Responsible breeding fit for future generations
Cattle breeding has changed. It's no longer about squeezing out the last drop of milk or building up the last gram of meat.
There's a new and urgent agenda which encompasses greater longevity; better feed efficiency; greater use of forages; and more health and welfare.
This agenda is being driven by a wide variety of forces, ranging from climate change legislation to population growth and societal demands for better farming systems.
Farmers not only need to embrace this agenda at the farm level, but cattle breeders also need to take it on board. But therein lies the conundrum - not only because the forces driving the industry don't always pull in the same direction, but because the sustainability of the cattle industry relies first and foremost on profitability, without which there is no beef or milk production.
The 2012 British Cattle Conference, which we preview in this issue of Cattle Breeder, sets out to answer some of these difficult questions.
UK and overseas speakers will come together from across the industry and address issues as diverse as the role of productivity in mitigating climate change to the role of breeding in achieving a more 'human-healthy' complement of fatty acids in milk. With a wide diversity of speakers and 'question time' panellists ranging from farmers and scientists to DEFRA's deputy director of livestock and the chief
executive of Compassion in World Farming, debate is sure to be lively, informed and engaging. Once again, we urge all those involved in the cattle industry to use the British Cattle Conference as the springboard to the farming year.
Introducing the 2012 conference chairman
Chairman of the 2012 event will be Duncan Sinclair, well-known in his role as agriculture manager for Waitrose in which capacity he works tirelessly to see more quality British produce - meat, poultry, fish and dairy - on supermarket shelves.
Working closely with the company's supply chain across livestock producer groups, Duncan has played a pivotal role, not only in raising production standards and the quality of produce on offer, but also in seeing membership of Waitrose livestock schemes become highly coveted amongst farmers.
And so, security, continuity and confidence have been built in the livestock sector, while the image of British farming to the wider public has been steadily raised.
During his five year tenure with Waitrose, the company has been crowned 'Most Compassionate Supermarket' on three occasions, reflecting the fundamental belief that the highest standards of welfare should be at the heart of its food production.
"Our customers always expect us to treat animals fairly and with respect at all times, so we make enormous effort to make sure this trust is well placed," he said, when receiving the 2011 award.
But Duncan's reputation in agriculture began to be built many years earlier when he spent 17 years with the Meat and Livestock Commission, latterly as economics manager for beef and lamb.
During this time, he masterminded innovative new costings services, while his forecasting of industry trends proved to be astute, insightful and remarkably accurate.
As he chairs the 2012 conference, he'll urge delegates to listen carefully to the need to make voluntary change to their businesses and hopes they will leave with the knowledge, desire and the drive to do something different for the good of themselves, their livestock and society at large.
Conference: The time and place
The British Cattle Conference will be held at the Telford Golf and Spa Hotel from 23-25 January, 2012
Main dates are Tuesday 24 (mainly beef) and Wednesday 25 January 2012 (dairy).
Delegates are also invited to attend any or all of the workshops on Monday (23rd) which are offered free of charge.
Day rates are £96 for members (£120 non-members) while cost-effective packages are available to include accommodation and participation in all the social events
Conference: The speakers
Breeding to meet future challenges
What challenges can cattle breeders help meet in future? This question will be addressed by Andrew Robinson, DEFRA's deputy director of livestock and livestock products, who - as leader of the team handling livestock-related government policy - has a first hand insight into the obligations facing farming, both now and in the future.
Whether to mitigate and adapt to climate change, feed the world, adapt to a scarcity of water or reduce the environmental impact of livestock, he'll highlight the opportunities cattle breeders face. Using examples of initiatives in other sectors which could translate to cattle, he's sure to stimulate the imagination as he kicks off the conference by setting the context in which tomorrow's cattle farming industry must operate.
Genetic improvement: a promise unfulfilled?
Genetic progress in the pig, poultry and dairy sectors has been well documented, with today's commercial stock exhibiting performance unheard of in their forebears while the structure of these breeding industries has also been transformed. In the beef and sheep sectors the traditional structures continue.
Though often using new breeds, they have largely failed to harness the power that genetic science has made available. Animal breeding consultant, Dr Maurice Bichard, highly acclaimed for his work in the pig sector, will look into the barriers impeding genetic progress in these sectors and suggest how they too can better contribute to the goals of producers, consumers and the nation.
A better way to achieve efficiency
There's increasing evidence to suggest that maintenance requirements and feed efficiency of beef cattle have remained largely unchanged over the last 100 years. Yet, if the industry selects 'feed to gain ratio' as a means of improving efficiency of production, it will not only fail to meet its objectives but will also tend to increase cow size.
Dr John Basarab, from the Lacombe Research Centre in Alberta, Canada, will argue that the industry should focus on 'residual feed intake' which accounts for body size and production, gets to the heart of the animal's maintenance requirements, and provides a real indication of the most efficient converters.
Referring to Canadian trials, he'll explain how genetic relationships between feed efficiency and other traits - including meat quality, fertility and economics - have been measured, and he'll argue that residual feed intake should be included in beef breeding values.
Systems for dairy beef to raise the profit margin
So maligned is the Holstein breed in the beef industry that it's easy to dismiss it for its poor carcase quality and high reliance on cereals.
But Dr Francis Lively from AFBI (Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute) in Hillsborough says the institute's trials have investigated a range of rearing and finishing systems for pure and cross-bred Holsteins and revealed worthwhile profits from grass and silage-finished beef.
He'll reveal the most sustainable and profitable genotypes and systems.
Breeding and feeding low input beef
A combination of necessity and a Nuffield Farming Scholarship have driven upland sheep and beef producer, Charley Walker, from a conventional system into low input farming.
But now he has reduced feed and labour, focussed on grassland management, converted to organic status, and ruthlessly culled animals which need individual attention, he believes he has a herd and a system which is fit for the next generation. Also fulfilling many of society's demands, he'll explain how his tenanted Scottish farm now earns him better margins.
Cattle health planning to face future challenges
Cattle health is said to be one of the key drivers to profitability on the beef unit run by Patrick Lambert in Fife, where several hundred cattle are kept on two different holdings.
Having successfully tackled Johne's disease and BVD, he will explain to the conference his future priorities and what pre-emptive action he is taking to face the health challenges - known and unknown - that lie ahead.
Getting to the root of bull sub-fertility
Published surveys worldwide suggest a staggering one in five of all breeding bulls may be failing to perform adequately for fertility.
Colin Penny, area veterinary manager for Pfizer UK Animal Health, explores the causes of sub-fertility, illustrates how it is being masked on many UK farms and reveals the impact it can have on suckler cow performance.
Proposing some potential solutions, he says they may require a change of mentality throughout the bull-breeding fraternity.
Lessons from American supply chain management
When a major US beef supplier wanted to hit targets and fulfil its customers' demands for a consistent, quality product, it approached the situation from the supply of genetics upwards.
Today, ABS Global is at the core of the process, providing and shaping genetics for a 200,000-head integrated operation and monitoring performance at every stage of the process.
The company's Todd Sears will explain to the conference what the partners in the supply chain did, how customers drove the process and how the benefits are felt by everyone involved.
Integration to revive the livestock sector
As the UK pig herd halved in a decade, Dalehead Foods' pig farming division, BQP, doubled in size. Now the largest producer of pigs solely for the premium market, the company demonstrates how integration through the supply chain has been the foundation to its success.
Alison Johnson, from Dalehead Foods will reveal how strict genetic selection, tight controls on production, and detailed evaluation at every stage of the process including breeding, growing, processing and eating, have driven better performance.
Suggesting a similar model could function for beef, she believes this would depend on a new openness and collaboration, and an acceptance that the real competition lies in imported products.
Do you know how your herd compares?
New research has revealed huge variation in health and fertility as well as production across British dairy herds, yet farmers often remain unaware of their own strengths and weaknesses and the areas on which they should focus their improvement effort.
Dr James Hanks from PAN Livestock James Hanks will reveal huge differences in dairy herd performance.
Services will present the latest findings from the research and suggest which key parameters could be used to pull more farms up to join the industry leaders.
Driving down saturated fats
The government's target reduction of saturated fat consumption across the British population is not good news for the dairy industry whose milk-based products are the primary contributor to intakes.
However, Ben Bartlett from NMR's National Milk Laboratories will explain how new technology is making the fatty acid profiling of milk quicker, cheaper and more practical to do on a regular basis.
While feeding cows for reduced saturated fat production has the scope to bring immediate results, it may not be long before 'fatty acid index' becomes an important dairy cow breeding goal.
Step by step approach to reducing emissions
Step by step, the dairy industry is reducing its environmental impact, by improving its technical efficiency, breeding better cows and collaborating across the supply chain.
Karen Wonnacott from BOCM PAULS and Marco Winters from DairyCo will together demonstrate some key stages in this process. Having played a central role in developing the industry's recently published 'Dairy Roadmap', Dr Wonnacott will highlight some of the changes that can be made at farm level at little or no cost to farmers, which will collectively have a worthwhile effect on greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully improve bottom line performance.
Mr Winters will illustrate how international collaboration is improving efficiency through better breeding; he'll refer in particular to the use of genomic evaluations to enhance genetic gain in the Holstein population; and he'll explain how the UK is at the cutting edge of this technology and the progress that can be made as a result.
Productivity to reduce carbon footprint
Improving productivity allows both resource use and the carbon footprint of cattle production to be reduced.
Dr Jude Capper, Assistant Professor of Dairy Science at Washington State University, USA, will discuss the advances in environmental sustainability made by improving productivity in the dairy and beef industries
She will describe the opportunities to further maintain sustainability given future global demands for milk and meat.
Use reproduction data to target your action
Around 85% of dairy cows are doing exactly as required, so farmers should target their effort on the remaining 15%.
This message from vet, John Cook, from Genus ABS, reflects his belief that databases can be far better used to identify which parts of a business are starting to fail and to quickly repair these areas.
He'll tell the conference how be believes it should be done, with particular reference to reproduction management.
Achieving high health the Nordic way
Lars-Inge Gunnarson farms 500 Holsteins and 150 Swedish Reds on his farm in Sweden.
He is also chairman of Viking Genetics - the umbrella organisation incorporating breeding co-operatives from Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
As part of a system which has gained world-renown for breeding high health dairy cattle, he will explain how extensive data collection affects him on the farm, and how the development of a central database across the three countries has been critical to their success.
Trials or tribulations on the Kingshay farm?
Currently better known as chairman of RABDF, David Cotton is primarily a dairy farmer running 160 milking cows on 600 acres of Somerset.
However, he's also in the unusual position of acting as landlord to farming consultants, Kingshay, who undertake extensive trial work on his farm.
Mr Cotton will explain the relationship to the conference, outline the trials under way, and reveal whether the pros of having trials on the farm outweigh the cons.