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Suckler beef farmers aiming for more sustainable systems are being advised to prioritise genetic traits that have the biggest influence on productivity. “With beef... How to optimise genetics for better beef production

Suckler beef farmers aiming for more sustainable systems are being advised to prioritise genetic traits that have the biggest influence on productivity.

“With beef under increasing pressure to be more sustainable and profitable, it’s never been more important to review the suitability of herd genetics,” says Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society chief executive Robert Gilchrist (below).

“Incorporating native genetics, such as Aberdeen-Angus, has been shown to deliver key traits aligned with sustainable production, offering potentially significant efficiency, economic, and environmental gains.”

Native bred dams can deliver a 21-32% increase in gross margins compared to continental beef breeds, according to a Building Better Beef report compiled by ADAS last year.

This is primarily driven by the reduction in feed requirements, especially concentrates, due to their ability to maintain condition and thrive off grass, says the document.

The report was commissioned by Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, HDB, Hybu Cig Cymru, Quality Meat Scotland and AgriSearch to help suckler producers unlock greater productivity, profitability and sustainability.

“Native breeds are very well suited to systems designed to make the most of grass and forage. We know these systems can offer higher margin potential as well as support reduced carbon footprints,” says Mr Gilchrist.

Cow mature weight is also an important influencing factor. Native bred cows are proportionally much more efficient than their continental counterparts which are typically larger in frame, says Mr Gilchrist.

“Around half of the total dietary energy expenditure in suckler beef production is used by the suckler cow for maintenance; by selecting for smaller cows, this can be reduced without any detriment to productive output.”

Calving ease is also an important trait to prioritise. “Calving ease is one of the most important factors when it comes to sustainable production; you need to have a live calf on the ground and the cow must get back in calve within the critical three-month window.

“Assisted calvings reduce the likelihood of meeting these key parameters, with research showing that calving difficulty at first calving will decrease lifetime calf production by 30%.”

The Building Better Beef report indicates that native breeds have on average 8% lower calf birth weights compared to continental breeds, which results in a reduced risk of calving difficulty.

Calving interval

With the new suckler cow support payments in Northern Ireland and Scotland including calving interval as part of the measures, farmers are being increasingly incentivised to prioritise calving ease.

“Renowned for a shorter gestation and easy calving attributes, Aberdeen-Angus dams are well placed to help suckler farmers achieve tighter calving periods and improved lifetime performance,” says Mr Gilchrist.

Research on calving intervals in Scotland before the new suckler cow support scheme, found that 5% more Aberdeen-Angus dams achieve a 370-day calving interval compared to continental dams, reinforcing the merits of native cows.

“Ultimately, you need to pair genetics with your system and goals, but if you’re not already utilising Aberdeen-Angus genetics, now is a good time to consider the value the breed may offer to your business.”

Wool prices still stable despite smaller clip

Wool returns this year are similar to 2023 with most grades up only very slightly and a lower wool clip reducing returns.

British Wool chairman Jim Robertson said: “Prices strengthened in the autumn but have weakened again over the last two months with Mountain wool types struggling all season.”

British Wool auction prices for the season are on a par with New Zealand. The organisation handled 2500 tonnes less wool in 2023 primarily due to lighter fleeces – with a typical farmer delivering 10% less wool than in 2022.

‘Oil-based fibres’

The decline in wool volumes reduced returns by some 7p/kg, says Mr Robertson. If we had handled the same weight as the previous year, many grades would have been up 20p per fleece.

Mr Robertson says: “The rise of oil-based fibres over recent decades has driven down the value of wool. The world is however now starting to wake up to the environmental damage these fibres cause – and the sustainability of wool.”

New income streams were making a growing contribution towards payments. The traceability scheme generated £150,000, while grading for the Isle of Man and other initiatives had also boosted returns.

“More brands are specifying British wool,” says Mr Robertson, who says British Wool remains committed to creating long-term value for producers. Sheep farmers can be a stronger force by supporting British Wool together, he adds.

“We understand the recent wool prices have been disappointing. But with the initiatives we have in place, from traceability to our consumer marketing and our licensing scheme, we truly believe the long-term outlook is encouraging.