A majority of breed societies have come out in force over the past number of weeks making their feelings towards the ICBF evaluations loud and clear.

Such were these feelings, pedigree breeders and commercial farmers around the country continued to ask the question, “why?”.

As a result of the latest figures which were released in November, many farmers and pedigree breeders in particular are now faced with the challenge of deciding what to do next.

Over the past week, we caught up with just two of these pedigree breeders, who have been affected as a direct result of these changes.

Mark Neenan, a pedigree Simmental breeder from Co Galway, and Teleri Thomas, a pedigree Limousin breeder from Co Meath, explain how they have been affected by the changes to the evaluations.

Mark Neenan, Co Galway: Simmental

Mark Neenan from Co Galway successfully runs the Limehill pedigree Simmental herd alongside his wife and two young sons. Mark has been breeding pedigree Simmentals for almost 25 years, having originally established the Fearna Simmental herd with his brothers in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

The Neenan brothers launched themselves onto the Simmental world with the purchase of their foundation female, Monaduff Jubilee at the Irish Simmental Cattle Society premier sale in Roscommon in 2000.

At the time of purchase, Jubilee set a record price for a Simmental female sold at auction in Ireland and, in the years that followed, she proved her value time and time again securing national titles and breeding progeny even better than herself.

Mark told the Irish Farmers Journal: “The progeny of Monaduff Jubilee always struggled in the ICBF €uro-Star rating despite being highly sought after by commercial farmers and pedigree breeders alike for both showing and breeding purposes.

“Initially we were told by ICBF that the low star rating was due to her sire being a UK bull. When the BDGP scheme was first introduced, we invited ICBF representation to our farm to demonstrate the inconsistency in the €uro-Star evaluations.

“While ICBF acknowledged the issue, it advised that the way forward was to use its then five-star rated bulls to improve the figures of our future animals.”

Commercial suckler farmers were demanding four- or five-star bulls and we, like all other pedigree breeders, had to make breeding decisions catering for that market in mind

With their focus set on breeding quality animals, Mark and his brothers dedicated themselves to matching bulls with each individual cow but always had to keep one eye on the ICBF star ratings to make sure their animals were saleable to all types of customers.

“Commercial suckler farmers were demanding four- or five-star bulls and we, like all other pedigree breeders, had to make breeding decisions catering with that market in mind.”

On 28 November, ICBF released its latest round of evaluations, which left pedigree breeders just like Mark absolutely speechless. How could so much change overnight?

Mindful of the fact that his figures were relatively low, Mark chose a new AI sire for his cows in 2019. He was hoping with some luck that the bull would click and that the calves that would be born would make it into the four-star bracket.

Since then, this bull (Saltire Impressive) has gone on to sire some of the top bulls and heifers both in Ireland and the UK.

In October 2023, Mark had born what he believed to be one of the best females from this bull to date. Mark told the Irish Farmers Journal: “She is definitely the best we have bred to date and to say we were excited as to her future is an understatement.

“Overnight and with the stroke of a pen, ICBF has devalued the calf beyond belief – dropping her from a four-star heifer to a two-star heifer. How can a pedigree breeder decide on any future matings with the fear that Big Brother ICBF can change direction overnight and destroy absolutely everything we have worked towards.

“To add insult to injury, in an effort to appease farmers inSuckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP), ICBF has said that all cows will keep their previous rating for the duration of the SCEP scheme. However, if you sell these animals to a new herd, they then loose this rating.

“How can this scheme be credible if a cow is five-star in my herd, but a two-star in another herd. Or simply put, which evaluations are correct – the new or the old?”

Surely if an index is not working, a compromise is required

“In my opinion, the ICBF SCEP scheme no longer has a place in the Irish suckler industry. Irish suckler farmers are specialists at their job and it’s time to stand together to secure the future of the industry.

“ICBF’s appearance at the Oireachtas committee before Christmas indicated that it is indifferent to the impact its actions have had on farmers. It has no regard for the distress, anxiety and the damaging financial impacts this index change has caused.

“It is disappointing that ICBF refused point blank the possibility of any compromise. Surely if an index is not working, a compromise is required and get us all working together to fix the issues.”

Teleri Thomas, Co Meath: Limousin

Teleri Thomas has been involved in breeding pedigree Limousin cattle since 1973 in the UK and since 2008 in Ireland. Teleri, alongside her partner Mac Murphy, successfully runs the Keltic Limousin herd in Enfield, Co Meath.

The Keltic pedigree Limousin herd keeps around 30 breeding females each year and is one of the top pedigree herds in the country for data recording.

Teleri Thomas, Longwood, Co Meath, halters one of her animals before entering the sales ring at the Limousin premier show and sale in Roscrea Mart. \ Donal O'Leary

Teleri is focused on profit and the herd is run very commercially to replicate systems on commercial farms.

Teleri and Mac calve one-third of their herd in April and May and two-thirds in the autumn-calving block in September and October. All cows are calved outside and they employ a two- to three-day paddock grazing system and no meal is fed to calves while suckling outside and heifers are outwintered on kale.

The bulls from the herd are sold at 18 months old at society sales, which Teleri says is “to increase brand awareness as we don’t do summer shows and heifers are mostly sold at home for breeding”.

“The prime target market is the Irish suckler farmer, particularly those in BDGP/SCEP, although we do sell bulls to the UK and the North.”

Just some of the systems employed by the Keltic herd are:

Whole herd performance recording including service dates, gestation length, birth weight – all calves are weighed within three days of birth.

Regular weights to ICBF and linear scoring.

They join all suckler schemes such as SCEP and BDGP, BEEP, NBWS, etc, so they know what farmers have to achieve. The herd’s current target for SCEP is 14 females and there are 44 qualifying.

Teleri and Mac have been focusing on maternal breeding for years and have always bred for milk “as it is so important in a grass based system. We believe that if you get your cows right, then the bulls will follow on.

“We have done well over the last five years or so by breeding bulls with high maternal indexes for the Irish suckler farmer,” Teleri added.

“For 2023 up until November, we had averaged over €5,000 for 10 five-star maternal bulls sold during the year. In October, we entered three five-star maternal bulls for a sale in Athenry in December. When the November run came out, we had one bull at four-star and two at three-star.

We have cows here that do nothing wrong – in fact, they do everything right

“One bull dropped from five-star to three-stars on terminal also. We sold two at the sale for €3,000 and sent one to the factory. I estimate that we lost at least €3,000 to € 4,000 in one fell swoop. This was a bitter pill to swallow as they were really good, well-conformed bulls that were placed first and second in their respective classes. If we had sold them a month earlier they would easily have crossed €4,000, but imagine how the buyers would feel?” Teleri adds.

Everything right

“We have cows here that do nothing wrong – in fact, they do everything right. Cow 117 has had a calf every year in September or October and is now in her 8th lactation. She has calved outside unassisted, her calves have good weight gain and she has good milk. She has never had mastitis.

“She started off life with five-star maternal and terminal, but her maternal index goes down every year. In the November ICBF evaluation run, she took another hit when she went from €86 or three-star down to €25 or one-star.

“When I ask ICBF what’s going on, they say it is on account of her relatives in other herds. But surely at some point, her own performance has to be rewarded? I really have no choice now but to cull this cow and others like her as she is not going to be capable of breeding the high-indexed five-star animals that my customers want.

“Of the 32 cows we have calved this year, 28 have taken a jump down and four have gone up marginally. There is an unproven Limousin bull standing in AI at the moment, with only three calvings recorded by ICBF in the November run, and none of these recordings are for heifers. Yet his heifer calving difficulty went down from 11.5% to 5.5%. How can this happen?”

Performance recording

“I have always believed in performance recording and thought Ireland was very fortunate to have a system in place that recorded so much information on the cattle population. I have now lost confidence in the ability of the ICBF to manage this information and its communication of these changes was shocking.

“There are now very few bulls in the ICBF top 20 active maternal Limousin bull list that are capable of producing the kind of females we need: we are going to end up with females that are too small, that cannot calve and that are incapable of rearing calves with heavy weights at weaning and slaughter.

“In the meantime, what is the point in having small cows if it takes three of them to produce the same amount of meat as a Charolais or a Limousin?”