The Irish Rare Breeds Conference reconvened for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic in Tullow Hotel, Carlow, last week from May 4th to May 6th, 2023 inclusive.
Custodians of Ireland’s rarest breeds gathered from around the country to discuss the gains and challenges of some of Ireland’s most valuable and most vulnerable natural resources and to meet with world-renowned rare breed experts from home and abroad.
Dr. Les Hansen, Department of Animal Sciences University of Minnesota, spoke on the ten-year research programme into the North American Holstein dairy herd and the benefits of three-breed rotational crossing to promote hybrid vigour in terms of cow fertility, birth mortality, health and longevity, and so counter the inherent cost factors that emerge with rising inbreeding rates.
He stated that “hybrid vigour is most effective when using breeds that are least related”.
“Native indigenous breeds typically fit this scenario very well, as the national dairy herd is predominately of European and North American Holstein breeding lines.”
Most of Dr. Hansen’s research at this time focuses on the comparison of pure Holsteins versus crossbreds, and the documented decline of health, fertility, and survival of pure Holsteins has resulted in tremendous global interest in crossbreeding of dairy cattle.
Dr. Philip Sponenberg
Also flying in from the US for the conference Dr. Philip Sponenberg, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and the American Livestock Conservancy and renowned author on Heritage Breeds and breed’s genetic preservation.
Dr. Philip Sponenberg demonstrated the achievable goals for Irish breed conservation: financial return, genetic heritage, sufficient diversity for survival and selection, sustainable production and cultural heritage.
Dr. P Sponenberg reiterated that “the challenge is to assure that the goals all pull in the same direction rather than having conflict between them”.
“Understanding the extremes helps find the balance point, as you can love breeds to death, with stringent or extreme rules, or lose breeds to meaninglessness, with no rules at all.”
IRBS chairman and rare breed farmer, Matthew English-Hayden, showcased the practical and financial benefits gained from cross-breeding native dairy cattle on a site visit to his herd of 100 Kerry and Droimeann crossed dairy cows which graze on mixed and multi-species swards.
According to English Hayden, “the commercial potential embedded in indigenous breeds needs to be scientifically researched and proven in order to assist farmers in making commercially sound, evidence-based decisions”.
He thanked delegates for their attendance and their “enlightening” contributions to an “insightful” conference where the conservation and utility of indigenous breeds was “at the top of everyone’s agenda”.
Dialogue with all interested stakeholders and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, according to the spokesperson, will continue to advance the principal recommendations of the recently launched Rare and Heritage Breeds Study, including a centre of excellence for genetic resource research and conservation”.
English-Hayden also expressed sincere gratitude to the sponsors of the IRBS Conference 2023; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, BLF Nutrition, Allen Dairy Services, Arrabawn Coop, Bolger 5-star animal feeds, and Bova Embryo and Scanning Services.