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Beef Shorthorn Society classification on track

A year after launching a Beef Shorthorn cow classification scheme, Geoff Riby tells Wendy Short about his goals.
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Geoff (left) and Chris Riby were among the first to register for the classification scheme
Geoff (left) and Chris Riby were among the first to register for the classification scheme
Keeping the Beef Shorthorn on track for maternal traits and preserving its functionality are two of the more specific goals of the Beef Shorthorn classification scheme, launched by society president Geoff Riby and his fellow directors.
To date, some 1,600 cows from almost 60 herds have taken part countrywide, with many others on the waiting list.
In the scheme, funded by the breed society, assessors visit members’ farms and assign scores to 14 separate linear traits to produce a composite classification which falls into four weighted categories: feet and legs (30 per cent), body (25 per cent), beef character (25 per cent), and mammary (20 per cent).

Farm facts

  • The Stonehills herd of Beef Shorthorn comprises 55 cows
  • Calving is mainly from February to April, with a second group in November
  • Growing cattle are fed a ration which includes home-grown barley, oats and a bought-in protein source
  • Heifers not required as replacements are sold for breeding, with steers leaving the farm at 14-16 months and sold on the Morrisons deadweight scheme, which offers a 25p/kg premium for qualifying animals
  • The 404-hectare (1,000-acre) farm also has a large arable rotation, as well as flocks of pedigree Suffolk and Texel sheep

Ranking

Each linear trait is given a score from 1-10 and these figures are combined with the composite classification to produce a result which is similar to the ranking system traditionally used for dairy cows. These range from Excellent, Very Good, Good Plus, Good, Fair and Poor, with a team of eight trained staff employed to carry out the inspections.


Only females can be put forward for the scheme and inspections are limited to animals which have had at least one calf, with a preference for females which are in-milk to allow for an accurate evaluation of udder attachment and depth. As young cattle are the most influential in terms genetic progress, first calvers must be presented for inspection, while older animals are entered at the discretion of the owner.


Mr Riby, who farms with his wife Jackie, and son Christopher, is keen to make it clear a high score does not necessarily denote what might be considered the best animal. For some traits, a medium score may be more desirable.

Reference

“The linear element gives a description of how the animal is constructed and provides a useful reference point,” he says.


“A small cow measuring 124cm at the rump, for example, would be given a score of 1, while the largest, at 148cm, would score a 9.


“Individual breeders have different priorities. My own preference on stature is somewhere in the middle and my herd has an average score of 6 at present. I have had one inspection, but I am due for a second visit once a batch of my females has calved. Most members will host two inspections a year, depending on calving dates.”


As well as being a benchmark for measuring the direction the herd is heading, scores can also be compared against figures from other participating members, he says. Another potential advantage is to highlight the animals whose scores improve with age.


“A cow classified Good Plus as a second-calver and upgraded to Excellent as a fifth-calver has greater genetic merit than one whose score shows a downward trend. It will also become a useful aid to sire selection. For example, a producer whose herd has a poor average score for legs and feet would choose a bull from a family with a high score for this trait.”

Temperament

During the visit, the assessor will note the temperament of each animal put forward. However these figures will not be made public, although the composite and linear scores will be available on the society’s online membership database.
“Temperament is not an issue with Beef Shorthorns,” says Mr Riby.
“This score is not scientific which is why it is not published. Some farms receive few visitors and individuals might appear nervous when confronted by a stranger, but at ease when handled by someone familiar. Physical defects will be recorded and they will also be withheld from publication. These would include features such as blind teats, dermatitis, lameness and uneven toes.”
Mr Riby’s own herd inspection threw up a number of surprises.
He says: “Our herd average for udder attachment was better than anticipated. We scored a 7, indicating a fairly tight udder, which was pleasing, but the inspection also demonstrated areas where there is room for improvement.
“One heifer, which we would have described as uninteresting, was given a favourable score and we realised we had not previously fully appreciated her positive qualities. She could even become Excellent by the time she has her fourth calf, assuming her udder remains above her hock. As a breeder, it is all too easy to focus on the merits of home-bred animals, so an unbiased and scientific system can be helpful.”

Conflict

He refutes the suggestion conflict will arise between type classification, cattle showing and estimated breeding values (EBVs).


“Subjectivity cannot be ignored. We all have personal preferences and the show circuit is important to many of our members,” he says.


“The scheme does not take into account some of the qualities a judge might be looking for, such as how an animal holds its head or whether it has show ‘presence’. It also offers a way of checking EBVs, to ensure selection for production traits does not have a negative impact on functionality.”


The Beef Shorthorn falls into the category of a maternal breed and Mr Riby says the classification scheme should help it to retain these characteristics. The figures are already being featured in sales catalogues and breed advertisements and may attract a price premium, he says.

Maternal

“As a maternal breed, the functionality of the Beef Shorthorn is paramount. The details of our scheme were thrashed out over many hours of discussion and have taken into account every aspect which we feel will assist the producer to stay in business, by breeding the type of animals which fit market requirements. We may also discover ‘hidden genetic gems’ in herds which we would not otherwise be aware of.


“As a society, we must be mindful selecting for terminal-type traits could potentially harm the breed’s reputation,” says Mr Riby.


“Information gathered through the scheme will give an early warning if we start moving down this road. Mobility of our cows will be compromised if we select for double-muscling, for example, which would potentially harm scores, milk yields, calving ease and fertility in general.”


Mr Riby says he is confident the scheme has a long-term future with the society.


“I am often asked how long the society plans to continue funding the arrangement for members and I can confirm the scheme will be supported for at least the next two years.


“Over time, we hope the data will be used for sire analysis, to determine the merits of bulls through the evaluation of their progeny. If uptake continues to grow steadily, this feature may be available in the next four or five years.”

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