Ireland’s beef and dairy cattle industries have achieved impressive rates of genetic gain over the past 20 years thanks to a system that rewards producers financially for recording animal data on a national database. The National Cattle Breeding Centre (NCBC) was established in 2005 and is now Ireland’s largest cattle breeding organisation.

Indeed, how DNA has contributed to the success story of agriculture was outlined by Dr Emma Finlay, a bioinformatician from Dublin City University, at the DNA Tells Tales conference at the Institute of Technology Tallaght.

“What a success story agriculture has been. The changes that we have made to plants and animals have been amazing. Humans are changing the world through agriculture”, said Dr Finlay.

The dairy industry was used to illustrate the role that humans have played in genetics to improve quality and yield in animal farming.

“With the increase in DNA technology, the entire process has been sped up. Before, a bull would have to be bought, reared and put to use. Only when his calves were born would we be able to check them for milk production. These days we can take a strand of DNA from a new-born calf and – because his DNA will not change with age – we will be able to tell what his offspring’s milk production will be,” she explained. “By doing this, we can see how much milk they give and calculate a breeding value for that bull based on that information. As a result, we know that this bull has good or bad traits for milk production.”

The evidence of this DNA testing is clear to see: cows in the 1970s would produce 12 litres of milk a day. Nowadays, a cow can produce anything up to 24.5 litres a day.

“The rate of milk production increased about 6% per year in Ireland for decades. We had one of the fastest rates of increase in this area. This has all come about from quantitative genetics”, said Dr Finlay.

Australia’s beef cattle industry has been urged to follow Ireland’s lead to accelerate its rate of genetic gain [1].