AFBI sets wheels in motion ahead of major new suckler cow project

From left: Jason Rankin, Agrisearch; Sinclair Mayne, DARD; Tom Fairley, AFBI; Francis Lively, AFBI; Brian Kennedy, AI Services; Auralie Moralis, Zoetis; Trevor Gilliland, AFBI and Stephen Lavery, Genus. Photograph: Columba O'Hare
From left: Jason Rankin, Agrisearch; Sinclair Mayne, DARD; Tom Fairley, AFBI; Francis Lively, AFBI; Brian Kennedy, AI Services; Auralie Moralis, Zoetis; Trevor Gilliland, AFBI and Stephen Lavery, Genus. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has launched a major new beef research project involving 1000 breeding cattle on 12 farms across Northern Ireland.

The project will evaluate the ability of novel breeding methods to improve the output from suckler herds in Northern Ireland and will involve close cooperation between the farmer co-researchers, industry partners and AFBI.

Funding is being provided by the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (DARD) through a Research Challenge Fund grant, and AgriSearch in association with AI Services, Genus ABS and Zoetis.

This project follows on from a previous pilot study funded by AgriSearch, which evaluated the role of oestrus synchronisation and the use of artificial insemination (AI) in meeting breeding targets for suckler herds.

The new project aims to develop practical breeding strategies to enable suckler herds to calve heifers down at 24 months, with a subsequent calving interval of 365 days. This compares with the current industry average of first calving at 31 months and a subsequent calving interval of 399 days.

The project will seek to devise and embed alternative management protocols for oestrus synchronisation and artificial insemination with high genetic merit sires in order to significantly improve the output from suckler herds in Northern Ireland.

Artificial insemination within the beef herd

Artificial insemination provides the opportunity to select the best genetics for each individual cow within the herd and enables farmers to breed for specific traits such as calving ease for heifers, maternal characteristics (i.e. milk) for breeding replacements, or terminal characteristics (i.e. growth, carcass).

It is impossible to select a stock bull with high performance levels in all these traits.

Despite the considerable economic benefits to be attained, less than 20% of suckler cows in Northern Ireland are bred using AI. The poor uptake of AI within the suckler herd is normally attributed to concern over the lower conception rates achieved by AI relative to natural service or the high labour input required for heat detection.

However, previous research at AFBI has demonstrated that many progressive beef producers use AI and have similar herd fertility to other herds which use a stock bull. The issues concerning the additional labour input required for AI can be addressed through the use of oestrus synchronisation.


International research has shown that the adoption of oestrus synchronisation programmes increases pregnancy rates of suckler cows in herds with a compact calving pattern and calves are both older and heavier at weaning.

The cost of synchronisation programmes has been a deterrent to many Northern Ireland suckler farmers in the past, but the potential benefits of a higher output (weight of weaned calf) and potentially lower labour input around breeding/calving require further investigation.

Whilst there are a wide range of synchronisation programmes used throughout the world the farmer feedback from the earlier AFBI pilot study indicated a strong preference for programmes which required minimal handling and fixed time AI.

Sexed semen

Novel AI techniques for sorting semen according to gender (‘sexed semen’) have been exploited by the dairy sector and have increased the number of valuable dairy herd replacements rather than low value male calves.

This technology has had only limited use within the suckler sector to date, but a number of AI companies now sort female semen from maternal beef sires.

This has a major advantage to the beef industry as closed herds do not need to breed as many cows to maternal bulls. Thus, more cows can be bred to terminal sires, resulting in higher performing progeny (superior growth and carcass traits) which increases the output from the herd relative to the male progeny of maternally selected sires.

Recent technological developments have also now resulted in the sorting of male semen. The use of male semen in suckler herds has the potential to increase suckler progeny output given the higher performance of males compared to females.

New study at AFBI

The new study will involve close co-operation between AFBI researchers, co-researcher farmers and their veterinary surgeons and the industry partners. In addition to AFBI’s suckler herd, research will be undertaken on 12 commercial beef farms across Northern Ireland involving approximately 1000 cows/heifers.

The main objectives of the new study are:

Establish anoestrus rates in beef heifers and cows

l The age at which beef heifers are first bred in Northern Ireland is often down to farmer choice, but the subsequent reappearance rate of approximately 399 days is either due to cows being anoestrus, cows not being bred early enough or cows not conceiving to the first service. In this study, veterinary surgeons will undertake a pre-breeding check of heifers and cows on all farms to establish their suitability for breeding. This will identify heifers not suitable for breeding and cows which are anoestrus.

l Produce best practice guidelines for synchronisation and AI within the beef herd

Best-practice guidelines for synchronising beef cows and heifers will be developed for a range of farming systems applicable to Northern Ireland beef farms.

l Evaluate the success of sorted semen within the beef herd

The use of both female and male sexed semen will be evaluated in conjunction with a synchronisation protocol within the AFBI suckler herd. Based on the results during 2015 this approach may be evaluated on farm during 2016.


This project will produce important information to help identify why fertility is an issue on many Northern Ireland suckler herds. It will also investigate the issues that currently hold Northern Ireland beef farmers back from successfully using synchronisation and AI to improve the genetic merit of their herds.

Additionally, this new research project will encourage closer working relationships between farmers, veterinary surgeons, livestock researchers, breeding and pharmaceutical companies with the overall objective of improving the output and sustainability of the Northern Ireland suckler herd.

Further information

If anyone would like to participate in this study or discuss the objectives further please contact Dr Francis Lively at AFBI Hillsborough on 02892681552.