26 December 1997

Lot to learn from USA

In the first of a three-part

series, Jonathan Riley asks

one Yorks beef producer,

who has recently returned

from a visit to the US, for his

views on what the UK

industry can learn from the

approach in the States to

beef breeding and marketing

FUTURE UK beef production will be challenged by competitor countries producing cheaper, high eating quality beef.

The main threat will come from countries outside the EU, where advanced breeding programmes are already in place producing high quality beef for as little as 50p/kg.

That is the belief of the JSR Farming Groups Givendale manager, Richard Fuller.

"Our response must be to reduce the cost of production, to pay more attention to breeding strategies to improve eating quality and to market our product to secure the loyalty of UK retailers and their customers," he says.

Mr Fuller believes that undermining the efficiency of UK beef herds is the insidious invasion of the Holstein. The dairy-cross beef bull female has been the traditional efficient mainstay of the suckler industry, he explains. "The Holstein influence has wrecked that position with its higher feed requirement, reduced fertility and longevity and poorer progeny grading, all having negative effects on herd performance."

The efficiency of UK systems is also being undermined by the 90-head limit imposed by the Special Beef Premium, adds Mr Fuller.

"The scheme does the industry a disservice by inhibiting the development of large, efficient units finishing cattle rapidly at a young age to produce tender beef at a competitive price with low overhead costs.

"The second payment distorts market values and marketing decisions and this leads to inefficient systems producing older cattle which generally exhibit tough eating qualities and which are often too heavy to meet carcass specifications."

And the industrys record on producing cattle to match buyers requirements is not good, stresses Mr Fuller, with less than 50% of all cattle falling within their preferred specifications. That compares with potential competing countries such as the US where 90% of carcasses hit the target and where producers are fanatical about presenting consumers with a high quality product, both tender and flavoursome.

Indeed, Mr Fuller believes the UK has much to learn from the US approach to beef breeding and marketing. "Their breeding programmes take into account the dams maternal performance, maintenance costs and breeding abilities," he says.

Efficient beef cows should be of medium size requiring low maintenance input and should exhibit a high level of reproductive ability, while retaining good beefing quality and adequate milk production. It is essential that these traits are consistently repeatable to maintain high levels of output, otherwise we will not be able to produce quality beef at a price that will compete with imported product, urges Mr Fuller.

To achieve this he and four other Yorkshire-based beef products have joined forces to form The Beef Improvement Group. With 2500 cows between them, the group believes it is well placed to develop a large scale breeding programme similar to those underway in the US. "Consistency, efficiency and high eating quality have already been achieved in the US by combining breeds to form generations of composite dams and sires," explains Mr Fuller.

Composite breeding is based on selecting pure breeds strong in each desired trait, and crossing them together to form a new dam line which will breed true to type. It is, therefore, possible for breeders to manipulate four breeds by crossing them in two pairs, explains Mr Fuller.

Progeny from one pair are mated with progeny of the second pair and vice versa to create the composite.

This method of breeding retains 75% of the hybrid vigour achieved with the F1 first cross. To enhance calf performance the composite cow would be mated to a Continental breed such as the Charolais.

The main drawback to the system is the requirement for large numbers of breeding animals. Mr Fuller suggests such a programme could be established by groups of breeders and ideally co-ordinated at a national level using methods proven in the US. The programme would need to be based on UK breeds which confer the desirable maternal traits and eating quality such as the South Devon, Lincoln Red and Angus and on Continental breeds such as the Simmental which confer growth, milking ability and moderate meat yield.

The Beef Improvement Group has already done the matings to produce Angus cross South Devons and these will probably be mated to Simmental cross Friesians to produce a four-breed composite with moderate size, good milking ability and high fertility levels.

To improve their understanding of the long-term process and its practical application, the group has travelled to the US on a fact finding tour which took in the National Meat and Animal Research Centre, herds producing beef from composites, feed lots and a large processing factory.

lFor more on the Beef Improvement Groups fact finding tour to the US, dont miss next weeks issue. &#42

Jim Leachman (right) discusses US-style cattle breeding with Beef Improvement Group member Nick Baker on the groups tour of the States.

COMPOSITE BREEDS

The benefits:

&#8226 Retain hybrid vigour.

&#8226 Enhance fertility.

&#8226 Improve longevity.

&#8226 Early maturing.

&#8226 Unify type.

Many US suckler herds are based on medium sized composite bred cows which benefit from hybrid vigour and produce consistent calf crops from grass.

HOLSTEIN INFLUENCE

&#8226 Higher feed requirement.

&#8226 Reduced fertility.

&#8226 Reduced longevity.

&#8226 Poorer progeny grading.