Ireland's suckler herd could be made redundant if huge advances in sexed semen technology materialise as expected over the coming years.
Improved sexed semen production and handling techniques have already resulted in conception rates that are less than 5pc lower than with conventional semen, according to some of Ireland's leading authorities on cattle breeding.
"This is going to be a real game-changer," said the former head of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), Dr Brian Wickham.
Trials in New Zealand -- using fresh sexed semen on more than 15,000 cows -- produced comparable conception rates that have convinced experts that it is only a matter of time before the technology becomes the norm on Irish farms.
This will dramatically reduce the number of dairy cows required to produce enough replacements for the dairy herd, according Dr Wickham.
The national herd is currently composed of approximately 1.1m dairy cows and 1m suckler cows.
However, if the dairy herd expands as expected over the coming years, and a maximum of 40pc of milking cows are required to produce enough replacements, as many as 800,000 dairy cows would be freed up to produce calves for beef.
"This obviously presents the suckler herd with a huge challenge," said Dr Wickham.
"The cost of producing a beef calf from a dairy cow is much lower because much of the cost associated with maintaining the cow during pregnancy will be offset by income from her milk output.
"However, it also presents a huge opportunity for the industry to dramatically reduce the cost base for beef production."
Dr Wickham admitted that there would always be a requirement for a dedicated beef herd to produce highly muscled stock for niche markets or predominantly Angus-type stock for high value outlets.
"But 100,000 head of beef cows would more than cater for this market," Dr Wickham added. "And if you crossed a highly muscled beef bull with the type of cow that currently predominates in the dairy herd, you would get a reasonable animal for beefing."
Moorepark's Dr Stephen Butler also believes that farmers will know the gender of every straw they will be using within the next 10-20 years.
"There are huge advantages to using sexed semen since it allows farmers to expand herds up to 30pc faster, without compromising the biosecurity of their herds," he said.
"It will also make crossbreeding much more attractive since farmers will be able to avoid producing worthless crossbred dairy bull calves."
However, the fertility expert expressed doubts as to whether dairy farmers would be happy to compromise calving ease by using highly muscled beef sires.
- Darragh McCullough
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