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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”