For many farmers, breeding can often be overlooked as part of their farming system but proper breeding management on Irish farms is becoming increasingly important and for myriad reasons. In advance of the third annual AXA National Breeding Summit taking place on January 17, Agri Insider spoke with DONAGH BERRY, geneticist with Teagasc, about the importance of breeding, its success and the future of the Economic Breeding Index (EBI).
Discussing the advantages of a good breeding program and the merits of the EBI, Dr Berry described using these strategies as ‘… an absolute no-brainer’. Whether we know it or not, breeding is universally improving efficiencies across Irish farms as Dr Berry stated: “Even if they don’t like it, they’re still adopting it.”
Why is it important?
First and foremost, a good breeding management system is imperative for driving profitability on your farm and with inflation continuing to impact farms everywhere, it is now more important than ever to consider your breeding program carefully. This may translate into smaller tweaks or even a drastic change but a commitment to a good breeding program in 2023 will go a long way in determining your profitability.
By improving the abilities of animals for certain traits entire populations can be enhanced, creating benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment. In the context of climate warming and biodiversity loss, the way in which we produce our animals is under constant review, evolving every year. A key pillar of our Climate Action Plan, animal breeding is now also being acknowledged in playing a key role in reducing the impact of animal production and to help farmers to become more sustainable.
Sustainability pillars – economic, social and environmental
One of the major success stories in this country over the last two decades is the use of the EBI. Speaking about the index, Dr Berry said: “It has delivered €3 billion economically over a 22 year period.” From a farmers perspective, the index has also been invaluable in raising profits on farms. According to the latest figures from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), the average EBI of first calved heifers has increased by €211 since the year 2000.
The main objective of the EBI is to increase profitability on Irish farms. Teagasc have detailed the enormous impact at farm level with every €10 change in the herd EBI resulting in an increase of profit by €20/cow.
Dr Berry also hit on the other sustainability metrics that the EBI improves in terms of social and environmental pillars. He said: “From a social perspective, by putting more emphasis on beef, it’s going to be socially more acceptable given that the beef calf will have some value.
And from an environmental perspective, cows today are 14% more carbon efficient and 8% more nitrogen efficient than they were in 2000 when we launched the EBI. So it’s hitting the sustainability from the three legs of the stool”.
Already, the EBI has been recently modified with a new carbon sub-index being introduced in November. This new trait, part of the broader index, will focus on reducing emissions. What’s the next evolution in breeding? Dr Berry observed: “The next thing that’s going to happen is…by collecting actual methane data we’ll be able to put more accurate figures on their true carbon output. We currently have over 300 dairy cows now with actual methane data. That’s not enough to do an EBI on them but it’s a start.”
Animal Breeding to meet our climate objectives
Animal Breeding has been identified as a concrete action by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) to tackle our emission reductions under the Climate Action Plan. According to Dr Berry, animal breeding will play a crucial role as part of agriculture’s wider strategy and has distinct advantages over other carbon reduction technologies.
He said: “Breeding is cumulative and permanent. So if you stop breeding for two or three years, you maintain that advantage for eternity while if you stop something like feed additives you go back to base straight away.
“Things like feed additives and vaccinations, they are extra costs. Breeding is not an additional cost to the farmer and it’s got a 100% adoption rate. Without knocking alternative technologies, will everybody do it and the answer is no, while in breeding because you have to produce a calf to produce the milk ,everybody will do it. They might say ‘Ah I’m using a stock bull, I’m not following an EBI’ but the stock bull came from an AI bull that was selected from EBI.
“So it moves the entire population in a cumulative, long-term, sustainable fashion which is complimentary to all other technologies that are being developed.”
A good breeding strategy is imperative on all Irish farms and by doing so it helps farmers contribute to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental. These are all important metrics as we look to face the next challenges in the industry but breeding as Dr. Berry alluded, it’s a no brainer.
To hear more expert opinions and information for the most up-to-date breeding strategies, register now for free at the AXA National Breeding Summit – Breeding 2023 on agriinsider.tv, which will take place virtually on Tuesday evening, January 17 2023 starting at 7pm. To register, use the link below:
Now in its 3rd year, the AXA National Breeding Summit is an independent, online event that will inform all attendees on the significant challenges that will need to be considered for every dairy farmer planning their breeding strategy for 2023.