IN THE late 1980s, the day after judging the Aberdeen-Angus at the Royal Ulster Show, in Belfast, my host Jim Jack drove me round some of the herds in Northern Ireland.

I particularly looked forward to seeing a cow, Greeve Mona, which was owned by Gilbert Greig, owner of the Gilkey herd. Mona was born in the west of the Republic of Ireland and had won the championship at the Royal Ulster in 1982 and 1983.

She was well past her prime when I saw her, but still looked well. Gilbert’s cattle were in small fields surrounded by high hedges which were scattered throughout the parish. Many of the beasts I saw were descendants of Mona.

The sole occupant of the last field was a seven-year-old bull. He was a son of Mona and because he was related to so many cattle in the herd, Gilbert could no longer use him. He had wintered on old grass and if there was any snow on the ground, had been given hay. Despite this, he was in similar condition to the cattle I had judged the previous day.

As a young bull, Masterpiece of Gilkey, had won his class at the Royal Ulster. Before that, he had topped the performance test run by the North of Ireland Department of Agriculture. His daily live weight gain (DLWG) was 1.37kg and his 400-day weight was 574kg.

This was the best ever in Northern Ireland, but would be unremarkable today. Two Charolais bulls were on the same test. They weighed 673kg and 689kg with DLWGs of 1.69kg and 1.8kg. They had feed conversion ratios (FCR) of 4.42 and 4.7kg of feed for every 1kg of liveweight gain. Masterpiece’s FCR was 4.3/1.

I bought Masterpiece. He was exceptionally docile, but Gilbert told me that whatever they did they couldn’t keep a halter on him.

When he came off the lorry, he had a lasso round his neck with the loose rope threaded through his ring. I wondered how I would get it off, however he stood like a rock while I threaded the rope back through his ring and slipped the noose over his head before he ambled off to the cows.

When we brought him in he was as fit as the day he arrived. We weighed him at the local sawmill. He weighed 1200kg which was very heavy at that time.

To keep his condition down we never fed him much grain and to the end of his days he always looked well. We never sold any sons into pedigree herds as the breed model at that time was the Chianina, however they did well in the commercial herds, including our own.

Compared to the other bulls we were using, his offspring were easy feeders, although we had no way of measuring that.

Technology for feed conversion measurement in Masterpiece’s day was crude compared to what is available today. Over the past month, we have installed the most up to date equivalent manufactured by the Canadian company, Growsafe.

This will enable us to accurately measure both feed conversion and its derivatives residual feed intake (RFI) and 'residual average daily gain (RADG). RFI measures what an animal has eaten relative to its weight gain and compares it to an average animal of the same sex and type. RADG combines measurement of FCR and weight gain.

This is to avoid selection for each trait in isolation, which can result in either good convertors with slow growth, or high gainers which take too much feed to get there. We need animals which excel in both.

This investment is the biggest we have ever made. Although it exactly fitted its requirements, we missed out on the Sustainable Capital Grant Scheme. Maybe it is for the better, as we can use the equipment to our own best advantage, rather than have to conform to government strictures.

The technology and benefits of the Growsafe System are complex, well proven worldwide and best described on its website. Briefly explained: Every time an animal feeds from a bunker the weight of the food consumed is registered. Every time it drinks its weight is recorded. The latter is to overcome the difference in gut-fill between the first and last animals when weighed in a routine operation.

This data is transmitted continuously through ‘the cloud’ to Canada, which prevents manipulation.

The benefits to us are that feed bills will be cut and also methane will be reduced. The figures differ on how much, depending on the source but are in every case considerable.

Unlike when we select for other desired qualities, there is no downside and animals which convert efficiently on grass, do so equally on grain.

Traits such as milk, eating quality, growth or body shape are not influenced in any way. The last surprises me as my own preconceived idea of what a good converter would look like would be a blockier type animal than the trim kind currently favoured in the showring.

Time will tell. Possibly, history will be repeated. When we started ultrasonic scanning I was confident that by estimating visually the strength of a beasts top I could guess how it would scan. I didn’t come close.

In today’s world, where measurement and recording is mandatory in beef selection, 'Two centuries of change' – Willie McLaren’s history of the Aberdeen-Angus breed over 200 years, almost half of which he has lived and breathed – is absorbing.

Until recent years, selection was by eye backed up by pedigree. The animals’ size and body shape varied hugely over the period. These depended to some degree on consumer demand and economic circumstances, but more often were simply based on what pedigree breeders thought they should be.

The history is available on memory stick and will provide a fascinating hour or two for breeders and feeders of all breeds.

Best wishes for a prosperous New Year.