THE SKILL of the stockman’s eye is useful, but can’t be relied upon as a single selection tool, according to producers who use performance recording to achieve exact needs.

A milk supply contract which rewards Gareth and Sharon Richards on fat and protein percentages means they select bulls with high proofs in this area.

They will pay up to £40 a straw for top class proven bulls, but to make it cost effective, they split single straws between two cows in their autumn block calving herd.

“The aim of using high index bulls is to supply better quality milk, and also to focus on improving cow type,” says Mr Richards, of Allt-y-Fyrddin, Abergwili, Carmarthen.

But some beef producers who place greater emphasis on visual appraisal are sceptical about estimated breeding values (EBVs). Aled Edwards, British Limousin Cattle Society chairman, who runs the award winning Dyfri Limousin herd near Llandovery, says some producers see the system as too complex.

However, attitudes are changing. EBVs are increasingly seen as a fault-finding mechanism when used in conjunction with the stockman’s eye.

In the leading beef breeds, about 40% of herds are performance recorded, while at the major sales at least 75% of bulls offered for sale are performance recorded – and those figures are reflected in prices.

Mr Edwards says breeders who may have been unconvinced about performance recording were now willing to pay on beef values. “I think people are looking for figures to back up the more traditional methods of selection. They realise there are many more facets to the breeding system.

“There is a customer base which is looking for specific traits. Management and ease of calving are important to many and these qualities are not apparent from a visual inspection.”

Mr Edwards’ family has heavily recorded for 20 years, but he admits it is only one part of a selection procedure. He places equal emphasis on knowledge of cow families and visual appraisal.

“There is a quality to be had called style. You can’t weigh or measure it, but you can sell it,” he says.

His primary concern is management ease within his suckler herd, together with growth, muscle development and milking ability. “The cheapest kgs you can put on a calf are from milk,” he reckons.

Milking ability is a chief concern for dairy producers, such as Mr and Mrs Richards too. Their herd averages 7000 litres, with a butterfat content of 4.1% and protein levels of 3.3% by targeting specific bulls.

They use top quality bulls, selected on PIN ranking. They are great advocates of test bulls , selecting the highest production bulls they can afford with good features, particularly good feet and udders.

Holstein bulls have helped them achieve their goals. “We now have to manage the Holstein cow better because she wants to produce the goods. When we get feeding and management right we have no difficulty getting them back in calf,” says Mr Richards.

“The biggest problem facing a lot of producers in terms of fertility is calving cows down in too good a condition. Those cows then lose condition after calving.”

According to Mr Edwards there is also a section of beef breeders which is targeting improved female lines. They require EBVs specific to milk production, fertility and longevity.

He is encouraged by the recording history EBVs provide for the main cattle breeds. “It is critical to get accuracy in the system,” he says. “We are moving into an international market where genetics will be shared with other breeders around the world. EBVs provide a record to identify potential breed improvers.”