You haven’t been with Semex very long, but what is your role as Vice President, Research and Innovation likely to entail?
“It’s very exciting! This is the first time Semex has had an executive level position focused solely on research and innovation, so it brings new focus on the R&D aspects of our business. It’s important because the industry is changing very quickly, and we need to focus on the technology that’s likely to shape the industry’s future—as developed by in-house and academic partners.”
So what has genomics led to?
“Genomic selection and advanced reproductive technologies have substantially transformed the industry. When I left Canada in 1998, multiple ovulation transfer was already being used to increase the reproductive capacity of elite females. But there was no way to distinguish between full siblings in genetic potential which limited the value of this technology. Since then, it has been interesting to watch as the science around genomic selection evolved to solve that problem and become a reality in the dairy industry.
Simultaneously, ovum pick-up (OPU) and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technologies became a more effective tool to rapidly produce large numbers of offspring from the most elite young females.
If you consider the rate of genetic gain, increasing selection accuracy, selection intensity and genetic variation help increase the genetic improvement per generation. By reducing the generation interval (the time required to replace parents with their progeny), one can increase the genetic improvement delivered per year. By combining OPU/IVF with genomic selection, we’ve been able to increase selection accuracy of females because of genomic information. With males, we’ve given up some accuracy for speed by decreasing the generational interval. The intensity of selection has also increased because, instead of buying young bulls, collecting semen and creating progeny, which is very expensive, you can simply collect a hair sample, extract the DNA and test it in the lab. This also means that yearling bulls can now be used confidently as mating sires, which has significantly reduced the generation interval. Genetic variation doesn’t change quickly, but we are carefully monitoring the impact of these technologies on levels of inbreeding and genetic variation in the breeding population. At this point, we’ve almost doubled the rate of genetic improvement with the combined use of genomic selection and advanced reproductive technologies.”
Genomics doesn’t happen in vacuum. What changes have taken place around it?
“Technological leaps can cause disruptions in the marketplace and often lead to consolidation. You always have early adopters and those that are more risk-averse. In this case, some groups caught on to genomic selection and advanced reproductive technologies early and have done well by it. The marketplace itself can be another disruptor. Retail powerhouse Wal-Mart has continually put pressure on food prices, and now Amazon wants to sell food as well. Large retailers have demanded lower production costs, and producers have had to accept less for their products because there are always farms learning how to do it more cheaply.”
And as a result?
“We have significantly commoditized farm products. In some ways, it’s good as it drives down food costs but the return to individual producers has shrunk. So farm size has to go up for producers to make a living. We now have fewer, larger farms that don’t need as many companies servicing them. They prefer one supplier to service more of their needs. In response, we see some companies diversifying and others just getting bigger.”
Can we blame globalization?
“Global trade and the internet makes it easy to sell globally and provide for farmers around the world. Frozen semen is already very transportable, and the larger producers do their own insemination instead of bringing in a technician. If they have their own semen tank on the farm, anybody can deliver semen to that tank. It provides great selection to choose from but there isn’t the same loyalty to the local semen provider.
What role do you think Gentec plays in the industry?
“I got to know Graham Plastow in about 2005 when he was responsible for research at PIC. I always respected his approach and how he worked with multiple academic partners. He would encourage academic partners to develop their research in a way that industry could use and, if they were successful, increase the investment in them. It’s a nice model for generating useful research because you never know where the best innovations will come from.
We take it for granted that academics know what we need. Gentec seems to bring all the parties together. It does a nice job of creating a flow of information both ways.”
A big Thank You to Mike Lohuis for this in-depth interview. Click here to enjoy Part 1 again.