up quite strongly at many of the meetings we have held throughout the country. The current weighting for docility is based on the economic model done by Dr. Paul Crossan at Grange. On the basis of the meetings, the index is under ongoing review. We will be looking at the relative importance of docility from a farm safety point of view and from an on-farm labour point of view.

I would like to respond to Senator O'Neill's query about dairy herds getting four or five stars. It would not be correct to assume that the first cross animals from the dairy herd heifers will be four-star and five-star animals. At the moment, we are finding that approximately 50% of them are and 50% of them are not. If the Senator has managed to-----

So I was lucky.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

He has done well in his purchasing policy. It is not correct to assume that if one buys a first cross animal from the dairy herd, it will satisfy the scheme.

My question related to the follow-on when that animal is crossed with a continental animal, such as a Limousin or a Charolais. If a bull that has five stars on both traits - maternal and paternal - is crossed with a five-star heifer or cow, what is the progeny going to be?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

One of the key points is that the star ratings are independent of breed. If an animal of one breed that has a five-star rating is crossed with a five-star animal of another breed, the progeny will still be a five-star animal. The Euro-Star system does not mind. It is not dependent on-----

There are others as well.

I know, but I am trying to tease this out.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

I would like to respond to some of Senator O'Neill's other questions. He was absolutely right to make the point that even though our material refers to six traits, there are actually 17 traits. When we are evaluating female fertility, for example, we evaluate age at first calving, calving intervals and cow survival rates. We present that data as an overall group of traits called female fertility. Similarly, we evaluate carcase weight, carcase fat, carcase confirmation and age at slaughter. Six traits have been listed for ease of presentation, but in effect there are 17 traits in the actual index. We group the traits in that way purely from an ease of presentation perspective when we are talking to a farmer audience.

Which trait is the most important one?

Dr. Andrew Cromie

A relative weighting of 23% is attached to female fertility. A relative weighting of 21% is attached to carcase weight for age.

The Senator asked a question about the collection of data and expressed some concern about missing data. He asked whether a farmer would be required to weigh his own calves if we did not have weight data on his animals. He is right to suggest that our goal is always to try to pick up the data wherever we can. For example, we get the data on weights and prices per kilo through marts. Increasingly, farmers are starting to weigh their calves themselves, which is a positive development even if it is not a requirement of the scheme. As farmers see the value in that data, we expect that an increasing number of them will look to weigh their own animals in appreciation of the use of this valuable data in getting more accurate milk evaluations - maternal evaluations - for their cows. At the moment, we use the cow milk score as a proxy or a predictor of weaning weight in the calf at 200 days. I hope that answers the Senator's question on missing data, about which he expressed some concern.

I also asked about exported animals.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

My colleague has mentioned the exported animals. In the past, we have endeavoured to pick up this data from other countries, including Italy and Spain. The reality is that they simply do not have an infrastructure similar to that of the cattle breeding database. Ireland is in the very fortunate position of having all the meat processing and mart data collected in one central database. I assure the committee that this is not the case in Europe.

Whenever we endeavoured to get that data, there were blank, puzzled looks and we were asked how they would possibly do that. As a consequence, we redoubled our efforts to collect data in Ireland on calf quality, mart price per kilo, and mart weights. We encourage farmers that are exporting animals to record that data directly.

Deputy Ó Cuív and I have a number of other questions. I will allow Mr. Coughlan to continue.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

Dr. Cromie has covered the AI catalogues. There will be bulls on the catalogues that are very highly proven and reliable and others that are less reliable. The only way to make them more reliable is by producing progeny and getting more data. Mr. Cromie has covered the key risk mitigation strategy which will be clearly communicated as part of the training material.

Deputy Ó Cuív asked about the 19,000, 20,000 and 7,000.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

Of the 7,000, we have seen no discernible difference in the size of the herds. There has been a rapid increase in the number of tags coming in, primarily because farmers are starting to house their animals because of all the rain. All the animals are coming in and are easy to tag.

The cut-off dates are the realm of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My understanding is that there is no cut-off date for payment. I am not sure of the exact date of the payment in December but if it is 10 December or 12 December and the information is not in at least a week before that, it will not be processed in time to be through for payment.

Is Mr. Coughlan saying the information should be in by 30 December?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

That is more in the realm of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My understanding is that there will be payment runs in January and February. That is my understanding.

Is it right that the samples have to be in before payment is made?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

The payment will not be made if the samples are not in.

I have a number of questions for Dr. Cromie. If a farmer has a four-star or five-star bull or cow and a heifer is produced, I presume that the heifer will be classed as five-star. If the farmer goes off to the mart with his lovely heifer and I buy it and genotype it, is it correct that she might only be two-star or three-star?

Dr. Andrew Cromie

The subsequent genotyping process adds more data into the Euro-star evaluation and as a consequence when the animal is genotyped, the evaluation might change.

Should there be a warning for farmers who go to a mart to buy a five-star animal for a replacement heifer? A farmer might have five-star bulls, or four-star bulls and five-star cows. In a year's time they will be selling a heifer to another farmer who will use it as a replacement in 2017 or 2018. Is it fair to say that it will be possible that the animal they buy is not the animal they thought they had bought?

Dr. Andrew Cromie

In the BDGP reports that we sent to 27,500 farmers, we gave an indication of the four-star and five-star females on the farm. Those reports were very clear that any subsequent definition of eligibility would be based on animals that were four-star and five-star and had been genotyped.

They should either be genotyped or a warning should be given in marts. Farmers do not read small print. They will not read every piece of the paper. They will sign their name and fill in what they have to fill in. That is it. We are leading them to a crash.

Mr. Coughlan might be able to respond to my other question. Is it correct that 75% of suckler cows are based in the west of Ireland, from Donegal down to Clare?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

There is a very large percentage on the west coast.

Is it correct that that represents 20% or 25% of the total uptake?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

I do not know the exact figures. A significant number of the herds are in the west.

I understand that 25% of the take-up is in the west, which is where 75% of the herds are located. Is that correct?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

I do not know but I do not believe the take-up is that low.

It was that low on the night of the meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon when 27,000 applications had been submitted.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

I can revert to the Deputy with the precise figures.

The ICBF brought a three-star Charolais heifer and a red and white five-star heifer to the meeting in Elphin. While I do not claim to be a great judge of an animal, I would not have bought the five-star heifer before the three-star heifer. Does Mr. Coughlan agree with that view?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

The Deputy makes a fair point. However, the challenge we had at the initial opening is that by looking at an animal, one cannot be sure about much of what defines the profitability of a suckler cow.

We are being told we must look up at a board to see what-----

The two examples shown in figure 2 are not necessarily the highest weighing animals. It depends on what one is marketing but it can, on the total herd, yield more fertile calving and shorter intervals. A lower individual weight but a higher aggregate weight is more profitable and one must bear in mind that the whole process is driven by profit. That is the point that was being made.

On another point raised by Deputy Fitzmaurice, if a four-star or five-star animal is sold in a mart and subsequently genotyped at below the original designation, will the animal qualify because it was designated four or five-star when it was purchased and introduced to the herd?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

This issue, which arose on a number of occasions at the meetings, is being examined by the Department in the context of its review. The critical point is that the number of animals that will move and make the difference between a farmer qualifying and not qualifying will be very small. The Department is examining the issue.

Is it the case that all bulls must be genotyped before being sold?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

While they do not have to be genotyped, the vast majority are genotyped at this point because in 2013 all of the pedigree bulls were genotyped as part of the registration process. This is the first year of the scheme. The animals will be genotyped at a much younger age in the second and third years of the scheme. The animals that are in the scheme herds that are going through the marts will be genotyped prior to being traded in the marts. In addition, farmers with herds that are not in the scheme who wish to trade animals will be able to avail of the genotyping service, which will allow them to have their animals genotyped prior to sale at marts.

If one fifth of farmers registered for the scheme, having attended the meetings, this leaves four fifths who did not attend meetings. They will receive training some time in the future.

I once asked a number of Deputies how many of them had read the Oireachtas safety statement which new Members receive when they enter the House. I hope Deputy Fitzmaurice, who is relatively new to the House, received a copy. We are all responsible legislators and the Oireachtas produced the legislation providing for mandatory safety statements in the workplace. If the Deputies to whom I spoke were in any way a representative sample, the number of colleagues who have read the safety statement is incredibly small, particularly when one takes into account the highly responsible job we have and the fact that we introduced legislation providing for safety statements in the belief that they are a great idea. I make this point because Departments and official bodies present farmers with 50-page printed documents setting out terms and conditions and so forth. When a farmer does not follow the conditions, as laid down, the officials will say "Tough luck" and the farmer will lose X amount of money for not reading the document. It is a case of good luck, goodbye and goodnight. If we applied the same approach to Oireachtas Members with regard to safety statements, none of us would get paid.

For this reason, we must accept that if we are relying on the fine print that is conveyed in written documents, we can forget it. Even if information is being conveyed at meetings that farmers are obliged to attend as a condition of the scheme, those present may not fully concentrate on the proceedings. I do not know how many times Deputies have made a public statement on radio and people have come back to us having got the message arseways. That is a common phenomenon, which is the reason I do not like the penalty regime.

It has been correctly pointed out that if one uses artificial insemination multiple times, the law of averages dictates that the farmer should pass the test within five or six years. If one calculated, on an actuarial basis, the chances of the Titanic sinking in the middle of the Atlantic killing such a large number of people, the large number of things that would have to go wrong would indicate that the chances of the vessel sinking would be minuscule. One hears the various statistical scenarios about the Titanic having to turn left or right or having to be five minutes early or late. Nonetheless, the Titanic sank, which demonstrates that the most unlikely events occur, even though statistically they are very unlikely.

To return to the artificial insemination bull, will it be mandatory AI providers to set out in large red or black print the reliability of the data on which the rating of their bull is based at that point in time? I understand there will be bulls in the catalogues which may have a reliability rating of less than 40%. One would be careful about putting €1,000 on a bet in Paddy Power with those odds, not to speak of €10,000. This process involves considerable sums of money, both in terms of the value of the progeny on the market and the lost grants.

If I understand the position correctly, the ICMF's problem is that the scheme is new in that genotyping and data collection are new and the longer and more consistently the ICMF receives the data, the more the actuarial level will increase. After five or six years, it will plateau at a high level of accuracy but at the beginning, the reliability of the bulls is lower because the ICMF does not have much data on them or their progeny. In that case, would it not have been better to have removed the penalties from the game on the basis that the market will look after people doing the right thing? Would it not be preferable not to introduce penalties until the scheme has been operating for a long period, farmers have acclimatised to it and much more reliable data are available? Once the data are available, the penalties could be introduced over time, perhaps in the next round of the scheme. At that stage, I assume penalties would not be necessary because most farmers would be doing the right thing as the market will determine that it would be sensible to do so.

It is a statistical fact that 48% of herds have fewer than ten cows. I was surprised to learn from the data supplied by the Department that approximately 45% of herds in counties Carlow and Kilkenny have fewer than ten suckler cows. It is not the case, therefore, that the smaller herds are all located on the west coast as there are many smaller herds on the east coast. While there are fewer herds in the east than in the west, the variation in herd size is not dramatically different between the regions. In other words, a high proportion of herds in the east are small in number, notwithstanding what many east coast farmers may believe.

There are some very large herds in the west. If a suckler farmer is using artificial insemination, how many bulls are recommended if he has eight cows? If he gets it wrong, he is in trouble five years down the road.

To follow on from my point that the progeny of a five-star bull and five-star heifer should be five stars, which point was raised by Deputy Fitzmaurice and the Chairman, the delegates stated during our previous meeting with them that if one bought a five-star bull, it would retain its five-star rating. Is that not true?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

For the purpose of the scheme.

Therefore, a five-star cow will continue to be a five-star cow.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

If she is genotyped with five stars, she will continue to have them for the purpose of the scheme.

For the purpose of the scheme. Therefore, progeny from five-star cows are five-star animals. With regard to genotyping, how many progeny must one see data on before one can actually change a rating? A heifer or cow that has had its first calf may have been ill, which would have consequences.

Of the 27,000 or 29,000 herds that have been entered into the scheme, how many are now compliant with the 20% target for 2018? With regard to penalties, we are all obliged to register a calf within 27 days. If a farmer encounters a problem or there is another problem, such as forgetting to register, such that a calf is not registered within 27 days, will the farmer be penalised? The terms and conditions issued by the Department state all animals must be registered within 27 days. If, through a clerical error, somebody forgot to register an animal, would it be disqualified from the scheme?

There is a certain amount of distrust in the farming community regarding this matter on the basis that it has been run out. The federation is trying to move on the genetics of the herd quite quickly. This is taking away farmers' old-style belief in being able to tell by eye how good an animal is. Moving from this approach to science results in some distrust. Is there any independent body over the federation that can verify its approach is correct? An independent body could stand over the approach and say all is good with it.

Can a five-star or four-star crossbred animal born into the herd be used as a sire and not be purebred at all? If so, is the farmer not taking a huge risk with the next progeny? I refer to circumstances where the bull is crossbred even before starting.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

I will take a couple of the questions and Dr. Cromie shall respond to Deputy Ó Cuív.

With regard to the question on compliance, approximately 90% are compliant for 2018. The key point to remember, which is one of the key points we were making at the meetings, is that when we look at farmers' Euro-star ratings, we see a significant weighting among four and five-star animals towards the older cows. As we have bred further generations, we have been breeding the maternal traits out of them. That is the picture today but one must ask how many of those older cows will actually be in the herds in 2017, 2018 and later. While the figures look good right now, it is critical that we do not take our eye off the ball and that we start a breeding strategy right away to ensure we are regenerating more and more four and five-star animals.

Registration within 27 days is a requirement of the scheme. I have no doubt that if there are extenuating circumstances affecting why a calf is not registered, force majeure arrangements will apply. The same applies to the Chairman's questions on land and TB-related depopulation.

On Deputy Connaughton's point, we work very closely with Teagasc. It is an independent entity that is examining how we put together the evaluations. Much of the work we do and the economic models we use to put together the evaluations are based on work done by Mr. Paul Crosson in Teagasc, Grange. Therefore, there is independence.

The Deputy is correct that there is some resistance and unease over the combining of science with what people consider to be the traditional art of cattle breeding. It is not a case of either–or; one combines the best of both but genomic data and genetic evaluations can indicate to a farmer certain characteristics he cannot see just by looking at an animal.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

Is that not for a purebred animal?

From an ICBF perspective, our very clear breeding recommendation is that in order to achieve genetic gain, purebred bulls should be used to generate the next generation. The scheme allows for non-purebred bulls to be used but the ICBF recommends at all times that a purebred bull be used. All aspects of our breeding programme support that.

Is that not counter-productive if there is an anomaly with a four-star or five-star crossbred animal?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

This brings us back to the point that life on farms is such that a weanling will jump a gate at various stages. The reality is that not all calves will be born of purebred bulls all the time. We have to allow for those eventualities, and the Department has been reasonable in allowing for them.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

I will respond to Deputy Ó Cuív's questions. Many of them hinged on the replacement strategy and artificial insemination. I mentioned education and training. The Deputy was concerned about how many people will read the terms and conditions or seek to attend the education and training courses. As I indicated, our plan is to start the education and training in February. It is expected that the courses will be completed in 2016 for the 27,500 herds. Our plan is to do the training in groups of approximately 25 farmers, each doing a four-hour training session. Approximately two and a half hours of that will be devoted to the Euro-stars and replacement strategy in particular. We are very anxious to adopt an approach such that the herd owners who find the scheme somewhat more challenging owing to their not having as many four- and five-star females initially will be targeted for education and training early. There will be constant communication with the farmers on the status of their herds.

The first beef data and genomics programme reports indicated the status of herds with regard to the 2018 requirement. We have to have a very accurate and up-to-date picture as more data, including genotype data, become available. We anticipate communicating very regularly, at least twice per year, and giving farmers the latest indication as to where we anticipate their herds to be in 2018 and 2020, particularly in regard to the replacement strategy requirements. Deputy O'Cuív's concern about a bull that has been purchased and whose evaluation may be starting to slip down, thus affecting his progeny, is that the farmer will know about this for the first time only in 2018.

It is not only that but that there will be heifer calves with a much lower star rating than anticipated given the five-star bull. What does the farmer do? Does he sell them off? It could delay the farmer by a year or two.

Dr. Andrew Cromie

That is a concern and it is very justified. The view we are taking is that we will communicate constantly with farmers on their standing under the scheme. It may require some interaction with Teagasc or advisers so additional advice for the farmer may be provided. Our goal is not only to ensure every farmer reaches the targets of 20% and 50% but also to ensure farmers have as many four-star and five-star animals as possible as they work their way through the scheme.

Ultimately, this is what will drive profitability and sustainability on farms. It is certainly a process of constant communication throughout the scheme and our goal is that farmers will meet and exceed the requirements. The specific point on artificial insemination is very relevant. Can we indicate that a bull is proven? We publish an active beef bull list which indicates only proven maternal artificial insemination bulls, those which have daughters with milk and fertility evaluations. The suggestion that it be clearly stamped or indicated on an artificial insemination catalogue has been considered and discussed, and it has much merit.

Is it a certainty? Is Dr. Cromie saying the reliability of a bull will be indicated in the artificial insemination catalogue?

Dr. Andrew Cromie

Yes. The Deputy is concerned that the programme is only starting now. We must think back. The underlying data that supports the programme began to be compiled in 2008 with the suckler cow welfare scheme. Since then, farmers have been collecting the data that underpins the scheme. This includes the sire date of calves and all the relevant data recorded on calf quality and docility. Last year's scheme gave us the genotype data. We are in a very strong position regarding launching the scheme with a level of confidence that with genomic evaluations, or using the genotype data in the Euro-Star evaluations, we can confidently give an indication to farmers regarding the four-star and five-star status of animals.

Although there is an expectation that at some stage, with genotype and other data, it will be 100% accurate, that is not the case. There is a natural plateau effect. Although with genomic evaluations, one can add so much genotype data, there will always be a level of uncertainty associated with genetic or genomic evaluations, until we reach 99% reliability, although that would be an artificial insemination sire with 10,000 progeny. Genotyping will not be able to deliver this. While it may be able to deliver a reliability in the order of 60% to 70%, it is nothing like 95% or 99%.

What is the reliability like now?

Deputy, please. We have witnesses waiting outside.

Dr. Cromie mentioned 60% and the plateau, which I accept, as I said earlier. What is the reliability with the amount of data collected to date?

If a farmer buys six or eight five-star heifers, is it true that with the genotyping he or she could end up with a full herd of two-star or three-star animals by 2018?

Regarding the phrase "training completed on time" in the penalties list, when does "on time" begin?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

The deadline for the training is the end of October next year. Deputy Fitzmaurice's scenario is in the realms of Deputy Ó Cuív talking about the Titanic. While it is possible, it is highly unlikely.

The thing about the Titanic is that it happened.

That is part of the question I asked, which was not answered. How many progeny need to be tested before one can get an accurate picture of the genotype?

Mr. Sean Coughlan

As Dr. Cromie said, to get an artificial insemination bull to 99%, one might need 10,000 progeny.

I mean for an individual cow.

Mr. Sean Coughlan

The maximum a cow will have will be eight or ten progeny. She will not have 20 or 30 progeny.

I apologise. I am a bit edgy here. It is 4.25 p.m. I appreciate we had a break and we have given the debate an hour and three quarters. I thank Mr. Coughlan and Dr. Cromie for coming before us.

I appreciate that they have updated us on progress. One of the points made back then was that a roadshow information session was required. Although the witnesses would have preferred if more had attended, at least the first round was very welcome and the word should spread. Improved animal performance yields better profit, and knowledge transfer and training will be critical.

We will suspend in order to allow our other witnesses to come in. I ask members to stay if possible.

Sitting suspended at 4.26 p.m. and resumed at 4.28 p.m.