The first comprehensive overview of the Irish cattle population by farm type could offer significant benefits in terms of disease control, according to the authors of the groundbreaking study.

The research could also offer a framework for future assessments of profitability comparisons between the different enterprises, estimation of health losses on farms, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across different production systems.

The study titled ‘The Irish cattle population structured by enterprise type: overview, trade and trends’ was undertaken by researchers at the School of Veterinary Medicine in UCD in conjunction with Animal Health Ireland and Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. The findings were published recently in the Irish Veterinary Journal.

Using the AIM database for the period 2015 to 2019, the researchers divided the cattle population into seven main herd types, and 18 further subtypes.

The seven main herd types included dairy, beef, mixed, stores, traders, fatteners and unclassified. Among the various subtypes were herds involved in suckler to weanling operations, suckler to store or suckler to finished stock.

Other examples of subtypes included dairy herds that reared replacements, those that didn’t, and herds involved in contract-rearing stock. The research identified population trends in the different herd types, and analysed livestock movements between the various farm groups.

For example, the research noted a steady decline in the number of animals kept on beef farms since 2016. There were more than 2.64m animals registered in beef herds in 2016, falling by 7.6% to 2.44m in 2019.

The study also confirmed the crucial role played by the relatively small number of trading herds in the movement of animals between the various herd types.

Similarly, the research recognised the importance of fattening herds.

“These herds are gathering points for animals from herds of all production types and are therefore good potential candidates as points of surveillance regarding the health status of much of the Irish cattle population,” the study noted.

“The cattle sector is the most important economic production unit of the Irish farming and agri-food sector. Providing a structured overview of Irish cattle herds by enterprise type, including their populations and interactions, is a valuable information basis for decision-makers,” the authors contended.