This year’s British Cattle Breeders Club Conference, held at Telford, focussed on succession as a way of building a sustainable future. Katie Jones and Hannah Noble report.
FARMERS needed to make sure they had the right people running farm businesses to secure the future of the industry.
This was the message from Dodd and Co. farm accountant, Rob Hitch, Cumbria, who said farming required a huge range of skills which was not to be underestimated, and it was in the interest of farmers to ensure they upskilled their family members to be able to deliver a successful business.
He said: “There are probably quite a few farms which fail because generations come in that are not quite up to it and as an industry we ought to be a bit more honest about that and cut off the succession and look at other options.”
“Succession is not about cutting and sharing out the cake, it is about the person baking it.”
He added: “To a large extent succession has got nothing to do with how you divvy up assets, it is all about finding people that will carry on driving those businesses forward. If we manage that, businesses carry on growing and developing and if we do not, they wither on the vine.”
Most farms were owner managed businesses he said and there was no demarcation between the directors, the shareholders or the day-to-day management, ‘everything got thrown in the same pot’.
Mr Hitch said: “Generally farmers find it very difficult to separate it out and start thinking about the whole succession journey and what it means to their business.”
He added: “Succession should not be driven by tax, tax is an incidental thing, in terms of looking at succession we have got to ensure we consider tax but it should not be at the forefront of making businesses successful.”
He said farm businesses were in danger of making too many people partners because it saved on some tax.
“Sometimes some of those people should not be partners, for example if they never wanted to run the business and never had any ambition to make decisions or do not want to contribute to the management.
“What we need from partners are three key attributes, plenty of drive, ambition and forward thinking people.”
There was a big saving in tax to be made by making people partners, but he said once someone is in a business it was extremely difficult to get them out.
Research has suggested the optimum mature weight of a breeding cow on a typical UK beef farm is between 680kg and 725kg.
John Crowley, from AbacusBio International, said it had long been recognised that the profitability of breeding herds was related to the productivity of the breeding female population, and this was impacted by the mature weight of breeding females and the associated biological changes in other changes.
“In the UK cow carcase weights increased from 1972 to 1996 at a rate of 1.5kg per year, and plateaued in 2006, with little change since then. The average mature cow weight is now 651kg.”
To determine the implications of breeding female mature weight, Mr Crowley explained a study evaluated how changing mature weights impacted other biological traits on the farm, and then modelled the costs.
Unsurprisingly increasing the cow’s weight increased cull cow revenues, but at the same time also increased costs for maintenance, replacements and progeny feed.
Mr Crowley said: “Breeding females heavier than 700kg requires higher quality and higher cost feed.
“Increasing weight up to 725kg significantly increases prime carcase revenue, but after 725kg this revenue plateaus, and after 785kg it decreases slightly, due to lower fertility and therefore less progeny being slaughtered, but also because heifers and bulls are also being penalised for weighing over 440kg.”
He said that genetics was the ‘greatest opportunity’ for optimising mature cow weight, and adde that breeding female mature weight had a very high heritability.
RESEARCH by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is using deep learning to create complex computer models for use in agriculture.
Werner Brand, geneticist and programmer at SRUC said deep learning was the creation of algorithms or programmes which learned by themselves and they did this through the analysis of huge amounts of data.
He said at SRUC deep learning was being used to develop models for use in agriculture.
They found it was possible to predict the pregnancy status of a dairy cow from data collected in routine milk recording.
The goal was not to pregnancy diagnose but to know when a cow was pregnant and monitor the pregnancy during routine milk recording.
Mr Brand said this could be used to avoid drying off a cow which had aborted or reabsorbed.
They also looked at the diagnosis of TB status and conformation of goat udders and Mr Brand said it was possible to use deep learning for facial recognition of livestock too.
FARMERS must be ‘ruthless’ and ‘execute the plan’ if they decide to use genomic testing in their herd.
Neil Eastham, partner at Bishopton veterinary group carried out a Nuffield Scholarship which began in 2017, looking at how UK dairy farmers could use genomics to their benefit.
Speaking at the conference Mr Eastham said too many farmers had genomically tested animals in their herd and done nothing with the data.
He said: “It is fair to say genomic testing has revolutionised breeding within the dairy industry. Since its introduction in 2009 the rate of genetic progress across the national herd has pretty much doubled.”
“Adoption of genomic testing on the male side has been good and now genomic bulls account for about 70 per cent of all inseminations on UK milk recorded farms.”
However he said the genomic testing of females in the UK was disappointing with only about 2 per cent of eligible heifers having been tested so far.
Mr Eastham said: “My Nuffield set out to see why that might be and the two biggest reasons I found were cost; realising the return on investment, and interpretation; knowing what to do with the vast amount of data you get back once you test.”
He added: “Albert De Vries at Florida State University, made me think about the importance of finding the ‘bottom end’ to generate the return on investment in testing.
“His modelling showed that by generating a surplus of heifers, the bottom 10 to 15 per cent could be sold once they are genomically tested. The uplift in genetic merit of those retained is what is really crucial when looking to realise a return.”
“Alternatively on some farms the deselection of the worst heifers focused on the heavy use of beef semen which also provided a valuable income stream to the farm.”
Mr Eastham said if farmers were going to do genomic testing, cost did not need to be a factor as this was an investment in the lifetime of the animal.
“I understand in challenging times with milk price it is hard, but the message in the US was that genomic testing will be among one of the last things they will drop as milk price plummeted.”
When looking forward to the future of genomic testing Mr Eastham said he visited a farm in Holland which was looking at feed efficiency.
“By the end of the project 10,000 cows will have been genotyped and there will be weight data, milk records from those cows, which will help shape a powerful genetic index for feed efficiency.
“The farm is seeing big differences between cows in the top and bottom quartile already.”
He also said research at the University of Guelph, Canada, had preliminary estimates which suggested that selecting for increased feed efficiency and reduced emissions could help reduce methane emissions by 11-26 per cent.
IN THE future it may be possible for breeds with smaller populations and even cross-bred animals to benefit from genomic testing.
Roel Veerkamp, from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said genomic breeding values needed to be as accurate and reliable as possible. For that he said there needed to be a large reference population.
Prof Veerkamp said: “It would be nice to be able to use all the data on traits in numerically larger breeds to predict some of the data for the numerically smaller breeds.”
However he said in some cases combining the data across breeds actually proved to be worse than using a small reference population in one breed only.
With populations of over 10,000 animals he said it was hard to increase the accuracy of the genotypes by combining with other breeds.
He said, if there was data from 2,000 animals of one breed in the Netherlands and data was required to expand the population from animals of the same breed in another country, then data from 2,000 animals would be sufficient.
However if a different breed had to be used to expand the reference population, nearly 40,000 animal records would be needed to provide the equivalent amount of accuracy.
Having converted his herd to 100 per cent A2 milk production in 2012 Mr Sadler was gaining a premium on his milk until last summer when the the New Zealand-based A2 Milk Company pulled out of the UK.
Mr Sadler said he was inundated with messages of sadness from customers who had seen improvements in their health after converting to A2, and still wanted to buy his product.
He said as the cows on his farm were still producing A2 milk, he saw this as an opportunity and as of April 2020 he will begin processing and marketing A2 milk from his farm.
She said: “If everyone in the UK went meat and dairy free every Monday, the national carbon footprint would decrease by less than 1 per cent. To put the onus of reducing carbon emissions on farmers is somewhat missing the point.”
However, she added that no matter how environmentally and economically sound UK farming was this would not matter if the consumer did not have trust and acceptance of the industry.
She stressed the importance of communicating ‘positively’ with the consumer. She said when communicating on social media it was important to share your values; stay positive polite and personal; keep it short, simple and see-through, focus on the important majority, and know when to walk away.
Mr Harman, who farms in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, began using Wagyu semen on his pedigree Charolais heifers as a way of calving them easily into the herd, but soon realised the high value cuts of beef the ‘Chagyu’ produced would be popular within his affluent location.
By focusing on animal welfare Mr Harman aims to keep stress to a minimum throughout the life of the animal, which he says leads to a better meat quality.
He said: “We can not compete on price with pork and chicken, but we can compete on quality. However, we have got to get it right every time.
“Consumer research shows us that if we have a bad experience with chicken, we will quickly buy it again. But if we have a bad bit of meat it can take up to three months to buy the product again.”