By Alasdair Macnab

With the autumn bull sales upon us many of you will be looking at the stock presented for sale and having to make a decision that will impact your business for many years to come, that is, buying a bull.

This involves considering a lot of factors, breed, pedigree, vendor, health status, locomotion, looks and dare I say it, figures. But what do you buy and why? Why are so many bulls up for sale missing performance information?

Controversy rages about figures. So much so that many breeders of pedigree sheep and cattle have stopped recording. This puzzles me and is of significant concern for the future of both industries.

Why would you stop measuring and evaluating your product for sale, identifying where progress needs to be made? Why would you not want to know that your breeding is going to give you a market paying a commercial as opposed to brand premium? I cannot see brand premiums continuing so production needs to be geared to the final market demands.

A well known bull breeder in the south of Scotland told me once: “Alasdair, you need to watch the market signals”. What are these market signals? Glad you asked.

Breeding cattle and sheep stock is a long-term game. Over the last 50 years we’ve seen the market swing from native to continental and back to native again. We’ve seen the size of farm grow and grow. We’ve lost a lot of small units and seen many units grow.

In the 1970s the average size of dairy herd was less than 40 cows. Today it is just over 200 cows and in a lot fewer herds. Officially milk recorded cows remain more than 70% of the population. Milk buyers, farmers and industry partners all realise the financial benefits of improving milk quality and disease awareness. So why are beef and sheep farmers walking away from recording?

Jim McLaren’s Beef 2020 report written in 2014 set out a vision for 2020. His group envisaged a confident market driven grass-based cattle industry using leading edge technologies capable of delivering profitably to the home and world market high provenance, quality beef from sustainable production systems." How do you do that and be profitable?

Each link in the supply chain needs to be profitable; and that comes from both production efficiencies and market development.

For the beef farmer this means developing a deadweight payment system that more accurately rewards the yield and value of the carcase coupled with improved animal performance which comes from better information. That information is Estimated Breeding Values (EBV) and genomics being available for the buyers of breeding stock.

The beef sector is one of the few parts of our agricultural industry which still produces in a largely speculative way. In other words do you really understand the market opportunity for the beef enterprise on your farm?

Most producers will say that they feel they know for whom they are producing their animals. Feeling isn’t going to be enough in the future, you will need to know what you are doing and why. The proportion of cattle and sheep falling out with the preferred abattoir specification tells us that beef and sheep producers need to find out more about meeting the market specifications.

This is the first market signal. To increase margins, producers need to become more aware of how to breed for market specification. How do we do this? Surely this is one of the key roles for monitor farms?

If the beef sector is to truly grow, a far greater degree of collaboration is required within the supply chain. This will give the processing sector confidence to develop and expand into new markets. Producers can then confidently deliver the required supply to meet that increased demand. That needs detailed knowledge of what you are breeding with.

When the beef and sheep sectors are compared to the 'intensive' sectors we see some very stark differences. The poultry, pigs and dairy sectors continue to invest significantly at all levels of the production process, despite their own price challenges and with little or no support in many cases. Producers tend to know exactly for which market they are producing, and consequently the specification and time of delivery of the required product. Genetic improvement is happening at a far greater pace and the 'measuring' of key performance indicators is widespread best practice.

Simple concept for any production process, but they are often sadly lacking in the beef and sheep sectors. Why?

Integrity is one of the key issues with EBVs. EBVs are estimates, remember that. That is in effect a good guess. It depends on the honesty of those doing the recording; or does it? Let’s have a wee think about it.

How are EBVs calculated? Animals are weighed, scanned, gestation lengths worked out and figures submitted to breed societies. They are entered into a computer programme which calculates the estimate. How is the calculation done?

Each trait has a heritability factor. e.g. milk figures have a 10% heritability. Traits are also influenced by parents, grandparents and further back. As we know from our own families some traits can skip a generation. This is where it gets complicated. However, beside each EBV you will see a figure giving the percentage accuracy of the EBV.

The higher the figure; the more reliable the EBV. In other words the more people who have contributed measurements to the EBV, the more relatives, ancestors and offspring who can be compared the more reliable the EBV.

This is the challenge. EBVs need more data, more information. This goes back to Jim McLaren’s report and the new government grant for investing in weigh crates, EID, electronic assessment of carcases in the live animals. The two are connected.

Technology is the future for the beef and sheep industries. New developments like VIA (visual carcase assessment) is already feeding back into DNA analysis and genomics. Genomics quantifies as increasingly accurate measurement of animal production potential. EBVs will still be needed for traits which are not yet assessed by genomics like gestation, calving ease etc.

I recall a course I was on some 15 years ago and one phrase hit me hard. “Those who do not embrace technology in farming will not survive”. On the arable side technology is racing ahead. This year our combine contractor cage me a print out of each field he cut with area, time to cut, moisture, dried yield and much more. He was out by about 1%. Why are the beef and sheep industries not at this level today?

I’ll leave you with five questions.

1. You sell 100 calves, 500 lambs, can you guarantee your buyer that 95% will meet abattoir specifications, which are driven by the specification of the final consumer?

2. What is the specification from the final consumer that drives what the abattoirs really want?

3. Why are we not in discussion with processors and driving the use of VIA, driving better feedback up the supply chain of production and disease information?

4. Why is information and technology not driving decisions in beef and sheep production?

5. Why are beef and sheep pedigree producers walking away from technology and data?