The British Limousin Cattle Society recently became the first beef breed to launch a project to investigate the use of a genomic breeding value index. Laura Bowyer speaks to the society’s chairman to find out the potential use of this new technology.
Having sat on the British Limousin Cattle Society’s council for almost a decade, John Phillips is now in his second year of three as chairman of
With Heather, his wife, he also runs the Gronw herd at Esgairddaugoed, Cwmfelin-Mynach, Carmarthenshire.
Mr and Mrs Phillips first got into Limousins in the early 1990s when they bought a cow and calf locally from the Drysgol herd of Leslie Thomas, the first to bring the breed to Wales.
Before this they ran a commercial herd of Hereford crosses, using a Limousin sire.
He says: “The bulls’ progeny was selling well so we thought there must be something in the breed and we now run 60 breeding females.”
During this time, Mr Phillips has seen numerous changes in the breed, a trend which inspired the society’s work on genomic breeding values (GEBVs).
As a result of a four-year research project between the British Limousin Cattle Society, ABP Food Group and SRUC, the society launched its project to evaluate genetics in Limousin-bred beef cattle. GEBVs are set to record carcase traits, with a focus on adding value.
Targeting a range of new carcase cut traits along with carcase weight and age to slaughter, GEBVs have been put together using visual image analysis (VIA) records on individual carcase cuts from selected ABP abattoirs and information from a pool
of Limousin DNA to indicate an individual animal’s strengths and weaknesses.
Mr Phillips says: “As processors move towards the use of this technology in their grading systems, producers of Limousin-bred cattle are well-placed to select breeding stock for traits which will drive their returns.
“Processors need to be able to differentiate better between carcase qualities. A U+3 grade can differ from a U-3 by about £200 in retail value and it is important this can be identified and producers get their share of it.”
GEBVs are starting to be listed on the online BASCO database and printed in sale catalogues, appearing as a barcode-like image. He says Limousin net feed efficiency (NFE) trials have started, along with development of GEBVs for maternal values.
The current Defra-funded NFE trial, working with AHDB Beef and Lamb, has so far seen three batches of calves analysed.
“GEBVs are the way forward,” says Mr Phillips. “It is so competitive out there and producers are being squeezed in all directions. Being able to differentiate breeding stock for production and maternal traits which have direct financial impact is key for commercial herd productivity.
“We hope the work we are carrying out with breeders will ensure commercial producers have the sharpest of tools to use in their business.
“A hair sample is taken from a calf at one day old which tells you if it is worth keeping for breeding or not. Currently, you probably would not GEBV test all stock but be more selective, perhaps focusing on stock bulls. As GEBVs get more mainstream, the cost will come down.”
Mr Phillips hopes GEBVs will help get the breed back to a ‘more traditional type’ which is ‘not so extreme’.
He says with the advent of VIA technology, abattoirs will be able to assess the real difference in carcases.
“Limousins are popular with butchers who know their qualities. Killing out percentages are good in the breed and, as a finer boned breed, this is important.”
He says: “It is increasingly hard to make money from beef and having the edge helps. Finishers will notice the benefits when they see carcases with top traits generate more money. The aim is to one day be in a position where store sales will state if an animal is by a bull with good GEBVs.
“You cannot see GEBVs with the naked eye like you might be able to with EBVs, but the science is there. They should be used in the same way.
“All these developments are exciting and I want to take commercial producers with us in the process so they can reap the benefits these technologies bring.”
Back at home, Mr Phillips, who farms 81 hectares (200 acres), says he does not like to push stock too hard, especially the females, instead giving them time to develop.
“We like to give our heifers time to develop before we put them in-calf. But ultimately, it depends on your system.”
Females calve down for the first time at 32-36 months of age and most are kept on-farm for breeding, with surplus sold through either Whitland or Brecon markets.
He says he favours feminine looking cows, with good length and width across the back and which are sound on the legs, thus keeping the breed characteristics. Mr Phillips says the breed needs to keep its maternal values too.
In terms of breeding, AI is used when the cows are housed but not in summer months.
“We like using AI as it gets fresh blood into the herd. We calve mostly in April and May for management purposes so calves can go out to grass.”
Making use of EBVs, the couple record calving information and weights to produce breeding values for their own use and for their buyers.
The farm sells between six and 10 bulls per year, either through Brecon Market’s society sales or off-farm. The rest are sold deadweight at 14 months of age. Mr Phillips says they look to finish animals at 700kg, or 400kg deadweight, or about 14-15 months of age. Breeding bulls need to be 600kg at 400 days.
Their best price in the pedigree sale ring at Brecon has been 6,800gns. In 2002 they took their first animal to Carlisle, making 7,600gns.
But with Brecon having now developed into such a good pedigree market they no longer see the need to make the trip to Carlisle and have not been there for four years.
Mr Phillips says: “We show at the Royal Welsh and the Pembrokeshire Show, and have had our share of success.
“For us, showing provides a good shop window and advert for our stock and we have a good time doing it too.”