Traceability for beef is a buzz-phrase that means very little until you can prove it all the way back down the food chain – and now, a QMS-led project aims to do just that.

QMS’ Scotch Beef PGI traceability and project team identified that one of the most effective ways to combat the challenges in the beef sector is by utilising DNA profiling of maternal bloodlines, then using that information to give farmers the tools to make management decisions that can improve their financial and environmental sustainability.

This would give Scottish producers an edge as a world leader in beef DNA traceability, without placing further costs on producers, according to the findings from QMS’ Scotch Beef PGI Traceability and Performance project. It tested two key objectives – the use of genomic analysis of maternal DNA to guarantee traceability and utilising that via analysis to predict the performance of offspring.

Bruce McConachie, the head of industry development at QMS, said that stark truth was that in 2019, on average just 82.4 calves were reared per 100 cows, which is considerably lower than the rest of the UK.

“Beef farming in Scotland is currently not fulfilling its full potential, the need to change has never been more urgent,” he said. “From changing farm support systems, environmental targets, increased market competition, changing consumer demand, and the requirement to improve product quality and consistency livestock performance has never seen such an upheaval.

“Could full traceability give the Scottish red meat sector a competitive advantage?” he asked this week at the report’s launch.

Working alongside key partners within Scotland’s beef industry, and under the guidance of Dr Jonathan Birnie, project manager, participating farmers collected high quality DNA using sample tags in their herds to enable both accurate traceability and driving a herd development programme.

These tags were then tested by Identigen and the data analysed by the Moredun Research Institute, which scrutinised it alongside animal performance figures to give a performance overview of each of the beef herds in question. In all, 541 dams and 110 slaughtered animals were DNA tested, with 91% of carcases sampled through the abattoir having maternal identity confirmed.

“The findings of the study confirmed that the introduction of a beef DNA traceability system could greatly improve the productivity and profitability of Scotland’s beef herds,” said Mr McConachie.

“The study demonstrated that it is feasible to harness the potential of DNA data to develop a programme that is not only effective but can provide a significant cost benefit to the national herd and with no additional burden to be placed on individual farming businesses.

“It also proved that we can utilise data from sources like BCMS and abattoirs to improve efficiency on farm, by reducing finishing time, improving calving intervals and reducing calf mortality, as well as an improvement in feed conversion and the number of calves per cow,” he added.

“These small improvements to national averages could put significant value back in to the Scottish beef industry. Specifically, results revealed that utilising DNA would give us a world leading traceability standard and eliminate fraud from the sector and improve the saleability of the product through improved consumer confidence.”

Although the project is not quite finished, QMS plans to build on the original grant of £94,000 from the Scottish Government to take the project forward. If the concepts established in this study were scaled up and applied, they could help to establish a world leading DNA database, that provides full traceability and complete security throughout the food chain, cementing Scotch Beef as a product with superior marketability, it said.

A larger scale project could also utilise phenotype data to develop real-time management information that producers could utilise to make management decisions on farm to improve the efficiency of their businesses.

QMS chief executive, Alan Clarke added: “As an organisation, we continue to look at opportunities to add value for our levy payers with research projects, like this, providing farming businesses with the necessary knowledge to improve their productivity and profitability.

“Harnessing DNA information for the benefit of the Scottish beef herd is vital to demonstrate that Scottish producers are amongst the best in the world and the introduction of a DNA information programme could underpin the integrity of the Scotch Beef PGI brand through product traceability.

“Looking to the future, QMS will be engaging with the Scottish red meat supply chain to share our findings and identify if there is the potential to roll out a national programme across Scotland,” he concluded.