Love them or loathe them, Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) are here to stay and will play an increasingly important role in the productivity and profitability of commercial livestock units.

That is the overwhelming viewpoint of Cambridgeshire beef and arable farmer, Dan Burling, who has focused on EBVs for economic traits and a commercially targeted indexing system, to significantly improve net margins.

A project scientist and agricultural lecturer to trade, Dan came back to the Burling Brothers family business almost a decade ago when there were only 60-70 suckler cows on the farm which comprises mostly arable ground, with grassland severely limited due to a permanent rough river bank and flood plain. In all, the unit revolves around 550ha of combinable crops and 30ha of forage maize with soil type being heavy clay overlying gravel.

Now however, having completely turned the suckler herd around, the beef enterprise is home to 250 beef cows, finishing male progeny as yearling bulls for Morrisons while also producing Stabiliser breeding stock as a multiplier herd for the Stabiliser Cattle Company.

“Overall, our previous system worked well with the commercial cows bulled either to a Charolais to breed finished young bulls and heifers or to a Limousin or Salers to produce replacement heifers," said Dan. "The system utilised available straw allowing for retention of grass area eligible for SFP payments and produced large well graded bulls, but, it did not make any money.

“Stocking rates were too low. Feed costs were too high. Labour and depreciation costs were too high. Vet bills were too high. Time spent on the enterprise as a proportion of total farm income was far too high. Cow condition on weaning was very poor. Cows were far too large and too inconsistent, making them hard to manage on scale. Weaning weights as percentage of mature cow weight were also too low. Carcase weights were too big, too lean, too inconsistent and too old for a changing market and feed conversion rates were too low,” he said adding that all these marginal losses added up to become a larger financial problem which was unsustainable.

Instead, after extensive research, the family looked to trial a Stabiliser bull due to the breed’s maternal traits, consistency and uniformity of performance, ease of management and good temperament. The breed also boasted a focused economic and commercial breeding programme, backed up by science, which was important to Dan.

“Stabiliser calves are vigorous and the breed is hardy and very feed efficient. They have a moderate frame size and can function on marginal grazing, which allows a dramatic increase in stocking density. Carcase traits are also compatible with current market trends and will be even more so moving forward,” said Dan.

What was even more appealing was the fact that this composite breed was heavily founded on the use of performance recording and focused on economic performance producing a more consistent and profitable product for the market place.

“Research is clear in telling us that taking advantage of hybrid vigour or heterosis will significantly improve performance. Although the original herd did inadvertently use this theory we have found by using a composite breed we can still maintain heterosis at each mating in a far more predictable and uncomplicated way. As a result, our herd is rapidly heading towards being ‘pure’ Stabilisers.

When all the herd bulls were swapped to Stabilisers, plans were made to increase cow numbers, to winter house them in outside straw yards, and to calve them outside. The only cattle housed with a roof are the young bulls during finishing.

Initially EBVs were only used to select breeding bulls to suit the end use of the calf. For example, a Stabiliser bull with high beef value figures was used on cows not suitable for breeding heifer replacements. Heifers were mated to bulls with low birthweight EBVs.

This worked well initially, enabling more high value maternal animals to be retained in the herd. After the first two seasons, the bull's progeny performed as predicted and the business began recording all animals with Signet from 2007/8. This enabled cows to be ranked and matched with bulls more successfully resulting in faster more predictable gains that could be controlled.

“When we used Signet almost all our selections were based on EBVs, with the main figure selected for being maternal production value, as this has been shown to be the best predictor of profitability and a reliable way to select good replacements.”

Herd replacement rate was nevertheless high at around 23% due to the rapid improvement of herd figures.

“Calving Value has been an important trait to monitor, and we have selected heavily for it because it’s essential for easy management of the herd. I have tried not selecting solely for calving ease to avoid the likely negative impact on beefing qualities. This is one of the main challenges of using EBVs, trying not to select one trait that will negatively impact another. I have come to learn that balance in traits and not extremes are the key."

Dan added: “I have also found it more useful to select for grouped traits; calving value, beef value and maternal production value. Stand-alone traits are useful to know if they are extreme but are hard to effectively use individually in a breeding programme.

“For me, the most effective use of EBVs within the herd has been aiding heifer selection. Without using EBVs to select replacements there is little information other than phenotypic selection. This is an easy trap to fall into and a problem with show-based selection."

All heifers are also scanned for breeding soundness, with further visual assessment only based on functionality and correctness of the animal.

At present, 30 heifers a year with poorer EBVs are used as embryo recipients. These embryos are mainly new bloodlines imported from the Leachman programme in the US.

In breeding is also tightly managed and kept to a 6% maximum to maintain vigour with the use of embryos maintaining fresh bloodlines.

Cattle are culled for the usual problems, including functionality problems, barrens, late calvers and cows that have had eight calves. Cows with poorer EBVs traits in categories such as calving value or any other individual traits are culled as pressure is being put on cow population, for mature weight or Net Feed Efficiency (NFE) values.

Dan also reviews the herd’s average EBV position on an annual basis to plot herd trends over seasons, which with the rate of genetic gain suggests that in five years time, today’s elite cows will be average cows.

Key to this huge improvement has been selecting breeding bulls with the highest ranking maternal production values (top 5%) to achieve the maximum economic output value for the herd and the production of animals that meet market demand.

How using EBVs affected the herd performance

Using EBVs within the breeding programme has completely changed the way cattle are bred on the farm. Instead of selecting breeding bulls from a certain breed to gain a certain perceived breed quality or relying on breeder (albeit educated) guesses on performance, or on phenotypic traits, animals are selected for their desirable economic qualities.

The Stabiliser breeding system, with a total herd approach can be gained by increasing downward selection pressure on certain traits, and because as a breed, farmers are selecting on EBVs this means the national herd moves in a positive direction.

The below table shows UK Stabiliser breed genetic trends. This demonstrates how key economic traits can be selected whilst complimenting each other so as to progress total genetic gain.

Genetic trends seen in the herd.

Trait 2008/09 2016

Calving interval (EBV) 2.43 -0.43

Gestation length (EBV) -0.01 -1.5

Birth weight (EBV) 1.5 -0.35

Calving value (EBV) 1.98 3.5

200-day (EBV) 14 25

400-day (EBV) 24 40

Beef value (EBV) 18 27

Muscle depth (EBV) 1.83 2.3

Fat depth (EBV) -0.03 0.43

Such EBV improvements have also resulted in improved physical herd performance. Barren rates have reduced from around 7% to between 3-5% and calving assists have dropped to around 2% with no vet interventions. Calving period has been reduced to 10 weeks with 79% being born in the first four weeks while calf survival rate has increased dramatically with 95% of calves born being reared to weaning. Weaning weight of calves as a percentage of dam’s mature weight has also improved, despite the removal of creep feed to 45%.

One of the most dramatic changes has been the reduction in the cost of dry cow feed by around 30% and still decreasing. This has resulted in an increase in stocking rates of more than 20% which could easily go higher without stewardship restrictions on stocking densities, Dan said.

This has also been replicated with the fattening bulls achieving a 4.9:1 feed conversion rate and meeting market requirements on target. Average weaning weights of bulls are 330kg at 226 days with heifers averaging 284kg at 221 days. Bull killing out percentages are 57% on average with average carcase weight being 357kg, with 92% hitting the weight spec required and 100% meeting grade spec. Bull performance is improving each year.

The aim now is to reduce mature cow weight from the previous 800kg to average around 650kg. Moderate-sized cows, are more profitable than bigger cows because stocking rate can be increased. Research has shown that on the same resources, 650kg cows when compared to 800kg cows will produce an extra 4140kg of calf weight at weaning, which is worth a staggering £8694 when valued at £2.10 per kg, Dan said.

Combining these herd performance figures with considerably reduced costs per cow have resulted in dramatic increases in overall herd profitability and created a sustainable enterprise. The key is to have a system that focuses on a multi-trait index balanced for economic traits.

Looking forward

– Select for maternal traits to maintain cow efficiency and performance as evidence shows two-thirds of the cost of a kg of beef produced is spent on keeping the cow.

– Utilise Stabiliser NFE data to further reduce costs and increase efficiency. Research shows that selecting for this trait will reduce the cost of keeping a cow/calf unit by up to £100 a year without reducing output. When you consider 80% of nutrient use in a suckler system is used for maintenance, it is important to select for the more feed efficient animals. Selection for this trait is possible because it is 37% heritability (the same as growth), so it is clear this is a major priority, Dan said.

– Bulls on trial within the top third NFE results eat 14% less feed and have a 13% better FCR rate than the bottom third of bulls. Hence selecting breeding bulls with low NFE EBVs will result in daily feed costs of their progeny being reduced from 1.44p from 1.24p per day.

– Scanning and selecting for IMF (intra muscular fat) and rib eye area – Momentum is building rapidly towards a move away from the EUROP grid system that incentivises lean muscle yield and towards a system that incentivises eating quality. This will have a huge impact on the UK beef industry and may mean that we move away from breed-based incentives to measurable quality perameters, which will benefit the UK beef industry in the long term. It may stop farmers chasing short-term premiums and end carcase values and moving them towards systems that incentivise eating quality with a premium market to improve returns over a sustained period.

– IMF is strongly correlated to improved eating quality, and has an EBV that can be selected for. Thus it will be up to the industry to continue to produce a product with a high demand. Dan added: "We could have the best performing herd in the world but it’s no use if there is no demand for the product. The person buying and eating our beef arguably has the greatest impact on farm profit."

– £Profit Index – This new multi-trait selection index system will make selecting the most profitable animals a lot simpler. It will allow Stabiliser breeders to avoid selecting one trait that may negatively affect another and enable the use of one figure to select for the most important trait of all; profitability.

It will help farmers select on EBVs at optimum economic levels not necessarily maximal levels. He pointed out that looking at growth traits for example, and increasing growth will raise end value but eventually too much will have a negative effect due to costs associated with overweight carcases, fertility issues, dystocia and the feed costs with bigger cows.

Accurate and complete data from large, well recorded populations is key to robust EBVs. SCC has always insisted that it is mandatory for all pedigree Stabiliser breeders to fully performance record their herds, which has resulted in the breed making significant genetic improvements using robust data. The £Profit Index will enhance this further by pooling UK data with more than 1m recorded animals in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Data sent in to SCC by breeders is checked to the point of input, so any abnormal distribution in the data can be corrected.

The new index accurately weighs recorded traits against each other in simulated market conditions. It assumes one bull will sire 140 calves in his lifetime and that 30% of these calves will be kept as replacements, and the remaining 70% will be finished to slaughter on farm. These assumptions are used to weigh the relationship between economically relevant traits and associated farm costs such as grass, feed and premiums/discounts associated with the EUROP system.

The £Profit Index figure accurately compares cattle against each other based on relative differences in profitability. So, if one sire has a £Profit index of £10,000 and another has a £Profit index of £6000, the model predicts a lifetime advantage of £4000 from the higher bull.

It will cause some EBV re-ranking within the breed but will revolutionise the way we use EBV data. It is reassuring that our highest £Profit Index ranked animals are 2017-born calves.

Initially, its introduction will cause some re-ranking of animals within the breed, but it will revolutionise the way, performance data is used in the future to maximise profitability, Dan said.