The pressure is on for changes to be made to the next round of ICBF indexes due to be published in March 2024.

The November 2023 update which included new production costs sparked huge controversy in the industry, with many questioning the direction of suckler cow breeding in the Irish herd.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has moved to allay some of the fears associated with Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP) eligibility, but the direction of suckler breeding is going to be a lot more difficult to solve.

There is big pressure on the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and farm organisations to get this right. Newly elected Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) president Francie Gorman made the ICBF issue one of his first priorities in his first presidential address at the IFA AGM three weeks ago, having listened to huge frustration and anger on his campaign trail.

Newly elected Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) president Sean McNamara also committed to addressing farmer concerns around changes to the ICBF changes in his first speech as president last week.

The ICBF is at a real crossroads when it comes to maintaining farmer confidence in genetic indexes.

Those who have bought into figures the most have been hardest hit in the last few months and restoring that confidence has to be top of the agenda for the ICBF as we move forward.

Confidence won’t be restored by giving undertakings to look at different aspects of the index.

Farmers want to see changes and that’s going to be difficult for the ICBF to implement without admitting that mistakes were made.

There appeared to be a lot of confusion among those present at the meeting as to what the actions are ahead of the next meeting which takes place on Thursday 22 February.

Cow weight, weanling prices, carbon cost inclusion and calving data all appear to be huge sticking points without an easy solution.

Confusion over how SCEP changes will work

Minister of Agriculture Charlie McConalogue moved last week before the meeting to confirm some changes to the SCEP. These changes announced by the minister mean that female offspring of genotyped females in SCEP herds that do not become eligible for SCEP on their own genomic evaluation, may become eligible if their sire and dam meet a minimum requirement on the September 2023 ICBF evaluation. That is where the dam was three-, four- or five-star and the sire four- or five-star on the replacement index. This female offspring will be considered “SCEP eligible” even if, when they are genotyped, they are not evaluated as four- or five-star in their own right. These changes will apply for the full duration of the current SCEP.

The only exception is where these animals are traded to a non-SCEP herd. There is confusion as to how this will be communicated to purchasers and mart boards, with suggestions of another mart board being completely impractical from a mart point of view.

One potential solution is the inclusion of a “SCEP eligible” line on the board where animals with a lower index are still SCEP eligible. Some questions also remain as to how the changes apply to pedigree bulls which now find themselves ineligible for SCEP.

There are also question marks as to how these changes will affect AI bulls and how their figures will be presented to farmers.

Shane Murphy , secretary, Irish Aberdeen Angus Association

“The Irish Aberdeen Angus Association highlighted several issues with the current run of evaluations back in December.

“To date, these have yet to be addressed. In advance of the stakeholders meeting, the Pedigree Breeders Council unanimously decided to highlight some key issues which affected all breeds and presented them to ICBF.

“It was agreed that no breed society would attend the stakeholder meeting unless these were addressed in some way.

“Following positive feedback from ICBF in advance of the meeting, societies then agreed to attend. While these issues were spoken about at the stakeholders’ meeting, they have still to be rectified.”

Declan Hanrahan, IFA national livestock chair

“It is critical this process is thorough and when concluded the indices will have the trust of all suckler farmers. There will need to be detailed proposals and information put forward at the next meeting by ICBF and Teagasc to address some of the priority issues raised, including cow weight and the accuracy and appropriateness of the data used to reflect all suckler systems.

“I think we should be moving away from star ratings and working off the €uro-Star value and recognising suckler weanling production accurately and correctly. It was agreed to progress work on proposals to deliver these objectives starting with an assessment of the various suckler systems and farm types.

“The IFA also sought a thorough review of all components of the current indices, the traits included, their weighting and data used.”

Eamon Corley , Beef Plan Movement

“Beef Plan feels that the index should be about identifying the most profitable animals in every breed.

“It feels that the new index could do significant damage to beef farmer profitability and leave the Irish beef industry incapable of supplying significant markets. The new index gives a significant weighting to British and Irish supermarket spec. On top of this, it gives further weighting to this cattle type in the form of breed bonuses such as the Angus and Hereford.

“The result is that the index is screwed, discriminating against heavier continental breeds with better conformation. This will have the effect of leaving us incapable of supplying markets in both Europe and North Africa which have a preference for this type of animal. We sell significant volumes of both weanlings and beef into these markets.”

Jimmy Cosgrave, suckler chair, ICSA

“Some progress was made at the meeting but there is a long way to go to regain suckler farmer confidence in the ICBF direction of travel and in SCEP.

“A SCEP scheme that is blind to the fact that many suckler farmers are in the business of selling high-value weanlings is not fit for purpose. An ICBF that pushes Angus bulls for replacements in the suckler herd needs to ask itself serious questions.

“Calving difficulty (CD) is important, but in a typical 20-cow suckler herd the difference between a 10% CD bull and a 7% CD bull might be almost meaningless, but it could result in better-quality weanlings which could be vital. The ICSA believes that there needs to be a reflection on whether bulls should be included at all as replacement index bulls if their conformation or growth figures are not good enough.”

Nevan McKiernan, secretary, Irish Charolais Cattle Society

“We attended the meeting last week with the expectation that ICBF was going to accept there were issues with the changes and propose solutions to these issues. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

“Thankfully, there was unanimous agreement around the table that the issues had to be rectified. It was made clear that cow liveweight is having too much of an impact within the replacement index, which is highlighted in the fact that the top 10 replacement index bulls on the active bull list have an average daughter liveweight of 550kg.

“The fact that carbon has a weighting of 10% within the replacement index compared to an essential trait like milk at 11% is also simply unacceptable.”

Peadar Glennon, Irish Simmental Cattle Society secretary

“The minister decoupling the SCEP scheme from the new indexes, indicates how unworkable they have become. It was encouraging to see the engagement from all the stakeholders who are clearly concerned about the impact of the new changes. But it was also terribly disappointing to see that a number of action points that were circulated by the ICBF, after the meeting, did not reflect what was asked for at the meeting.

“The ICBF needs to address these issues with the same sense of urgency that the stakeholders demonstrated, and we can’t wait three weeks to correct what actions were already raised; we are talking about farmers’ livelihoods after all.”