DNA-based calf registration is now feasible, following development of this since 2018 by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine (DAFM).
In fact, up to 20,000 calves are expected to be registered in this way this spring, and more than 4,000 calves have been registered in this manner since 2018, as ICBF and the DAFM worked with 18 herds in year one, 35 herds in year two, and 270 herds this spring.
In these herds, the procedure is:
The calf is tagged at birth, leaving two separate tissue samples (one for DNA and one for BVD).
The two samples are posted away separately to the relevant labs.
The farmer records the calving details, as normal, but the registration details are temporarily held, pending the results of the DNA test.
When the DNA results are returned (about one week later), the farmer reviews, corrects any errors found, and completes the registration with the DAFM’s Animal Identification and Movements (AIM) system.
Improvements made since 2018 include integrating DNA registration into farm software packages, and testing double tissue national tags, removing the need for additional button tags, or hair-cards for DNA samples.
If DNA registrations were to become the standard nationally, there are lots of additional benefits to the industry.
Ireland became a world leader for traceability from farm to fork, with the Cattle Movement Monitoring System (CMMS) in 1996, requiring all farmers to apply identification tags to each calf at birth and register their number in the database.
With DNA-based calf registration, Ireland would again become a world leader for traceability that could be proven beyond doubt, at any link in the food chain, with a DNA sample.
The benefits of this can be evidenced by the roll-out of the technology within the Irish pig industry.
Possibilities also open up to exploit new technologies, such as blockchain.
Accuracy of EBI and Euro-star indexes would increase.
More animals with genotypes mean that genomic predictions for traits would be more accurate.
Superior outlier animals for key traits of importance in the future, such as methane output and health or disease traits, could be identified more quickly.
Having 100% accurate parentage for all animals would mean all animals would be credited with the correct performance data, enabling increased genetic gain, and the economic and environmental benefits that brings for the industry.
Fraud and cattle theft would become extremely difficult.
Cross compliance questions on issues such as twin calves would be solved.
Processors could introduce incentives or bonuses for use of better-quality sires, knowing they would get what they pay for.
The days of calf rearers buying a black calf, expecting it to be Angus or Limousin from a dairy cow, but subsequently finding it was Jersey-bred, would disappear.
According to Mark Waters of ICBF, genomics can enhance Ireland’s initial groundbreaking traceability systems, by giving additional assurances around areas such as ancestry and gender.
He said ICBF and DAFM have been collecting genotype (DNA) samples on cattle since 2009. Over 350,000 new animals are sampled each year, with ICBF now storing almost two million genotypes in their cattle breeding database.
Genomic data stored by ICBF is used to verify parentage and sex recorded by breeders at registration, and to identify errors.
Parentage errors (mainly sires) are identified in up to 15% of cases, invariably due to simple mix-ups in AI sires versus stock bulls, or perhaps due to running of multiple stock sires.
Where a sire error is identified, the correct sire can be identified in up to 70% of cases, from genotypes in the ICBF database. In time, this will grow to 100%.
There are 0.5% errors in recorded sex.
Correcting errors leads to more accurate genetic indexes, helps avoid accidental inbreeding, and corrects pedigree certs.
The older the animal is when genotyped, the greater the potential knock-on of errors. Therefore, it makes sense to genotype animals early, preferably at birth, and incorporated into the registration process.
Sires could also potentially be added to the thousands of animals currently being registered without a recorded sire.
One of the key challenges for Ireland is the cost associated with genotyping the national herd for widespread DNA-based calf registration.