A message from the new Chairman
“I have been attending the British Cattle Breeders annual conference since the early 1990s and joined the BCBC committee several years ago. So, I was delighted to be elected chairman at our annual conference in January this year.
“I have found BCBC membership extremely rewarding, on both a professional and a personal level. Our annual conference is a great way to keep up to date with what is happening in the world of cattle breeding, which is constantly undergoing change. It also facilitates the exchange of new ideas and promotes discussion across the industry.
“The speaker topics are wide-ranging; the latest developments in science and research in cattle breeding are always on the agenda, but these are complemented by presentations from producers applying new thinking on farm, as well as reports on the processing and marketing of milk and meat. There is also the chance to pick up practical tips and listen to feedback from others involved along the supply chain.
“The broad cross-section of conference delegates provides excellent networking opportunities. But equally important is the social element of the Club; there is great camaraderie among members and a real sense of belonging. The BCBC always welcomes newcomers and gives everyone an opportunity to get involved.
“I would urge anyone with an interest in the UK cattle industry to join us – the annual Club fee is only £25 and offers discounts for our annual two-and-a-half day conference. I consider it a very worthwhile investment.”
Neil Darwent Biography
Neil Darwent graduated from Harper Adams Agricultural College in 1986 and has since run a number of diverse dairy farming businesses. He is currently farms director of the 800-acre Lordswood Farms in Somerset, which includes a herd of 250 dual- purpose Montbeliardes. These produce milk and beef from a pasture-based system, as part of a mixed farming operation.
In 1998, Neil was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, travelling to Australia and the USA, where he explored how dairy farm businesses attempt to achieve economies of scale and looked at the challenges of managing large dairy herds.
Young Persons Multi-media Competition (dairy)
Stuart Williams was the winner of the multi-media competition aimed at young people in the dairy sector. He impressed the judges with his presentation of the positive traits of Ayrshire cattle, which he milks on his farm at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. The Ayrshire herd was established in 1999 with just one cow and three calves. Numbers have since grown to 70 females.
Ayrshire cattle are hardy, with good conformation and durability, he told delegates.
Other positive traits include good chest width and a docile temperament.
“The Ayrshire has many uses; as well as making up full herds, it can be used for cross-breeding, to take advantage of hybrid vigour,” said Mr Williams.
“The breed is a good converter of forage and this is a trait which may increase its popularity in the future, due to rising feed prices.
It is also capable of high yields; some of the top herds are averaging nearly 8,000kgs.”
Young Persons Multi-media Competition (beef)
Traditional Hereford breeder, Frances Cook of Langridge Herefords in Cambridgeshire, put forward a winning case for her breed of choice.
Its good conversion rates and easy-finishing qualities made the Original Population Hereford (OPH) an ideal choice for producers aiming to increase profitability within their herds, she said.
The breed is an enclosed sub-section of the standard Hereford, with a history of no imported genetics dating back to the 1850s.
Miss Cook, who works as an agricultural teaching assistant at the College of West Anglia, described how her cattle were finished on a low input system. Meat from the herd, which also includes some British White cattle, is sold direct to consumers.
“I am passionate about cattle breeding and I thought the competition presented a chance for me to showcase my breed,” she told the audience. “The OPH suits today’s farming systems, as it is docile and easy-calving, reducing the need for high labour input. Our herd has a record of 95% unassisted calvings, with zero veterinary intervention.
“Rising cereal prices mean that breeds which require grain-based diets for finishing are going out of fashion. This is where the OPH comes into its own, as it has the ability to produce meat off grass, giving a high score for volume of beef per hectare.”
Miss Cook added that she intended to spend her £250 prize money from competition sponsors, EBLEX, on lambing supplies.
Conference: The speakers
Peter Nicholson - Milk with a unique selling point
Peter Nicholson of Robert Wiseman Dairies outlined the benefits of A2 milk. Although new to the UK, the product has been on sale in Australia since 2007. Following its launch, A2 found favour with milk intolerance sufferers and general milk consumers, who perceived a wider health benefit. The A2 brand currently commands 4% by volume of the Australian grocery liquid milk market and more than 6% by value. This market share is larger than organic, lactose free, fresh soya and goats’ milk sales combined.
A2 milk is natural milk, with nothing added or taken away – other than cream in the low fat products, stressed Mr Nicholson. The difference is down to the genetics of the animal providing the milk, which can only come from cows which test positive for A2 beta-casein protein.
In autumn 2011, the A2 Corporation in Australia and Robert Wiseman Dairies (now Müller Wiseman Dairies) entered into a joint venture, to form A2 Milk UK. After sampling milk from more than 18,000 cows across 81 herds, 34% of animals were identified as producing A2 milk, with milk from the rest classified as A1.
“Studies show that around 20% of British consumers do not drink milk, but that only 5-6% are clinically proven to be lactose intolerant,” said Mr Nicholson. “The rest perceive that their milk intolerance is lactose based, when it could very possibly be a reaction to the A1 beta casein protein. In these cases, A2 milk provides the answer and could potentially enable them to drink milk again.”
To date, 20 businesses have signed A2 Milk UK agreements; four of these are currently either supplying or working to supply 100% of their milk as A2. The remainder are initially aiming for 50% A2, with the other 50% sold through a conventional standard Müller Wiseman contract. A2 milk producers receive a 2.5ppl premium on all milk produced from October, 2012 to September, 2014, with suppliers also gaining a conversion premium. A2 milk was launched into more than 750 stores in October 2012 and is currently stocked in Morrisons, Budgens, some Tesco stores, Waitrose and Booths.
Julia Glotz - The rise of the urban caveman
The rising food star of 2013 is the paleo diet, which is being driven by the CrossFit movement, Julia Glotz told delegates. Paleo – or caveman-style – eating has been a niche movement in the US for some years, but is now moving firmly towards the mainstream and spreading to the UK, said Ms Glotz, who is fresh foods editor of the Grocer magazine.
The diet is based on fresh, unprocessed foods, with good quality, grass-fed beef considered particularly beneficial. Unlike many other ‘fad’ diets, paleo followers are encouraged to focus on good nutrition, rather than calories, she said.
“Paleo ‘newbies’ worried about the cost of their groceries are frequently told they need to accept that good- quality food comes at a price,” said Ms Glotz. “This is positive news for retailers and suppliers, at a time when many other consumers are watching the pennies. Plus, the diet’s strong carnivorous streak is likely to be welcomed by the red meat industry, which is frequently under attack from reports linking meat consumption to health problems.”
Followers of the diet are usually also involved in CrossFit, a rapidly growing fitness movement that combines weightlifting, metabolic conditioning and gymnastics. They are often encouraged to stick to a paleo diet for a fixed period of around 30 days. There are currently around 2,500 CrossFit gyms worldwide, with almost 100 in the UK, she reported.
Ms Glotz believes that the growing popularity of the trend may offer opportunities for UK beef producers. She suggested that enterprising cattle breeders and finishers with a CrossFit gym in the area could offer to supply its clients direct. Many people involved with the diet and fitness trend believe that the wider principle of eating natural, unprocessed foods will have lasting appeal, even if the term paleo does not, she concluded.
Andrew Higgins - Achieving High Lifetime Yields the Wilderley Way
Andrew Higgins is a dairy farmer based at Wilderley Hall in Shropshire. His business was formed in 1993, initially with 130 milking cows giving an average 7,000kgs yield on a simple
management system. In order to provide for the three families involved in the business, it was decided that a high-yielding system was needed. Fast forward to the present, and the current herd of 295 pedigree Holsteins is milked three times daily, averaging 12,640 kgs/head/year sold, with a lifetime daily yield of 18.22kgs. Calving is all year round.
“We are always told that cows must be pushed for increased yields, but I firmly believe that you can’t force a cow to milk,” stated Mr Higgins. “The key is to formulate a balanced and consistent diet, not only to optimise production, but also to allow the heifers to continue maturing during their first lactation. This will minimise problems such as acidosis or poor fertility later on.”
The cows’ welfare is always a priority, but particular attention is paid to the calving, post-calving and dry periods. If cows can be brought safely through these transitions, the rest of the lactation should be fairly straightforward, said Mr Higgins.
The two sheds for the milkers contain comfort cubicles, which are designed with sloping beds and have a mattress on the surface. Previously, sawdust was used for bedding, but this led to issues with swollen hocks, so sand was substituted. The future plan is to move to deep sand beds.
At calving time, cows are penned and given 40 litres of water and a milking cow diet. “The penning is very important, making sure that the cow can mother her calf and eat and drink, without having to defend herself against surrogate mothers. If she does not take in enough liquid, we will administer 20-40 litres of tepid water, mixed with a branded product containing calcium propionate, magnesium sulphate and dry yeast. This helps to reduce milk fever and retained placentas.”
At the next appropriate milking, the calf is taken to a hutch, with the cow joining the post-calving group on another loose yard. She will stay in this group for at least a week, during which time she will be visually monitored for yield, rumen fill and dung consistency. On day seven, her temperature is taken and an internal check performed. Ketone levels are also monitored and, if all is well, she will go into one of the milking groups.
The voluntary waiting period is 70 days, with a conception to first service of 38%. The current calving interval is 416 days.
“Short calving intervals, to maximise the duration of peak yields, have never worried us too much,” said Mr Higgins. “Our cows have great yield persistency. For example, some of the barren cows will milk for 600 days or more, still giving over 40 kgs a day.
“I believe it is very important to use high quality genetics and have replacements calve at the right age and size. Feeding a consistent diet and providing comfortable housing are two other essentials. Staff management is also worth a mention; we have a great team of people who work with us and buy into our philosophy of putting the cows first,” he told the audience.
Wilderley Facts and Figures
- Land 400-800 feet above sea level.
- The farm covers 260 acres, plus 100 acres rented on an FBT.
- Some 160 acres of grass for silage and 200 acres of maize are grown.
- The milking cow diet comprises maize and grass silage, bread, Trafford Gold, beet pulp, soya, soya hulls, rape meal, sodium bicarbonate and minerals.
- Replacements are home-bred and home-reared.
- The staff includes three full-time workers, plus a number of part-time night milkers.
- Most of the field work is carried out by contractors.
Adrian Ivory - Breeding for Profit
Adrian Ivory runs his family’s farming business, Strathisla Farms, near Meigle in Perthshire. The holding carries 40 pedigree Charolais females and 50 pedigree Simmentals, as well as a 140-strong commercial herd.
Financial projections and costings analyses play a major role in business management, with efficiency and profit at the top of the agenda. Mr Ivory, a former Farmers Weekly ‘Young Farmer of the Year’ competition winner, outlined a brief history of farm pricing structures. Since 1952, the price of beef has gone up 15 times, with a six- fold increase in the price of wheat. However labour costs have risen 70 times and land prices have increased more than 100-fold.
These figures illustrate the need for the intense scrutiny of all aspects of the business, he stressed. If the neighbouring farm comes up for sale, it is tempting to want to buy it. However the potential returns may not justify this type of investment in today’s marketplace.
Mr Ivory went on to speak about cattle breeding genetics, underlining the fact that the dairy industry uses 60% of available genetics, while beef producers use just 2%.
“My own experiences have shown that there is no ‘quick fix’ solution to improving cattle quality within a herd. To keep up to date, I study the major bull sales, to work out the percentage share of each breed. If one particular breed appeared to be going out of favour, I would take it as a sign that I may need a change in policy. So far, I have seen nothing to suggest that I should move away from the Charolais or the Simmental.
“I am looking for a medium-sized cow, which is milky and fertile. I am not interested in a big, rangy animal which requires a lot of feeding. I must also maintain a high health status, especially with regard to Johne’s, BVD and IBR. Buyers, quite rightly, are looking for disease-free cattle and this aspect is crucial, as I sell replacement heifers.”
One business “essential” is the use of computerised record keeping for the cattle herd, said Mr Ivory. Regular weighing is also part of his management strategy.
“I am a firm believe in the saying: ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ Bull calves are weighed every three weeks and split into groups of roughly the same weight. This allows me to assess growth rates. It also helps to identify any problems at an early stage. Budgets for the beef enterprise are worked out and re-visited every year.
“I also know my costs for producing each kilogram of beef on a deadweight basis. Playing with the figures is very useful; I have switched from the production of steers, to bull calves and that has made a significant contribution towards the improved profitability of the farm.”
Dr Andrew Cromie - Are the UK Beef Industry Structures Fit for Purpose?
Dr Cromie is a geneticist with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF). He presented a stimulating paper, which put forward the idea that the UK should implement a central recording database.
His opening remarks reminded the audience about the presentation by BCBC president, Dr Maurice Bichard at the previous year’s conference. Dr Bichard had suggested that the UK beef industry is lagging behind other sectors, including pigs, poultry and dairy cattle. The situation could be remedied, but it would need co-operation from all sectors of the beef chain.
Dr Cromie said that to move forward, breeders should unite, for their collective future prosperity, with processors facilitating the collection of carcase data. Processors and retailers would also need to work together, alongside other stakeholders, to establish goals and offer incentives.
The principles behind the ICBF contained four key elements, he explained. These were: structure, database, accurate genetic indexes and breeding programmes. Established in 2000, the organisation aimed to improve genetic progress for Irish dairy and beef producers, as well as for the wider industry.
ICBF shareholders included farm organisations, herdbook managers and milk recorders, as well as AI companies. Around £2m in share capital had been raised, with the project under the guidance of half a dozen ‘visionary’ people.
“For the chain to work, everyone must extract some value,” stressed Dr Cromie. “But I have a question – are the processors and retailers giving out sufficient price signals? My feeling is that the answer is no.
“The establishment of a central recording database must be driven by commercial farmers and breeders. It is also important to avoid focusing too much on individual breeds, as this can become divisive,” he warned.
Steve Radakovich - Adapting to Change
Steve Radakovich is the co-owner of the Radakovich Cattle Company, which produces Angus and composite cattle on sites in Iowa and Nebraska, US. His opening message was a reminder that the world population is now more than 7 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2045. The pressure on finite resources is currently intense but is set to increase rapidly, as a result of this prediction. Other factors which will affect future cattle production include climate change, increasingly volatile markets, and alternative uses for today’s cattle feedstuffs.
To cope with the coming challenges, the industry needs cattle which are adaptable and offer marketing flexibility, he said. Sustainability of the beef industry depends on cattle performing with fewer, not greater, resources.
“Top cow/calf producers in the US agree that a big asset is moderation in the calf size that cows produce,” said Mr Radakovich. “Moderate-sized calves give the producer the widest options in marketing and sale times. Big calves only offer the ‘wean to feedlot’ scenario, or the resulting carcasses will become too heavy, with the risk of being discounted. Small calves only offer the ‘background to grass’ option, for weights to reach levels suitable for feedlots and abattoirs.
“Historically, producers have altered environments to meet the cows’ needs. This change was normally in the direction of increased inputs, to achieve high reproduction and maximum growth performance. Cheap energy and cheap feed justified that management direction; however the situation is very different today.
“With high input costs, we must now match the cow to the environment and management policy. My friend, the late Doc Hatfield, said, “It isn’t the ranch’s job to produce what the cow needs to perform. It’s the cows’ job to perform on what the ranch produces,” concluded Mr Radakovich.
Ben Barlett and Mark Robins - Fatty Acid Profiling: Putting Theory into Practice
National Milk Records director, Ben Bartlett gave an update on a project to analyse fatty acid profiles in individual cow samples, with the aim of generating new efficiency measures for herd management and creating milk with potential human health benefits. The four-year project, which was launched in February, 2012, is supported by the Technology Strategy Board and led by NMR, in partnership with Marks and Spencer (M&S) and the Scottish Rural College.
“Previous research has demonstrated that replacing just 1% of the dietary energy intake of cows with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) could reduce the risk of heart disease in humans by 3-4%,” said Mr Bartlett. “However, this research also suggested that replacing SFAs in the diet with carbohydrates produced no benefit in cholesterol status. This is considered important, since in Western diets, initiatives to reduce SFA intakes normally include increased carbohydrate intake.”
Studies of fatty acid profiles in relation to cow health suggest that analyses early in lactation can provide useful indicators of energy balance status. There may also be a relationship between fatty acids and fertility. Overall, there is still a lot to be learned about correlations between fatty acids and fertility, he said. The industry will need to take a balanced view, before pursuing selective breeding policies based on fatty acid traits, with fertility objectives in mind.
Mark Robins, estate manager for Farley Farms Estate, near Reading, is chair of the M&S milk pool.
One study carried out on the 200-cow herd he manages, involved the manipulation of cow diets, to see whether a reduction in milk saturated fat levels could be achieved.
The trial is part of an overall strategy within the milk pool, which aims to cut down the saturated fat content of milk to less than 69%.
Following the launch of low saturated fat milk in October 2011, the retailer’s suppliers had slashed SFA levels by 6%. The work is linked to growing concerns over the negative implications of SFA on human health - specifically heart disease and obesity - and the fact that 25% of SFAs come from dairy products.
However, Mr Robins commented that there seemed to be no set method of reducing SFA levels in milk. “It's not about what you feed, it's the outcome that's important,” he told delegates. “However, as a point of difference, M&S suppliers are not permitted to feed palm oil products, or GM soya. Consequently, they receive an extra 0.34ppl for low SFA milk and 0.4ppl for feeding non-GM soya.”
Dr Tracey Pritchard - Selection Opportunities from Using Abattoir Carcase Data
Dr Tracey Pritchard is a researcher at the SRUC (SAC) in Scotland. Her work investigated the potential advantages of combining information generated in the abattoir with BCMS records, to produce carcase trait genetic evaluations in beef and dairy bulls. The initial study examined 3m individual carcase records and around 48m BCMS records. Just over 80% of carcase records could be matched to BCMS data, with 23% of records carrying sire information.
Genetic analyses were conducted for weight, conformation and fat carcass grades in animals sired by Charolais bulls. Heritability estimates for net weight, conformation, and fat class were also calculated, with the results pointing to a strong indication of genetic variation. This suggests that improving carcass quality traits through genetic selection is entirely possible.
“I believe that genetic analysis for carcass traits is realistic, particularly for breeds which make up a major part of the carcass population and have sufficient information on the sire,” said Dr Pritchard. “Encouraging the recording of sire identity in BCMS would further improve the usefulness of future data and improve the accuracy of genetic evaluations. The joining of BCMS and abattoir records, using UK eartags, should achieve close to 100%, as abattoirs electronically scan cattle pasport tags.”