14 September 2001

Charolais heifers being bred for maternal traits

At the core of the French

beef industry is a purebred

suckler cow which is proving

its worth commercially,

following a 30-year breeding

programme. Jeremy Hunt

reports from a trip organised

by the British Charolais

Cattle Society

FOCUSING on selecting for maternal traits has allowed the French to breed a moderately sized, hardy, milky Charolais suckler cow without the high maintenance costs of its UK-bred counterpart.

For 30 years, the Union Centre Est France (UCEF) – a union of farmer-owned AI co-operatives -has been involved in a genetic programme to identify the most important traits for an easily managed Charolais cow. Consequently, this cow is a far cry from the way the breed has been developed purely as a terminal sire in the UK.

Although the British Charolais Cattle Society is now involved in Signets LINK Sustainable Livestock Programme, set up to identify maternal traits within and between herds, it will be two years before the first results are available.

However, to speed up the process, the society has decided to tap into the UCEF programme to create its own BLUP model. It is currently in negotiation with UCEF and hopes to offer the first semen from Charolais bulls bred specifically for their high maternal trait values to UK producers later this year.

The UCEF test programme involves 90 bulls, selected using sire and dam indexes with one third from proven parents, one third from new bloodlines and the remainder from 200 planned embryo transfer matings. Bulls are bought from breeders as weaned calves and evaluated at the Montrond les Bains test station.

After three months at the station, bulls begin a three-month performance test based on liveweight gain, feed conversion and linear assessment, explained UCEFs Boris Kasatkin.

"We collect semen from the top 30 bulls and inseminate 300 cows/bull. The 9000 cows involved in the programme are selected using BLUP indexes from the top, average and bottom third of the national herd."

The following year progeny from each bull is monitored by the French Ministry of Agriculture. Each bull is assessed for its of ease of calving, birth weight, frame, muscle development and weaning weight.

A final test of the top 12 bulls is undertaken at the UCEF test centre at Agonges. This is an additional assessment unique to French cattle breeding programmes and involves 22 females by each bull remaining at the test station for two breeding seasons.

The Agonges centre, near Bourbonnais, is responsible for the worlds only beef breeding project devoted to maternal trait selection.

"Among the characteristics we evaluate in female progeny are fertility, sexual precocity, number of calves born and longevity. "Heifers are also monitored at calving to measure the pelvic opening and calf birth weight," said Dr Kasatkin.

The heifers milking ability and the frame and muscular development of progeny are also measured. Average milk yield is 6.5kg/day with some cows producing up to 5000kg/lactation.

UCEF has records tracing 31 years of maternal trait selection. It has created four bull indexes including maternal qualities – for frame and muscular development at 18 months old; fertility; calving ease; and milking ability. Each year three or four bulls are recommended as AI sires.

The UCEF test programme has focussed on maternal traits and semen could soon be available to UK breeders, says Boris Kasatkin.

FRENCHCHAROLAIS

&#8226 Bred for maternal traits.

&#8226 Smaller than UK cows.

&#8226 Comprehensive test programme.