EBI – Breeding a Sustainable Future

The three pillars of sustainable agriculture are Economic, Social and Environmental and in that context, breeding plays a major role in all three pillars. In Ireland we use the Economic Breeding Index (EBI), which is a single figure profit index, which dairy farmers use to breed more profitable cows.  Not only that, but the gains in extra profit are directly contributing to the reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Therefore, the EBI is delivering a more sustainable cow.

Latest work by Teagasc has indicated that for each €10 gain in herd EBI there has been a gain of €20 in terms of additional net profit per cow per year while leading a 2% reduction in the carbon footprint.

Mitigation strategies like the EBI, that increase profit and reduce emissions are a win-win for the farmer and the wider communities.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint

The EBI is currently made up of seven sub-indexes, namely (1) Production, (2) Fertility, (3) Calving, (4) Beef, (5) Maintenance, (6) Management and (7) Health. The financial gains from increased herd EBI have been well documented and many of these gains have directly contributing to reducing green-house gas emissions.

There are currently a number of ways in which the EBI index is contributing to the reduction of Ireland’s carbon footprint.  They are as follows:

  1. Milk Production

Increasing Milk yield and composition per cow will automatically decrease the emissions on a per unit of product basis. Table 1 shows an analysis of co-op milk supplies from over 2,800 creamery milk herds. The data clearly shows the increase per cow that has been achieved in both milk yield and milk solids between 2010 and 2016.  While improvements in herd management have played an important part in these increases, breeding has also played its part. Cows today, are producing over 300 litres more milk and over 40 kilos of milk solids, than they were six years ago.

  1. Cow Fertility

Improving the cow’s fertility sub-index will result in reduced calving intervals i.e. more calves produced per cow, and increase the longevity of the cow in the herd, thus reducing methane emissions per unit of product. Table 2 shows the fertility gains that have been achieved in the national dairy herd between 2010 and 2017. All the key fertility metrics have seen improvement with Calves per Cow per Year going from 0.85 to 0.91 in a seven-year period which across 1.4m cows represents an additional 84,000 calves being born. Similarly, in that period, the calving interval has been reduced from 402 days to 391 days.

  1. Compact Calving

The more compact the calving season, the more grazed grass can be included in the cow’s diet. Breeding more fertile cows will help achieve this intensive grazing strategy. It will also contribute to the age at first calving. Having more replacements born early in the year will allow them more time to achieve the correct target weight at breeding and therefore more heifers will hit the optimum age of between 22-26 months of calving thus reducing the ‘idle time’ in a cow’s lifetime. Finally, compact calving should also help reduce culling and replacement rates.

  1. Animal Health

Improved cow health e.g. Mastitis & Lameness, reduces the incidence of disease and deaths leading to higher production levels and lower replacement rates. The EBI sub-index for health can be used to identify bulls that will breed healthier cows while the calving sub-index will help identify easy calving bulls with lower mortality rates.

  1. Low Maintenance Cows

Levels of feed intake are an important factor influencing methane production. Smaller cows consume less feed than larger cows i.e. they have a lower maintenance requirement. For the same level of production, a smaller cow is obviously a more efficient converter of feed into milk. The maintenance sub-index in the EBI captures this cow size using the cull cow factory weights. This can then be used to breed lower maintenance cows that produces the same output.

Steps to Increase your herd EBI

Genetic gain is cumulative and permanent so the gains achieved in EBI continue to add up and last permanently. Breeding for higher EBI, is achieving a more sustainable cow that is more kind to its environment. Herd owners should be targeting to increase their Herd EBI by at least €10 each year.  This can be achieved through a combination of the following:

  • Identify the key traits you need to improve, focusing especially on milk production and fertility.
  • Choose a team of high EBI bulls that compliment your herd. For most herds, fertility is the main weakness that needs to be improved.
  • Select your team from the ‘ICBF Active Bull List’.
  • Use sufficient straws, e.g. 55 straws per 10 heifers required.
  • Focus on your heifers – breeding heifers to carefully selected high EBI bulls is the fastest way to improve herd EBI and profitability.

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