22 November 1996

Better to buy disease-free British than go for imports

RISING price, largely due to a strengthening £, plus a looming quota overshoot and an apparent abundance of home-grown heifers, have combined to diminish imports of dairy heifers from the Continent.

Nick Kirby, managing director of Cardiff-based Inimex Genetics, remembers the massive importation of cattle brought in from the Continent when the BSE epidemic was at its height. Then, 70,000 head a year of BSE cases had to be replaced.

"That need is unlikely to be repeated, unless we do something stupid, such as kill healthy cows."

Imported heifers are likely to cost more than UK-reared animals, because of the transport, commission and other costs. Although basic prices on the Continent are currently depressed by the BSE backlash, says Mr Kirby, values would be likely to rise if there were to be a cull.

Incidence of reported BSE cases in Europe is much lower than it is here. That is what has sent dairy farmers looking for Continental replacements.

Even so, Mr Kirby agrees that the best bet is to get new stock from BSE-free UK farms.

"Obviously, if you can buy from BSE-free herds in the UK, it offers the best guarantee against reintroducing the disease," he says. "We have been more stringent in controlling it than any other country."

Cattle vet Roger Eddy mistrusts imported livestock. "I would not buy an animal that has not been bred in Great Britain," he comments. "There is no guarantee that so-called Dutch heifers are in fact Dutch, and we know that the quality of certification of French cattle has been poor. If it is unavoidable, then they should be quarantined."

Mr Kirby believes that the risks are minimal, provided buyers are careful.

"Make sure you know the people you are dealing with. Make sure they come highly recommended. Make sure, when buying animals on the hoof, and especially when buying from the Continent, that they come backed by a herd book or farmer co-operative organisation that has its reputation at stake," he advises.

He says his company has developed a significant import business over many years, based on high levels of service, delivering quality, and keeping strictly to the rules and regulations. He believes it eliminates the risk of false ear-tagging, recirculated eastern bloc animals and similar fraudulent activity.

"We work with farmers co-operatives, because they have a higher credibility. They have a standard to keep and too much to lose if they get it wrong," he says.

On-the-hoof replacements are the only way if replacements are needed to maintain current milk flow. If the need lies in the future, semen and embryos offer even higher health status.

Although as well as importing heifers Inimex introduces embryos and semen, Mr Kirby believes embryo transfer, with all its enhanced genetic advantage, should not be lightly undertaken.

"It requires a high degree of management and commitment," he warns. "For many herds, it may also be too expensive. The cheapest embryo still costs more than semen from the best bulls in the world."n

Lack of demand, due to fears about quota overshoot and uncertainty about a cull, has meant that the Genus Cattle Trading Database, launched at last summers Royal Show, has yet to be fully tested. It is intended to put buyers and sellers together, without incurring the 5-6% commission normally charged by dealers.

Buyer requirements are entered into the Genus database of nearly 28,000 herds in England, Wales and Scotland, and matched to a maximum of 20 farmers who have similarly entered details of stock that they have for sale. The search is carried out first in the buyers own county, and then if necessary in neighbouring counties.

On a simple input sheet, sellers enter details of:

&#8226 Number of cows or heifers for sale.

&#8226 Average price required.

&#8226 Herd Average yield.

&#8226 Average PIN 95 of cattle for sale.

&#8226 Pedigree registration, if any.

&#8226 BSE status for births from Sept 1, 1990.

Buyers enter:

&#8226 Number of cows or heifers required.

&#8226 Average price to be paid.

&#8226 Acceptable herd average minimum yield.

&#8226 Average PIN 95 value required.

&#8226 Pedigree registration status required.

&#8226 BSE status required.

The service is free to Genus customers; otherwise £25.


&#8226 Will cost more than UK-reared animals.

&#8226 Disease risks can be reduced provided buyers are careful.

&#8226 Better to get new stock from BSE-free UK farms.