3 August 2001

US genetic technology offers composite hope

The need for a suckler cow with strong maternal traits

and proven ability to reduce production costs has

encouraged a group of UK producers to try some US composite

genetics. Jeremy Hunt reports on their progress

PROVIDING beef producers with a purpose-bred hybrid suckler cow to overcome the shortcomings of the UKs 1m dairy-bred sucklers could slash 19p/kg off beef production costs.

Richard Fuller, technical director of the Beef Improvement Group, set up by five breeders in 1996, believes the Stabiliser – a composite-bred beef animal – offers producers an opportunity to reduce production costs (see table).

The Stabiliser was developed by the Leachman Cattle Company (LCC) in the US. Embryos and semen have been used by BIG members since 1998 and they now have 100 purebreds and more than 350 first crosses of up to two years old in the UK.

"MLC figures highlight the effect of cow breeding on performance. They show the Stabiliser suckler cows longevity and lower maintenance requirements produce a cost/kg of weaned calf of 59.8p, compared with 78.7p when out of Continental x dairy-bred suckler dams."

Mr Fuller believes the UK should turn the clock back and base production on a beef-bred female instead of dairy-bred replacements with high maintenance costs and average lifetime output of about four calves.

"Our native breeds would have been an ideal foundation, but are now numerically too weak to produce enough suckler replacements of the type the industry needs.

"The Stabiliser will cut production costs and improve calf values and carcass merit. The breed has been meticulously selected to improve maternal traits and longevity and to make the most of forage-based systems to maximise productivity," says Mr Fuller.

Mr Fuller manages the livestock enterprises on JSR Farms at Givendale, Pocklington, York, where there are already a number of purebred and first-cross Stabiliser females.

These cattle show uniformity of type, strong constitution and exceptional fleshing, he says. Purebreds have been produced from imported embryos and Stabiliser semen has been used on the farms Limousin x Holstein sucklers.

Although a further 1000 Stabiliser embryos will be imported from LCCs operation in New Zealand over the next two years, the BIG recognises multiplication of purebred cattle in the UK is going to take some time.

But widespread use of Stabiliser semen on existing dairy-bred suckler cows is already underway and this will speed up the influence of the breed here. To date, 32 beef producers have joined the BIGs programme and more than 2000 doses of semen have been used on commercial sucklers.

"The Stabiliser is low cost in terms of feed, its a great forager and a good milker. The target weight of 400kg for a first mating at 15 months old is easily achievable."

Mr Fuller believes the last decade has seen selection of UK beef breeds based on terminal sire traits. By increasing muscle, reducing fat levels and increasing growth rate, maternal traits have been compromised and suckler cows have become too big and expensive to keep.

"Signet data shows a decline over this period on 200-day milk figures. That may not be significant with breeds like the Simmental or the South Devon, which are naturally milky, but others have been adversely affected.

"Similarly, some popular UK beef breeds demonstrate late sexual maturity. In the US and New Zealand, a heifer must calve at two years old. We should be aiming for that in the UK because non-productive females over two years old are a drain on a herds profits."

An evaluation of the Stabilisers economic benefit compared with other breed types running in UK suckler herds has been undertaken by the MLC based on the extensive recording that has underpinned the breeds development in the US.

"It highlighted a substantial reduction in lifetime production costs because the Stabiliser lasts about five years longer than a Limousin x Holstein. This has a major impact on the cost of production/kg of the weaned calf.

"The Stabiliser is naturally polled, docile and easy calving with birthweights of 34-38kg."

Effect of cow breeding on performance

Dairy x Cont Pure Continental Stabiliser

Maintenance req. (MJ/day) 79 75 68

Calves/cow 5 5 8

Cost of calf (p/kg) 78.7 80.6 59.8

Lifetime cow output 1,201 975 1,914(kg weaned calf/cow)

Calf value (p/kg) 85 90 87

Margin/cow (£/year) 15.04 17.23 65.02

Source: MLC