Review of the 2008 British Cattle Conference
In this issue of Cattle Breeder we're concentrating on a review of the 2008 British Cattle Conference.
And what an event it was! The introduction of debating sessions gave more opportunity for delegate participation than ever before and breathed new life into the event, while an Any Questions session fuelled spirited discussion into the night.
All in all, it was an event in which passions were raised; traditional ideas and practices challenged and the scope of new technologies aired and discussed.
And to cap it all, there was a record attendance for both dairy and beef sessions. For contributing to its success, the Club extends its thanks to all who took part - on both sides of the lectern. Read on for a taste of some of the debates and papers presented.
Conference: A taste of the after dinner debate
The Any Questions session after the Club's annual dinner provoked lively and far reaching debate about farming issues. And all three speakers - Tim Bennett, DairyCo chairman; John Cross, EBLEX chairman and Liz Falkingham, Farmers Guardian editor - were in agreement over the first issue raised on the night.
When asked whether one voice could or should represent the beef industry, there was unanimity that this could not be achieved. Different parts of the meat chain had different interests and as Tim Bennett observed: "I haven't seen anyone in any part of the world solve this so I don't think we will. But we need to learn to work together."
Geneticist Maurice Bichard, formerly from the pig industry, asked when cattle farmers would accept that the only way for animals to see their full potential was to allow professional organisations to take control. John Cross believed cattle breeders still needed convincing of the value of EBVs and added: "We must make better use of the genetic material to hand but we don't need to be geneticists to do it."
Tim Bennett said that the pig and poultry sectors were more receptive to being told which genetics to use. "Beef producers have not got into that culture curve yet," he added, "but they need to learn because there's a cost involved."
Club president, Henry Lewis asked for each speaker's aspirations for the new Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). John Cross said there was a simple answer. "The levy structure has to be leaner, meaner and more focussed on the levy payer and not on the organisation itself."
Liz Falkingham dismayed one scientist present by stating: "It's not about more research, it's about getting it to the farmer in a more useable format."
Professor Geoff Simm from SAC retorted that investment in UK research was already alarmingly low and added: "There will simply be no new UK knowledge if we don't invest in it." As chairman of one of the new AHDB sector companies, Tim Bennett said the aim was to undertake research that delivers benefit to levy payers, not research that government should do. "We will double expenditure on knowledge transfer and cut the budget on promotion," he added.
Asked when the prime minister might address the industry about security of food supply, both Mr Bennett and Mr Cross reminded their audience that the UK is an exporting nation. Adding that the industry needs to be competitive and technically efficient, Mr Bennett said: "That gives us food security. The prime minister might then say we have done a good job but we should never shut down world trade."
Conference: Wanted - sustainable dairy cows x native beef
Waitrose agriculture manager Duncan Sinclair sent a clear message to delegates about the type of dairy cow he believed they should breed. The need for her to be sustainable and provide calves that were suitable for the beef sector was being driven by new conditions the farming industry was facing - from climate change to feed prices and from competition for land to pressure from consumers. "
We need to use British resources smarter," he said. "Black and whites in the system are more suitable for beef than I originally hoped and if we can use these calves productively to produce British beef, we will minimise the number of cows needed."
This would form part of the company's drive for better integration between dairy and beef supply chains and would see much of Waitrose beef production based on dairy cross-bred calves. And by minimising the number of adult cows required, it would also reduce the carbon footprint of beef production.
Focussing in particular on the need to find a solution for surplus dairy bull calves, he said: "We already have a scheme in place where Aberdeen Angus semen or bulls have been used by some of our dairy farmers and the resultant calves bought back by Dovecote Park [Waitrose dedicated beef processor], reared to 12 weeks and sold on to existing Dovecote Park/Waitrose beef finishers.
"We are now extending this scheme to include other breeds of calf because we believe that in future these animals will play an increasingly important role as a source of raw material for our British beef range."
Commenting that the sustainable suckler cow would also need to be based on at least 50% native breeds, he said this type of cow would need less feed input and make more from her natural surroundings.
With Waitrose supplying some 6% of the British beef market; with plans for the company to double in size over the next decade; and with all of its fresh beef sourced in the UK, selling to this retailer continued to look an enticing long-term option for many British farmers
Conference: Native breeds in Brazil
Representing the largest beef exporting country in the world, Professor José Fernando Piva Lobato from the University of Rio Grande du Sul captivated delegates with his account of sub-tropical farming in Brazil.
He related how production would increase to meet the predicted growth in world demand for beef.
But music to the ears of many was the widespread use of native British breeds.
Naming the Angus, Hereford and South Devon amongst those represented in the country's 205 million cattle, he explained how suited they were for crossing with tropical breeds to be finished through extensive, grass-based systems.
Conference: Beef debate - composites and hybrids versus pure-bred cattle
The type of cow which consistently delivers all the required traits can only be achieved by using the strengths of a number of breeds. This message from Richard Fuller kicked off the beef debate in which composite breeds, pure and crossbred cattle came under scrutiny.
As a cattle specialist with JSR and technical director of the Stabiliser Cattle Company - which has developed a four-breed composite in the UK based on half British and half continental breeds - it was no surprise to hear his fulsome praise for bringing several breeds into one package.
This was ideally achieved through the creation of a 'fixed type composite breed', rather than through a more complex system of cross-breeding, as this approach not only had the potential to concentrate the best each breed had to offer, but could also largely retain the benefits of hybrid vigour.
"Populations of composite cows retain 75% of the hybrid vigour generated by the F1, provided inbreeding is avoided," said Mr Fuller. He quoted the benefit of hybrid vigour in kilograms of calf weight weaned per cow mated, and cited evidence that it could cumulatively improve performance by up to 25%. Calf weight weaned per cow mated he said was a good indicator of herd efficiency as it rolled together the effects of cow fertility, milking ability, calving success, calf performance and calf mortality. "But unfortunately it is rarely used as a target for herd improvement in the UK," he said.
Recognising that the economics of beef production were changeable and that high grain prices could make traditional British breeds - with their ability to utilise lower cost forage - a more desirable component of a composite breed, he said: "It is just as well we still have a diversity of pure breeds we can use."
"That's my argument," began Nigel Hammill, an Aberdeen Angus breeder from Macclesfield, who led the discussion in favour of the pure-bred animal. "Everything that's been said depends on having a pure-bred terminal sire."
The benefits of hybrid vigour he said were diminished after the first and second generations and would eventually be lost through long-term breeding of two composite lines. Equally, it was perfectly possible to outcross and benefit from hybrid vigour within a breed by using two unrelated lines.
"And what about the predictability of traits," he questioned. "What will be the effect on the dairy cow and what will her calf be like?"
The Angus and Hereford, for example, were breeds which were recognised worldwide as representing quality beef. "It's taken decades and millions of pounds to get there," he said.
Pointing out that the Stabiliser was originally developed for North American conditions he concluded: "The Stabiliser is not for Britain and composites are not for Britain."
Seconding in favour of composites and cross-breeding, commercial beef producer, Mike Powley from North Yorkshire argued that one breed was not capable of meeting both male and female requirements as the female is required to be docile and easy calving and the male to have good carcase and growth traits.
"That's two very different animals," he said. "And two pure bred animals can't meet both requirements."
Adding that changes in market requirements demand more flexibility, he said: "That's not easily achieved with a pure breed."
Seconding in favour of pure-breeding, Richard Oates questioned: "Why is it that dairy farmers choose largely to breed pure?"
It's because they enjoy extra profitability from a highly selected dairy cow, he said, and modern technology should be used to improve pure-bred beef breeds in a comparable way.
With discussion opened to the floor, delegates widely observed that composite breeds eventually became nothing more than pure-breds in their breeding characteristics, with one delegate observing: "In 200 years' time, will we be having this conversation with the chairman of the Stabiliser breed society representing the opposite side of the debate?"
Geneticist Maurice Bichard added that all breeds were once composites, which had been made into a brand by like-minded people, while fellow geneticist, Roel Veerkamp said breeds would only survive if they were prepared to adapt.
With much focus on the importance of breeds as a means of brand identification, cattle exporter Rob Wills added a touch of passion with a commercial slant. "The overseas market is looking for purity of genetics from the UK," he said.
Within breeds such as the Angus and Hereford he said we have a 'golden resource' which we have got to 'maintain, develop and protect'.
With one delegate adding that producing a composite breed was like working in a cooperative - 'a good idea but bland and boring' - the widespread conclusion was that both pure and composite breeds could happily co-exist.
Conference: Dairy debate - dual versus single function cattle
Opinions were widely divided in the debate for dual versus single function dairy cattle. And throughout the discussion, compelling arguments emerged in favour of both types of cow.
The nub of the argument for British Friesian breeder Mary Mead from Holt Farm in Somerset was that dual function animals were the ethical and sustainable choice. Chasing the single trait of milk production she said was 'the very antithesis of sustainability' and had also led to inbreeding.
"Something was bound to give," she said, "and that was fertility.
"Problems with fertility led to shorter herd life and longer calving intervals. And with higher yields went more mastitis and lameness."
Also attributing the 'early demise of so many male calves' to single purpose breeding, she said this was a 'staggering waste of potential resources and must be ethically questionable'.
Suggesting that intensive, high-input systems may become unviable as world resources come under increasing pressure, she added: "It would seem prudent to breed for more flexibility - a more balanced cow, adaptable to change and able to take advantage of both complete diet feeding and also grazed grass, through her strong constitution and locomotion."
Seconding the motion for dual function animals was Neil Darwent, of Lordswood Farms in Somerset, home to 700 milking Montbeliardes. He made the case for dual functionality by using economics, stating that in spite of higher milk production from the Holstein, its greater feed consumption, lower calf and cull cow values, longer calving intervals and higher replacement rates left a poorer net margin.
"It's not all about litres of milk," he said. "It's about the bottom line."
At a milk price of 27ppl he said that the dual purpose animal living for an average of 4.38 lactations returned a net margin of £1,164.37/annum. This compared with the Holstein, whose average lifespan was 3.49 lactations and net margin £1,032.56/ annum. When milk price was reduced to 22ppl, this gap widened from around £131 to £203 per cow/annum.
But Mark Roach from Grosvenor Farms in Cheshire gave the dual function arguments a cogent rebuttal. With a growing world population and greater wealth, he suggested there was no choice but to become more efficient and more intensive or risk being unable to feed the world.
Other world issues included the need for energy security - leaving less resource for food production - and climate change. Greenhouse gasses (methane and carbon dioxide) were also a major issue which would bring dairy farming into the spotlight.
"A 10,000 litre cow has 50% less carbon output per unit of production than a 6,000 litre cow," he stated.
Sexed semen would also favour the single function animal and would be mainstream technology in five to 10 years. "There will be no Holstein bull calves to worry about then."
n Hereford (and is not to be confused with his namesake, the Club's president!) said that the Holstein was the most efficient dairy breed in the world; 'not a Jack of all trades but a master of one'.
With the right management she would produce more milk from less land and be a faithful and profitable servant.
With discussion opened to the floor, emotions ran high as farmers defended their breed. Ben Pullen from Gloucestershire said that while the Holstein revolution had been going on, people had failed to notice the development in the British Friesian. Good cows had been bred to good bulls to create an entirely different product from the one they had left 30 years before, and this product was absolutely sustainable.
Conference chairman, Mike Coffey asserted that there were Holsteins capable of producing both high yields and sufficient muscularity to be used in a beef system, but we needed to identify such animals.
"I therefore urge breed societies to re-introduce breeding scores for muscularity so that breeders can make more informed choices about the type of Holstein that would fit their system.
"I am not sure we should encourage farmers to sink into mediocrity simply because they are incapable of managing high yielding cows," he contentiously added.
Mark Roach said it was simply about being competitive in a world market and in order to do that we needed to be more intensive.
But Jennifer Price from Harper Adams begged to differ. "Surely we should be looking to be more consumer-led; intensive units are not favourable."
With little sign of a truce in this ongoing debate, Lucy Andrews from Holstein UK summed up the thoughts of a few delegates remaining on the fence. "We should breed the right cow for the system and not get the system to fit the cow. Every breed has its advantages and you should breed the cow that is right for you."
Bold predictions for genomic selection
Choosing cattle and semen for breeding programmes in future could have more to do with selecting a package of genes than choosing individual cattle or breeds. And instead of using conventional genetic indexes, we could be dealing with molecular PTAs and EBVs. The technology which could deliver these changes is genomic, or whole genome selection, and it was described by conference speakers Chris Warkup and Roel Veerkamp.
The process involves the measurement of an animal's entire genome - or genetic makeup - through the collection of a sample of its DNA. Markers within its genome are then identified and associated with a wide range of actual (phenotypic) traits, before being used as a basis for animal selection. This represents a significant advance on marker assisted selection (MAS) which is already being commercially used for the measurement of individual traits such as tenderness in beef cattle or milk constituents in dairy cows.
And although the technology may seem distant and time-consuming, both speakers remarked on the speed of its development in recent years, and the rate at which its cost had come down. In other words, whereas only a few thousand markers had been identified until recently, now hundreds of thousands of markers are far more readily and quickly available.
This was illustrated by Mr Warkup who said that an EU project which was proposed in 2004 began to test the theory of genomic selection with just 2,000 markers across two chromosomes. These markers were going to cost 25p each. However, by the time the study actually began in 2007, they were able to measure 50,000 markers across all the chromosomes for about 0.3p per marker.
For an animal's entire genome, this is likely to represent a cost of between £150 and £600 - considerably cheaper than dairy bull progeny testing, at around £25,000 per bull.
Roel Veerkamp who heads part of the Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands took up the same theme and said that if the technology proved successful, anyone could start a breeding programme.
“If it works, it will have a very large impact in a short time on the structure of the breeding industry,” predicted Dr Veerkamp, who said that cost savings of up to 92% in measuring the genetic merit of a bull have been forecast.
“The quality of a breeding programme could be determined by the company having the best ‘genotype chip’ and best able to estimate its association with profit traits,” he suggested, adding that his own academic institution holds a patent on the software used to estimate breeding values from an animal’s genome.
But for all of this to work, farmers and AI companies have to have confidence in the technology, and ongoing work worldwide - involving companies such as Genus ABS, Cogent, Livestock Improvement and Holland Genetics - aims to provide the basis for such confidence.
Leptospirosis vaccination can deliver significant fertility bonus
The cost of infertility in beef and dairy herds is rising. For example, latest figures from Kingshay suggest the true cost of infertility could be almost as much as 4p per litre on some dairy units, which means a 100 cow herd averaging 8,900 litres a year could be haemorrhaging over £34,000 a year
According to Kingshay development director Richard Simpson, the current business environment of rising milk and feed prices mean that extending the calving interval alone could easily now cost milk producers as much as £4.90 per day.
“We estimate that slippage from a target index of 365 days say to around 420 days - an average interval not unusual in many herds - is now costing £270 per cow. Add in the costs of the extra semen for additional services, as well as increased involuntary culling and the true cost of infertility can be as much as £341 per head, or a profit draining 3.84 pence per litre,” he says.
Suckler beef producers are also losing significant financial sums through sub-optimal fertility. According to Quality Meat Scotland, weaning another six calves (eg from 88 to 94) per 100 cows can make you an extra £2,000 per year. What’s more, if you can also improve weaning weights by 30kg through tightening up your calving pattern, a 100 cow suckler unit could recoup another £5,000 of potential lost profit.
In terms of the national herd fertility picture, Schering-Plough livestock veterinary adviser Paul Williams MRCVS says many beef and dairy producers are losing more and more income unnecessarily.
“We know that herd fertility is definitely declining,” he points out, “whilst at the same time the costs of this infertility are likely to escalate further with the rising milk and feed costs.
“Unfortunately, what some farmers find difficult to understand is the concept of lost income - or profit that they could have made if their herd was operating at optimum efficiency, by improving calving interval or improving disease management, for example.”
As a result, the cost of the insidious diseases that impact on herd fertility - such as bovine leptospirosis - is also rising, which means the payback on effective herd health planning is improving all the time.
Paul Williams says underlying herd bovine leptospirosis infection is a classic example of this situation. “Leptospirosis is one of those diseases where it’s easy to convince yourself that nothing’s wrong.
But even in sub-clinical situations - where symptoms are not obvious to farmers - independent studies have clearly proved the link between leptospirosis and depressed conception rates.”
Two strains of leptospirosis affect UK cattle and the spring grazing months are the key risk period for transmission of these two disease strains. At grass, uninfected cattle are suddenly exposed to the urine of any infected animals that may be shedding leptospires.
Moist spring grass is also a relatively favourable environment for leptospires, allowing them to survive for longer outside the host.
Even though leptospirosis is an endemic disease, building up natural immunity is not a reliable method of control as animals excreting the infection in their urine can infect new unexposed animals. Leptospirosis is also a zoonotic disease, which puts family, staff and vets at risk unless a vaccination regime is in place.
“If you currently run an unvaccinated herd the best policy is to screen for infection regularly. In unvaccinated dairy herds this can be done through a bulk milk test which avoids the need for blood sampling individual animals, but for beef herds blood sampling is the only diagnostic option. The tests will indicate the level of infection in the herd and provide a starting point for developing a control strategy with your vet,” says Mr Williams.
For those vaccinating for the first time it is important to protect cattle against both the strains of leptospirosis circulating in the UK. Leptavoid-H is the only vaccine licensed to protect against both strains. A primary vaccination course requires two injections four to six weeks apart, with the second treatment recommended to be carried out at least two weeks before turnout.
Advance planning to make sure heifers are properly protected from leptospirosis is also important. “In addition to any bought in stock, it is important that youngstock coming onto the system are fully protected from the disease. Too often heifers only get their first dose at the same time as the annual herd boosters, but this is often too late from a practical point of view. These young animals then get turned out to grass at the same time as the lactating cows, but the youngsters often go to quite remote parts of the farm so it’s easy to forget to give them their second vaccination. It’s important for the efficacy of the vaccine and the health of the animals that this doesn’t happen,” Mr Williams advises.
“It is very easy to see vaccination for leptospirosis as yet another cost, especially when the benefits are not immediately apparent, but the payback in improved fertility means most farms cannot afford to leave their herds unprotected. To cover vaccination costs, dairy herds only have to shave a day off their average calving interval, while beef producers can secure payback by achieving 3kg extra weaning weight from a tighter, earlier calving,” he concludes.