Studying Cattle Breeding in Germany

By Neil McGowan

In November 2010, Neil and Debbie McGowan from the Dirnanean herd attended the Eurotier exhibition in Hanover and visited a few Simmental herds in the North East of Germany. This is an account of their trip.

Eurotier is billed as the largest livestock trade fair in Europe. Over the 4 days 140,000 visitors attended the 9 enormous halls filled by equipment, machinery, genetics and services for cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. Many of the visitors were farmers from Germany, but many more were advisers and other industry people from across Europe, Russia and further afield.

UK Livestock had a stand that was organised with the help of Eblex and BLG (British Livestock Genetics) and incorporated a stand from the Highland Cattle Society and Cogent along with a demonstration of Texel, Southdown and Lleyn sheep. The Lleyn gimmers were bred at Incheoch and came from Debbie's parents' farm in Yorkshire and were pre-sold to a breeder in Belgium. They created quite a bit of interest with few maternal bred sheep in Eastern Europe other than Merinos - although we doubt we can ever fill the enquiry for 40,000 to Russia!

Dairy cattle were well represented at the Fair, with the predominant breed Flekvieh (milking Simmentals). Although never losing favour in their native Alpine homelands these small, sweet cows are finding favour further north in cross-breeding programs with Holsteins due to their fertility and longevity. Beef cattle were limited to a display of senior bulls from different breeds. Simmentals were represented by a polled, Danish bred son of Dirnanean Jacob from the Munich AI company.

Cattle visits:

In a peaceful holiday island on the Baltic Sea we visited an organic beef farm with almost 2,000 cows. Originally set up under the collective farm system, with most of the sheds built in the 1960's it is now run by a transport distribution businessman. A single block of sheds for 2,000 cows and followers looks more like a large distribution centre from the roadside, with only the slurry lagoon giving it away. A mind-bogglingly large shed in which the predominantly Simmental cows lay on straw bedded cubicles with calves creeping through between two facing rows of cows. There were slats behind the lying area and then a feed passage where they were fed grass silage (40%DM). Cows due to calve were tied up in a byre next door and spent a few days in a single pen after calving before going onto the slats. There were 4 rows in the byre, but only one was in use when we were there with about 180 cows tied in a line - goodness knows how they got them all tied up!

Heifers were calved at about 2 years old to an Angus bull, most cows going to a Charolais and the best cows (selected firstly on computer with final decisions made in the yards) bred to Simmentals. With a lot of cows being bulled in the sheds together with the demands of such a large scale system, bulls had a tough life - they had set up their own stud on an outlying farm to breed Charolais and Simmentals. They needed bulls that were robust and very sound on their legs but were also looking for good muscling and top notch growth rates - although mature cow size was being looked at purely because of the size of the cubicles. When looking for new genetics for the stud, quite a bit of emphasis was put on the system behind the breeding in favour of cattle that will take care of themselves in a large herd - a lot of pedigree cattle in Germany are run in very small herds. They were expecting some calves by Dirnanean Telstar - I think he should suit their system and leave grand-daughters that will fit the cubicles!

We also visited 2 smaller breeders with some excellent quality Simmental cows, almost all polled and red. There is a fashion swing away from the very dark red cattle, and they are trying to keep head markings to a minimum. Pedigree breeding is a very controlled business however with all breeders required to be a member of their regional breeding organisation (covering all breeds, beef and dairy). The breeding organisation has fieldsmen who can help take weaning weights and who score calves at weaning for muscularity, skeletal correctness and type. Only bulls scoring high in all categories can be used in pedigree herds, and any scoring low must be culled.

The beef market is totally based on entire bulls with most places we visited relying on a finishing ration based on maize silage with a little barley supplement and little evidence of creep feeding while suckling. Breeders were expressing a bit of concern at some of the imported genetics coming from systems where milking ability wasn't being expressed clearly because of creep feeding and cattle being reared on high cereal-based diets.

The cattle were very useful; they have made enormous progress in polling and have maintained terrific udder qualities in their cows. The cattle themselves are worth a visit - and they certainly spoke our language!