The Beef Data & Genomics Programme (BDGP) was launched in 2015 by the Department of Agriculture Food & the Marine (DAFM). The goal of the programme was to financially support participating suckler farmers in improving the genetic merit of their herds. It set targets for farmers to meet on the number of 4/5-star females on the Euro-Star Replacement Index in their herds on certain dates. This extended to the Terminal Index for breeding males (stock and AI bulls). Over the course of the 6-year programme (2015-2020), farmers built towards meeting a final target requiring them to have 50% of their reference number in genotyped 4/5-star females by 31st Oct 2020. This was then maintained by herds that opted into the two BDGP rollover years of 2021 and 2022.
What impact has the BDGP had on participating suckler herds? To answer this, we firstly need to look at the genetic trends for the herds on the Replacement Index and some of the key traits within it e.g. milk, fertility and carcass weight. A good indicator of this is to look at the first calvers into the suckler herd each year, of which there have been on average 135,000 annually over the past ten years. Figure 1 shows the average Replacement Index of first calvers in each year from 2013-2023. In 2013, the average Replacement Index was €71. So far in 2023, the average stands at €112. An increase of €41.
There are 17 traits in the Replacement Index and it is important that there is an improvement in each of these. Milk, calving interval (fertility), carcass weight and conformation are traits that farmers pay particular attention to. Figure 2 looks at the average milk and calving interval (fertility) figures for first calvers over the last ten years. Milk has gone from 4.6 to 6.1 kg and calving interval has gone from -0.65 to -1.25 days. A negative figure is desirable on calving interval as the goal is to reduce calving interval e.g. -3.6 days is a better figure than -1.9 days.
While milk and fertility are important traits for a suckler cow, she must also possess good carcass traits as these will be transmitted to her progeny. Figure 3 looks at the average carcass weight and conformation genetic merit for first calved heifers over the last ten years. These have also seen an improvement with carcass weight going from 9.5 to 14 kg and carcass conformation going from 1 to 1.15 of a grade.
Have these improvements in genetic merit translated into improvements in the physical performance of suckler animals on the ground? Are we seeing actual improvements to milk, fertility and carcass performance? Figure 4 looks at the trends on calving interval and calves per cow per year. These are the two main metrics used to measure the fertility performance of suckler herds. Calving interval has been decreasing for the most part. There was a spike in 2014 which was most likely due to the knock on effect of a severe fodder crisis in spring 2013. Calves per cow per year has been increasing, now standing at 0.87 meaning, for every 100 suckler cows, there are 87 calves being produced.
Carcass performance is probably the most important thing to look at, as this is what ultimately decides how much income farmers can generate from selling animals. One of the criticisms of the BDGP in its early days was that, while it may bring about more efficient cows through improved milk and fertility, these gains would be to the detriment of carcass performance and overall animal “quality”. Looking at the carcass data from suckler steers slaughtered over the last 10 years shows that carcass performance has actually been improving. Figure 5 looks at the age at slaughter and carcass weight of suckler steers. Age at slaughter has reduced from 876 to 832 days (44 days) while carcass weight has increased from 379 to 392 kg (13 kg). Conformation has improved by about ¼ of a grade.
If we take it a step further and do a comparison between animals born in BDGP and non-BDGP suckler herds we can see that animals born in BDGP herds are exhibiting better carcass performance. Figures 6, 7 and 8 compare BDGP and non-BDGP born suckler steers on age at slaughter, carcass weight and carcass conformation respectively, over the last 10 years. In 2022, BDGP born animals were slaughtered 7 days younger (829 v 836), had carcasses 13 kg heavier (399 v 386) and were 0.5 of a conformation score better (8.7 v 8.2) than steers born in non-BDGP suckler herds.
Aside from genetic and physical performance improvements in the suckler herd, BDGP has also delivered huge benefits in terms of on-farm data such as docilty, cow milk and calf quality scores. This important data is constantly flowing into the ICBF database and is invaluable to the genetic evaluation process. Add to this the >2 million beef genotypes that have been collected over the 8 years of the programme which has resulted in Ireland having the largest database of commercial beef cattle genotypes in the world. All of this together puts the Irish suckler beef sector in a very strong position going forward.
The BDGP has delivered on what it set out to do first day – Financially support farmers to place more emphasis on the Euro-Star Index when making breeding decisions, thus improving the genetic merit of the national suckler herd and the improving physical performance of suckler bred animals. Commercial suckler farmers, pedigree breeders and AI companies have all stepped up to challenge by breeding/supplying the genetics that farmers require. The Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP) now looks to build on this over the coming 5 years. Weighing, originally part of BEEP, has now been incorporated into SCEP which will see large numbers of cow and weanling weights recorded each year further adding to the reliability of the Euro-Star indexes. New traits have been added such as cow mothering ability and cow feet and legs. Higher targets have also been set on the Replacement Index, culminating in herds needing to have 75% of their reference number in genotyped 4/5-star females by 31st Oct 2027. Genotyping has been increased to 70% of the reference number. SCEP will ensure a continued emphasis on improving suckler genetics as well as adding to add to the ICBF database which will continue to benefit the Irish suckler sector.