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Beef special: Barker family utilising genetic testing to improve profitability

Knowing the myostatin status of heifers is enabling the Barker family to plan its breeding programme for maximum returns.

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Beef special: Barker family utilising genetic testing to improve profitability

The Barker family has been involved with Charolais cattle from the 1970s, when they were first imported to the UK and has never seen any no reason to switch their allegiance from the breed.

 

Initially, the family used a Charolais bull on the commercial herd. Cows were gradually graded up and were all pedigree by the 1980s.

 

David Barker says: “The advantage of Charolais is that, provided the timing of feeding is correct, they can finish at any weight with the right amount of fat cover.”

 

Mr Barker now farms in partnership with his mother Greta and brother Ronnie, but it is mainly he and his wife Louise who manage their Caylers pedigree Charolais herd at Nuthampstead in Hertfordshire.

 

Their focus is to produce bulls for the pedigree and commercial markets, aiming for satisfied customers who will return year after year.

 

About 15 bulls are sold each year at 14-18 months old, direct from the farm and at society sales at Carlisle and Welshpool.

 

Although the herd’s top price to date was 28,000gns in the 1980s, in more recent years it has been 14,000gns, while in May this year they topped the sale at Carlisle at 12,000gns for Caylers Napoleon.

 

A further two bulls, Oxford and Oslo, sold privately to repeat buyers to average £10,000.

 

Produce

 

Mr Barker says: “We want to produce easy fleshing, easy calving bulls with good growth rates but nothing too extreme.

 

“If you chase bull sales too hard you lose sight of what you need in the females and end up with no herd left.

 

“We aim to breed a medium-sized cow which is easy fleshing, easy calving and will rear its own calf on a forage-based diet. We want a herd which is not too extreme for either bulls or females but sits somewhere in the middle.

 

“The beef industry has to become more efficient and move back towards more easily fleshed cattle which will do well at grass. Profitability is all about cost of production and as an industry we cannot afford cattle which require large amounts of concentrate to finish.”


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Through the winter the Barkers’ young bulls are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) which is 50 per cent silage and 50 per cent a blended nut which is made up of malt, distillers dark grains, wheat feed and sugar beet, along with some straw.

 

Mr Barker says: “We do not feed any barley to calves as too much starch in the diet at a young age affects health, fertility and feet and we want to breed bulls which are going to last to encourage repeat customers.”

 

Silage

 

Heifers are fed grass silage and home-grown lucerne, while cows are fed prior to calving on a TMR of silage and straw.

 

Calving takes place from mid-November through to April.

 

Mr Barker says: “This fits in with our arable work and means we have bulls to sell at the right age for the sales but also means we have some variation in age.”

 

Cows with bull and heifer calves are split, with bull calves offered creep but heifer calves only a limited amount of this.

 

The Barkers have been performance recording since the early days but Mr Barker has some reservations about it.

 

He says: “In the UK we have made slower progress with recording than some countries.

 

“The system does work but it is reliant on accurate data being input and if this is not the case the results will be inaccurate as well.”

 

All Charolais bulls are required by the breed society to be DNA and myostatin tested before sales but since 2018 the Barkers have also been myostatin testing all their heifers.

 

Mr Barker explains how this helps with planning their breeding programme.

 

He says: “A Q gene-carrying female mated with a Q gene carrying bull gives a 25 per cent chance of a double muscled calf which could possibly result in a bigger birth weight, difficult calving and a calf which is less viable and cannot suck and this is definitely not what we want to be breeding.

 

“Whereas a calf with one F gene and one Q gene will have the advantages of the Q gene, that is increased muscle, but none of the disadvantages. Its calving ease, fertility and longterm viability will not be affected.

“The ideal is a double F, but unfortunately they are very rare, only about 3 per cent of the Charolais population.

 

“Knowing the myostatin status of our females means we know which type of bull to put them to for the best outcome.

 

“The myostatin status of bulls can also be useful information for commercial producers helping them chose the right bull for their cows.

 

"For example, if you had British Blue type cows you would not want to use a bull with the Q gene as you may get difficult calving. Or if you run Salers you may want a Q gene-carrying bull to introduce some shape.”

 

The Barkers currently run two bulls, Rosanna Jupiter and Elgin Nailer, as well as using some artificial insemination.

 

Imported

 

Mr Barker says: “It is not easy to buy a bull as the Charolais gene pool has got small. One of the problems is that our recording system is not linked to other countries which means that imported bulls have to start with low level estimated breeding values which has discouraged people from bringing them in.

 

“We have used some imported semen and also bought Jupiter privately from Southern Ireland. It was a risk but he has done well and his figures have now gone up. The three top price bulls sold this year were by him and he has attracted a lot of potential new customers because of his outcross genetics.

 

“We did not know his myostatin status when we bought him, but he is a Q gene carrier. So far, his daughters tested do not have the Q gene but most bull calves have.

 

“Nailer has the double F gene so we can use him on all the females. Having bulls with these different genetics means we can plan our breeding programmes to produce the right type of cattle for ourselves and our customers.”

WHAT IS MYOSTATIN?

 

MYOSTATIN is a gene that influences the production of proteins which control muscle development.

 

When an animal is identified as having one of the mutations it means they have inactive genes which do not control muscle growth as effectively, which can result in increased muscle mass.

 

There are 19 known mutations of the gene in cattle but extensive testing has concluded that the British Charolais cattle population only contains two – F94L and Q204X.

 

Knowing the myostatin status of cattle helps to plan breeding programmes for better calving ease and improved carcase conformation and quality.

 

In Charolais cattle:

  • 30.04 per cent carry one Q204X gene
  • 1.07 per cent carry double Q204X genes
  • 20.79 per cent carry one F94L gene
  • 8.16 per cent carry one Q204L and one F94L gene
  • 3.69 per cent carry double F94L genes
  • The remainder of the breed are non-carriers

 

Source: British Charolais Cattle Society

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