Maternal genetics key to improve beef production

Suckler cows are often the forgotten part of the jigsaw in many beef herds.

While there has been a massive push to use EBV sires in beef herds during the past few years, they only make up 50% of the calf’s genetics. So why has there been such a delay in the use of maternal genetics to improve the production traits of beef cows?

The role of the dam can’t be ignored. After all, her influence in the type of calf she produces – as well as its ability to grow and her ability to produce a live calf in the first place – is paramount.

With the exception of the Stabiliser, opportunities to grasp the nettle across all breeds and tackle the female side of our suckler sector have been met with surprising indifference over many decades. 


Maternal traits

Alison Glasgow, technical manager of the British Limousin Cattle Society, believes there’s a huge opportunity to focus on the “feed efficiency” of suckler females.

”The suckler cow is the beef industry’s biggest untapped resource, but we’re currently seeking funding to evaluate feed efficiency and its relevance to the profitability of cows and calves. 

“The cost of keeping a suckler cow each year, relative to the quality and value of the calf she produces, is a make-or-break figure for all suckler herds.

”Herds that have feed-efficient cows through selection decisions they’ve made are seeing the financial benefits”, says Ms Glasgow.

Sam Boon, manager of Signet Breeding Services, says there’s now more information available to buyers of suckler females than ever before.

”Sire details are on passports, sire EBVs are on the web and these include EBVs for maternal traits. So producers need to have a relationship with the supplier of their replacements and do their homework.”

He acknowledges that while replacement heifers could be “bred to order”, they tend not to be. “But suckled calf producers who are keen to introduce proven maternal traits into their females have much to gain by looking at EBV figures for milk, ease of calving [birthweight and calving ease EBVs] as well as EBVs for 200-day weight.

”Cow mature size requires thought, too, particularly on upland units where feed resources are limited. Producers should consider optimum rather than maximum cow mature size, particularly if they are struggling to maintain body condition, which can adversely affect fertility in larger-framed cows.”

Peak District beef farmer Simon Frost (pictured above), ardent supporter of genetic improvement using EBVs, believes beef breed societies whose bulls are used to produce beef-cross dairy females need a new focus on maternal traits.

”Breed societies need to acknowledge the important role they have to play in suckler heifer production. And if dairy farmers realise they can add value to their beef-cross heifers by using beef bulls with the desired traits, there could be a premium market for these purpose-bred animals.

“In economic terms, the primary role of the suckler cow is to produce efficient finished cattle and not to be used as a source of herd replacements. If specifically put to sires with strong maternal traits – at the expense of growth traits – any male calves produced will inevitably be an inefficient by-product.

”Suckler replacements should come from the dairy herd. The logical step is to produce replacement beef-cross dairy heifers fit for purpose via an integrated supply chain,” says Mr Frost.

But he also sees a role for pure-breeds. “What about the Beef Shorthorn, Saler, Stabiliser, Simmental, and Luing – all could be promoted as purpose-bred 100% beef-bred suckler cows. They can demonstrate, if they choose to, maternal traits on both the sire and dam’s sire and argue that there is no need to embark on improving the traits of the beef-cross dairy cow because they are purpose-bred for the job.”

Taking responsibility

So who has the vision and skill to plug this vast chasm of lost profitability in the suckled calf sector? Is it up to the beef breed societies or should EBLEX step into the breach? Does the National Beef Association have a role to play or is it simply up to an entrepreneur with foresight and a willingness to invest?

Perhaps there is now an opportunity for more joined-up thinking between milk producers and the suckled calf sector to encourage wider use of beef sires with superior maternal traits to be used on dairy cows.

But, if that was to happen it would be essential that buyers of those beef-bred females – at whatever age – were able to easily identify them at point of purchase.

At major sales of suckled calves in New Zealand, cattle are penned and identified according to their specific sires. It’s a simple way of giving buyers at least some information on what to base their selection on. Could this not be mirrored in the UK?

A move in the right direction could be to use details of the sires of commercial beef breeding females in the catalogue at sales and to include their EBVs.

How can a system be formulated that takes out some of the risks of buying-in replacements? The challenge is threefold:

1. There has to be widespread availability, promotion and identification of AI beef sires demonstrating clear genetic advantages in their ability to pass on superior maternal traits – calving ease daughters, gestation length and birth weight. These bulls also need to produce mature cows of medium weight.

2. There has to be greater emphasis at point of sale at all breed society fixtures – and at multi-breed sales of all bulls – to identify sires whose EBV figures can bring the necessary improved maternal traits to their female progeny.

3. A system has to be devised that will enable easy identification at point of sale of females of any age that are sired by bulls with superior maternal traits – whether purchased privately from farmers or dealers or through the auction ring.

Having these in place will give vast benefits. Dairy farmers selling heifer calves sired by beef bulls with superior maternal genetics will be able to command a premium for them because they can be easily identified. When such females come on to the market as heifers (of any age) or with calves at foot, they too will be recognised by those seeking herd replacements of “known” breeding and so present a commodity that provides at least some indication of its superior value as a breeding female.

So, no matter whether herd replacements are purchased as weaned calves, stirks, bulling heifers, in-calf heifers or females with a calf at foot, the buyer will instantly know he’s handing over cash to acquire a female with proven genetic superiority and the days of guesswork will be over.

Within the beef sector there is a wealth of genetics capable of making huge improvements to suckler females. The genetic tools are available to build a secure and profitable future for suckled calf producers. They must urgently be put to use for optimum purpose and effect.