Animal Health Canada: A bold initiative to improve Canada’s resiliency to contagious animal diseases

“Our current approach to risk management around animal health is too fragmented and too under-invested in prevention. The economic consequences of contagion are so enormous that we can’t tolerate the status quo. We have to bring public and private interests together to prepare for and prevent disaster. Just around the corner, diseases are lurking that could slam our beef and pork exports and devastate the rural economy. The whole system requires a new frame of thinking.”

With those cautionary words, Rory McAlpine set the stage for how Animal Health Canada (AHC) would be different. Rory emphasizes that he has retired, and speaks from his position as a champion for the initial concept of AHC and his earlier work with the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council, which is the secretariat supporting the creation of AHC. Two examples illustrate his thoughts.

African swine fever (ASF) killed half of pigs in China either directly or through herd culls. It has not appeared in Canada but would take just one wild boar in a remote part of the country to bring $5 billion in pork exports to a standstill—overnight! You can bet that Canada isn’t ignoring this. An ASF Executive Management Board (on which Rory sat) is building a Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan.

“But they’re doing this off the side of their desks,” points out Rory. “If we had AHC, we’d be better prepared in terms of biosecurity standards, surveillance, traceability, border measures, and maybe even a vaccine. Even with AHC, it would be especially challenging if both wildlife and farm animals were implicated because disease management in wildlife is mostly a provincial matter.”

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is one such feared example. It’s like mad cow disease but in deer, caribou, elk, etc., which are a food source in Indigenous communities and rural Canada. Some evidence exists that it could transmit to humans. There is no nationally-focused prevention-based strategy to handle it. See the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report on CWD for a better idea of the imminent threat to Canadian agriculture. CWD represents an especially thorny challenge because risk management is all-encompassing, involving wildlife management, farm management, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, veterinarians several farm sectors and indigenous communities.

“The prion protein doesn’t care about borders,” says Rory. “It doesn’t care about mandates set in legislation about who’s responsible. COVID demonstrates the need for integrated governance when managing infectious diseases. Our current approach is too based on bureaucratic convenience and siloed action plans across industry. If more actors were prepared to share their authority and resources with a group like AHC, we could better manage these risks. CFIA certainly can’t do it alone.”

Although some stakeholders are fretting about the urgency related to ASF, AHC is not operational yet. The journey has been politically challenging, with several levels of government and multiple species groups all accustomed to autonomy. The final step to occur by 2022 is a legal public-private partnership with funding.

To get this far, potential models to adopt or adapt were examined. Animal Health Australia was considered a good fit: a public-private partnership that has been funded and given legal authority to manage animal health risks and the associated financial risk. That organization has a complicated formula to manage financial risk that considers variables like whether human health is implicated and whether the source of infection is foreign.

“We can learn from Australia and others,” states Rory. “If ASF strikes tomorrow, decisions have to be made immediately about zoning, liquidating herds and financial compensation. A response fraught with lobbying and hand-wringing is not ideal, and could compound the duration and severity of the crisis.”

This type of readiness provides opportunities to drive the development of genomics tools, whether related to tracing the origin of animals (“DNA fingerprinting”) or as part of developing less susceptible populations that reduce the impact of disease. Whether we use the “Swiss cheese model” or “rings of protection”, different approaches help build resilience into a system where redundancy has been eliminated as part of just-in-time efficiencies.

But isn’t animal health just one third of the equation? Shouldn’t we be talking about One Health?

“One Health is the ultimate prize,” Rory concedes. “An integrated One Health approach to managing public health and animal health in the face of zoonotic disease risks has to start with better coordination in each camp. We have world-leading scientific capacity, digital technologies and financial resources… now we need our decision-making structures to catch up. The lives of people and animals depend on it.”

For more background on Canada’s need for Animal Health Canada, see Rory’s article in the “transition binder” the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute would give to the new minister for Agriculture, after the 2021 federal election.

“In that article, I use the example that it took SARS to stimulate the need to create the Public Health Agency of Canada, albeit lacking good integration with provincial public health authorities, as we see in the COVID response” says Rory. “And it took the tainted blood tragedy to fix our national blood safety system via Canadian Blood Services. We can learn from these examples in the space of animal health.”

But I’ve been using antibiotics for my animals all my life!


We know we should be more careful about appropriate antibiotic use for people, domestic and farm animals to avoid increasing antimicrobial resistance. But how exactly should we be more careful? And how come the solution isn’t the same for everybody? Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard tackled some of the thorny questions around behaviour change at a UCalgary One Health webinar on November 17.

One Health has a very complex definition but we tend to think of it as relating to zoonotic diseases, especially diseases from wildlife. The principal drivers for the emergence of zoonoses are human activities such as agriculture, travel, trade and land use.

So almost everybody is affected by the definition but an office worker in downtown Toronto may not feel the same connection as someone who works directly with animals, be they farmed, domestic or wild. That very context colours our approach to potential solutions.

Farmers, for example, are directly involved. If you’re a farmer, you’re probably convinced that you’re behaving in the best way possible to protect your animals, the environment and the health of your family. You’ve learned and studied as much as you can from your neighbours, extension agents and vets. So if somebody shows up on your doorstep saying that you need to change your habits around antibiotics completely—and you’ve always used antibiotics successfully to protect your animals—that idea is not going to go down well. That may be because you don’t fully understand the connection between antibiotics and the development of antimicrobial resistance. Or because you don’t see that the actions you take on your one farm also affect the soil, waterways and wildlife far beyond it.

So complexity is one of the fundamental things that discourages behaviour change.

Another is that, at the end of the day, we are dealing with people, individuals and society’s approach to the use and care of animals. We all have views about animals: they are created in our youth, through cultural ties, schooling, etc.—and they almost never change. If we’re raised to believe that animals need protection and care, that applies to all animals. If we find out that they are being mistreated or subjected to actions that we interpret as mistreatment, we are likely to respond very strongly.

For example, culling animals is one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of disease, whether to protect domestic or farm animals, wildlife or humans. As scientists, this is obvious. That’s what the data say. But if half of society has strong, fundamental, ethical beliefs about not mistreating animals and the authorities are going to cull a large number of wildlife, you can bet the reaction will be angry and hostile. This is a perfectly rational response from people who believe protecting animals is ethical. And they think they’re doing the right thing.

An example of this is the badger cull in the UK. Badgers are a protected species, so the public can’t get its head around the idea of culling them because they are bringing tuberculosis onto livestock farms. Badgers need protecting, period. That said, the public supports vaccinating the badgers (this is doable). On the other hand, farmers are desperate for protection from this disease. They want the culls. Once again, the data show that, in areas of the UK where culling has taken place, the rate of cattle infection from tuberculosis is lower. So farmers say, “See? Culling works.” Then the decision falls into political hands, and citizens feel undermined because their position, contribution and voice aren’t valued.

An example closer to home is chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids. Deer are far removed from most people’s lives these days, so you’d think the public would have no interest in culling decisions. The Alberta government tried that—and there was a huge pushback. People simply didn’t like the idea of killing huge numbers of deer and elk. Setting the cull aside for a moment, CWD hasn’t been shown to affect livestock or humans but we don’t know if that will change or what the long-term implications are. Farmers say they like the idea of deer and wildlife on their property. They worry that if CWD is transmissible, they would have to act to stop the deer/human/animal interaction. They like that their farms are private property, not accessible to others. It makes them feel they can control some aspects of their environment. So we have to understand what motivates people to change their behaviour when an issue of animal health may affect the public.

From our surveys, we know that everybody opposes taking NO action; but hunters, outfitters and the public differ hugely on the type of action to take. If you make your livelihood on something that will be restricted, you will feel more strongly than the said office worker in Toronto. So individual behaviour influences the success of any One Health strategy. If we don’t come up with multifaceted solutions, we will fail because, particularly in the context of animals, people have strong feelings that drive whether they accept or reject solutions.

That’s why it’s so important to do behavioural modelling to test strategies that may be successful. We need to understand what drives people’s behaviour, pick the strategies that encourage change, and tailor them to groups and individuals on the front lines. This will be essential if we’re going to apply One Health in a way that benefits the world to come.






Sean McGrath: 5th generation rancher, believer in genomics

In our September 2021 newsletter, we profiled Cherie Copithorne-Barnes and CL Ranches. In this edition, we expand on our brief introduction to Sean McGrath and Round Rock Ranching to discover a few more of the fascinating details about the Round Rock. Spoiler alert: it’s about as “Ponderosa” as it gets.

Round Rock Ranches traces its lineage back to 1906 when David Ganton filed the homestead application on the Battleford Trail. Here, 6 km north of the northern tip of the Battleford River between the Grizzly Bear and Benner Coulee junctions, young David planted the family flag. Since then, the branding iron has been passed to David’s son Charles, Charles’ daughter Mary, and then to her son Fred (Sean’s father). Today, Fred (who just turned 84) and his wife Anne, still help on the ranch with Sean and his wife Tanya handling the management as they improve the land and cattle to transfer responsibility to their three children who are growing up fast!

Today, the ranch consists of an Angus-based cowherd of 250+ head raised on 3,200 acres of land of which 85% is still native rangeland. The operation of the ranch is based on a few simple principles. The first is that “Mother Nature can do amazing things if you let her”. In practical terms, it means management working with nature and protecting the land so it can continue to operate for the upcoming 6th generation as it has done for the first five. This strategy allows native grasses to thrive while promoting healthy wildlife habitats, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

The second principle is to maintain an outward focus. This has meant always trying to see Round Rock through the eyes of others, primarily their customers, be it a feedlot purchasing feeder cattle, a neighbour purchasing F1 replacement heifers or the consumer eating grass-fed beef.

The third is to create the “Best Beef in a Better World”, which flows out of working with, not against, the nature of the land, and starting with the end in mind. Logically, this leads to selecting cattle that best integrate with the land’s natural attributes and has resulted in the development of the ranch’s own Ranchmaker Herd. The Angus-based herd is bred to improve and optimize the balance between the maternal traits that drive fertility and profitability while delivering balanced growth and carcass characteristics that cattle buyers and consumers demand.

The ranch philosophy places a high degree of importance on hybrid vigour. In Sean’s words, “The research has repeatedly shown the advantages of heterosis (hybrid vigour) in terms of improved producer profitability,” continuing that, “Compared to a straightbred cow, the F1 cow averages the equivalent of weaning 1 extra calf (on average) in her lifetime through enhanced fertility, improved disease resistance, stronger maternal ability, and greater calver resilience and growth.” These are principles that John Basarab developed into EnVigour HX™ and Gentec continues to apply to developing value for commercial producers. See above links.

Typical of the practicality exhibited by ranchers (and the above focus on the customer), Sean does qualify that his own herd is largely straight-bred Angus, admitting that they do lose some of the associated benefits of hybrid vigour. In his view, however, this loss is more than offset by the greater flexibility provided by producing F1 replacements desired by their customers.

The evolution of Round Rock Ranch and the principles outlined above have led the ranch to become involved with and recognized by many industry and environmental initiatives. Among these, the ranch participates in many research initiatives relating to environmental health as well as beef production (including Gentec initiatives); Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS); has achieved Landscape Health Verification through the Cows and Fish REAL Beef Program; complies with Verified Beef Production Protocols; has an Environmental Farm Plan associated with the ALUS program; and was awarded the 2014 Canadian Cattlemen’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA).

After E-Day: The challenges and opportunities of Canada’s federal government regarding agriculture

Canada must have a plan to protect and invest in our agri-food systems so that it can be economically beneficial and sustainable in the long term. For that to happen, the right policies must be put in place, backed by strategic thinking, a systems approach, and supported by strong public-private partnerships and aspirational leadership. The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute brought together its 4 Distinguished Fellows (of whom Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard is one) in a webinar, which we summarize for you below.

The idea behind CAPI’s Distinguished Fellows program is for these key thought leaders to collaborate over the coming year on issues important to agriculture (trade, one health, water and climate change) that lead to innovative policy thinking.

SUBHEAD As you look to build the framework for One Health and what that means in Canada, how is COVID a One-Health issue, and how does it relate to anti-microbial resistance (AM) and African swine fever?

Ellen Goddard: The important thing that happened in the past 18 months is science. Not just vaccines but many topics that spill over so, globally, we’re ahead of where we were before COVID. The spillover will start to emerge after the extreme phases.

Overall, I’d like to see a higher profile for the potential of these diseases. Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada (AAFC) has a core role to play in facilitating the national response to these diseases and to zoonoses. We understand these pathways exist but their study is compartmentalized, and we’re not consistent in our approaches when they interact between people and animals. At that point, it isn’t even clear which ministry is in charge. Could be the Ministry of the Environment or Natural Resources for wildlife, or AAFC or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for livestock. And the Public Health Agency of Canada often doesn’t participate.

Canada has been lucky with AMR compared to European countries that are dramatically reducing their use of antimicrobials in livestock production because the development of AMR bacteria is affecting human health. We need to knock that on the head soon. All these challenges need to be facilitated through a federal ministry that interacts with other ministries and leads the provinces in terms of these actions.

SUBHEAD Climate and health were well-featured in the campaign, as was the debate and impact of carbon tax, exemptions for farmers, etc. What do you think governments are getting right and wrong?

Susan Wood-Bohm. That this government is continuing not restructuring gives us the opportunity to evaluate past performance and see what’s in front of us. The key document I focus on is the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It shows that this government intends to link the post-COVID economic recovery to climate change, and what we can do to serve climate change goals and economic goals. The document is sound. The difficulty is that it isn’t fleshed out. Some programs have rolled out but we only tend to hear about them if they pertain to climate change, not agriculture. Part of that problem is that government doesn’t speak the language of agriculture, which is very important to the economy, so I’d say learn that language and understand that agriculture is a viable and economic force in this country, and a natural force to deal with climate change.


The Framework document has an annex that shows the government’s intention to reduce emissions from agriculture and look at what agriculture can to do help us address climate change goals. But again, it’s a framework document. It hasn’t been fleshed out. There haven’t been real actions. So going forward, we’re looking for real action—with producer organizations and producers. We need to hear their voices.

SUBHEAD. We didn’t hear anything about water during the campaign. We can expect droughts on the Prairies and too much rain in Eastern Canada. Water plays a role in attracting food processing to Canada. How do you see the dialogue around water policy playing out over the next four years? Will issues on the horizon focus attention on water?

Nicolas Mesly. Water will be THE issue of the 21st century. Canada has 17% of the world’s fresh water. When we export agricultural products—and we’re the fifth largest exporter in the world—we’re also exporting water. One issue to analyze is how provincial rules complement each other or interfere, and how that affects producers. Another issue is how fracking affects the water table and producers. We’ll also be looking at whether water is a commodity and should be subject to tariffs when it is exported. If we are in a resilient agri-food system, we will need water policies and management, and to conserve water. I look forward to working with CAPI on these issues.

SUBHEAD. Commentators noted that no attention was paid to foreign affairs and trade on the campaign trail—while Afghanistan was on fire. Canada is also left out of a new security partnership. The changing international landscape will reshape our foreign affairs strategy. How does agri-food fit in?

Ted Bilyea. The other panelists outlined a strategic position for Canada. We have an abundance of raw materials, particularly food, energy and minerals. The world can be as brilliant as it wants but it can’t live without these basics. My concern is that we have a potentially winning hand but we don’t know how to play our cards very well. That’s what I’ll be focusing on this year.

Canada has a reputation for high animal health that allows us to enter any market. In some cases, it’s worth $1/kg. Similarly, our crops are low-residue so can also go to high premium markets. Now we are moving into a world where climate change, water play a role. Countries have to meet the commitments they are making. And we see already that will cut production, significantly. Look at the EU. The same is happening in China. Most people haven’t spotted that we’re shipping fewer soybeans than expected, partly because the swine industry has some issues but there’s also not enough electricity to run plants because of carbon commitments. We’re in a new world where we don’t recognize the hand we have. As Nicolas was saying, countries are forced to divert water from agriculture to cities and even to preserve biodiversity, some close to home. That and the fact that you can only have certain animal density before you’re guaranteed a disease and you’re going to have more coming. All of those suggest we should be thinking more strategically about how we play with trade policy. The possibilities are significant where we could gain leverage and use it for good—not just to make money — to have a more sustainable, peaceful world.

SUBHEAD. If you were Trudeau writing a mandate letter to the new Minister for AAFC, What would you say is Job #1?

Ellen Goddard. We can’t stop people, animals or food from moving around the planet. If we don’t address these issues seriously, we can’t guarantee the quality of Canadian products. A lot of disease issues are flowing under people’s agendas, so I’d say develop a one-health policy that will guarantee the quality of Canadian food exports.

Susan Wood-Bohm. In 2017, the government released the Barton Report on the potential for agriculture to lead an economic recovery for Canada. It’s interesting that we’re now in a position where we have a significant economic recovery to address. The report suggested we could lead the recovery by responding to the needs of the global market, and that includes COVID, by addressing increasing protein demands and developing partners. That seems awfully relevant today. So, I hope the letter says: we have this report, it’s a good one. Get on with delivering it and look after issues like access to capital for producers.

Nicolas Mesly. AAFC is asking producers to increase organic matter in soil as a strategy to mitigate climate change. It’s driven by corn and soya pumping out the organic matter. Another thing has been the $40 billion of Trump money to buy farmers’ votes that’s being invested in US farms. We don’t have the same envelope or programs to protect our revenue. American producers are doing well. Our system works when prices are low. The forest is hiding the trees. China is pulling prices up so we have to think competitively. We need to play our cards right. It’s an opportunity but we have to discuss all the issues with the public and farmers.

Ted Bilyea. We need to up our game from cards to chess, so less whackamole. It’s that important. I agree with the speakers. I’d like to see AAFC place more emphasis on the strategic importance of agriculture on our health, economy, climate and so many other important files. It will have to lead on some of those files as well as just doing. And we need a shift in shared responsibility between federal and provincial governments from firefighting to more action and foresight and joint strategic planning. We might start with reactivating the outlook conference where we share knowledge with industry. CAPI will be good for that. It might be an avenue to take the outlook conference out of government and bring it to neutral ground.

As for competitiveness and innovation, it was left out of the campaign but it’s critical. The developed world has seen significant decline in R&D in agriculture. Government R&D has declined in that sphere and, in Canada, business investment in R&D has declined as well. But in developing nations, Brazil, China, the business portion has increased. So, we are seeing others take on the more interesting R&D portfolios, partly because we’re not good at commercializing. Canada was built on firsts: William Davies built Canadian Packers, imported the first genetics and we became world leaders in genetics for pigs and cattle. We need R&D productivity to race ahead but we won’t get there until government and business collaborate on R&D research.


Watch/listen to the entire webinar here.

Gentec, Genomics and One Health

As the first veterinarian to become incoming president of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, Dr. Jay Cross has an uncommon opportunity to bridge the health sciences to create One Health benefits. As a former Chair of Gentec’s Board, he knows that Gentec is already on this path.

“Many of Gentec’s goals align with improving animal health, which will reduce the need for antimicrobials and help with antimicrobial resistance,” he says. “Gentec also focuses on improving production efficiency—especially feed efficiency in beef cattle. When cows develop more meat from less feed, they produce less methane and have less impact on climate change. That benefits everybody.”

Jay chaired Gentec’s Board from 2013 to 2017. During that time and building on previous efforts, Gentec developed into a significant international player, resulting from its involvement in the early days of genomic sequencing of food-producing animals. The data gathered then allowed Gentec to move into identifying genetic markers associated with desirable production traits, such as disease resistance and feed efficiency.

“Gentec was an integral player in terms of advancing the science,” remembers Jay. “But it also worked with partners to translate that new knowledge towards producers. That’s an absolutely critical piece because it’s not a typical mandate for a university-based research organization where success is measured in papers published, grants won and students trained. In my time on Gentec’s Board and as Chair, translation was a major focus. Gentec had industry players at the table and embedded in all the major research projects.”

Unfortunately, Gentec then suffered a period characterized by short-term and reduced funding that limited its ability to attract, retain and develop people playing the vital industry liaison role. The strong liaison team, among them Tom Lynch-Staunton, could not be maintained. However, the new Strategic Plan, co-developed by Gentec and the beef industry, sends a powerful message that Gentec is positioning itself back into the game in terms of translation. Already, momentum is picking up with new Gentecker, Kira Macmillan, the extension specialist. The second strong signal to industry and funders is that Gentec will be providing services that create a revenue stream. Succinctly put, valuable services cost money.

Jay is a cattle breeder by background and current board chair of a new beef genetics and value chain company called Sendero and so he understands why the adoption of genomics has been slow. It’s complicated technology and, at first blush, looks pricey.

“Genomics butts up against two things,” he says. “The Number One question producers ask is: ‘how can I bring the cost down’? They can’t see themselves testing every animal in the herd. The Number Two question is:’ I get genetic evaluations done. Why do I need genomics as well?’.”

The arguments in favour of genomics are convincing. If producers were to do the math, they’d see genomics really is affordable. And they need it because it improves the accuracy of the evaluation significantly—of selecting the right animals for their production systems, which will save them money. That allows us to circle back to feed-efficient animals (for example) having One Health benefits beyond the individual pocketbook.

More importantly, in this fragmented industry, beef producers must remember that they are not competing against each other—but against other protein sources. Swine, poultry and even dairy have seen measurable increases in production efficiency and profitability because they have been quicker to adopt technologies such as genomics.

“Of course, beef producers can continue to ignore genomics or other technologies but they will be left behind,” says Jay. “The consequences aren’t strong yet but, in my lifetime, there will be a clear separation of producers who prefer the status quo and those who choose production efficiencies, sustainability and One Health. We have the tools. The Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) will not be able to achieve its goals without Gentec’s scientific expertise and translation capabilities to accelerate the adoption of technologies.”

Jay gives Gentec significant credit in getting the industry to see the value of genetic selection to improve cattle. So much so that the Canadian beef industry strategic plan identifies production goals that can only be achieved through ongoing research. The 2021 official launch of CBIN is another example of industry recognizing the merits of genetic selection, good management practices and data collection/analytics. All of these will help producers prepare for the growing consumer engagement with sustainability, animal welfare and antimicrobial resistance as these pertain to food and One Health.

“Taking pretty pictures of cows on green grass isn’t going to move the needle,” declares Jay. “We need changes in production practices. Gentec is poised to play that liaison role, and it needs the budget to do it. Ironically, people in government and industry often pointed to that as a strength but when the budget got tighter, it was the first thing to disappear. And it continues to be Gentec’s biggest risk and biggest strength.”

Canola Supplementation in Late Gestation Cows Increases Calf Growth

The growth performance of beef calves may be improved using prenatal supplementation of canola in cows

Researchers from USask found that canola-fat based pellet supplementation in the diet of beef cows led to greater growth of their calves from birth to slaughter. This may be due to the permanent alteration in the expression of a gene that is responsible for growth and muscle development. The aim of this project is to determine an optimal level of canola-fat inclusion in the prenatal diet that optimizes calf growth. Understanding the biological and epigenetic pathways that underlie connections between prenatal nutrition and postnatal growth and development can lead to increased predictability of calf performance and novel strategies to improve postnatal growth.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project, please contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: 780.248.1740

Institution: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Primary Investigator: Carolyn Fitzsimmons

Co-Primary Investigator: Bart Lardner (USaskatchewan)

Term: 2021 - 2026

Funding: $137,000 from BCRC

Challenges in Sustaining Beef and Temperate Grasslands in Alberta

Developing tools to help producers select cattle and manage grazing to maintain productivity and build public trust in sustainability

Grazing is regarded as the most beneficial use of temperate grasslands from both an agricultural and ecological point of view. However, scientists and consumers are often conflicted about the environmental footprint of beef production and the complex relationship between cow-calf production and grassland conservation. The aim of this project is to understand how the variation in pastures, forage grasses, cattle genetics and pasture microbes work together to influence sustainable beef production. Tools will be developed to help producers decide which cattle are better for the grasses on their land and to align forage availability with cattle nutritional needs. The environmental benefits of grazing grasslands will be measured to help build public trust in the beef industry

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project, please contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: 780.248.1740

Institution: University of Alberta

Primary Investigator: John Parkins

Co-Primary Investigator: Cameron Carlyle (UAlberta)

Term: 2021 - 2023

Funding: $197,936 from New Frontiers in Research Fund

Gentec: The best-kept secret in Canadian agriculture

Genomics isn’t the first “Big Thing” to land in the lap of farmers and producers. Just looking back 100 years or so, there’s the internal combustion engine, chemical weed control, antimicrobials, refrigeration, no-till technology, GPS—and probably lots more if we think hard enough. These advances—widely and quickly adopted—allowed farms to grow and prosper based on increased yields and back-saving efficiencies.

Genomics has been adopted by the Canadian dairy, crop, pig and poultry sectors but not so much in beef—even though the benefits have been demonstrated.

“Canada’s beef sector faces a unique set of challenges,” explains David Andrews, owner/operator of Lazy A Farms Ltd. and Chair of Gentec’s Management Advisory Board. “Number One is the 50,000 independent cattle farms with an average of 70 cows on each one. This complex community is very difficult to motivate to adopt new technology.”

Two components contribute to profitability: good marketing and low costs. Enter the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) (see our articles on CBIN here and here) to address a data exchange system integrating all levels of the sector to reap common benefits—and Gentec to develop the tools producers need to deliver in-demand products more cost-effectively.

“If I ask my neighbours,” says Andrews, “I get blank stares back. Gentec has almost no brand recognition; and yet, it has and will continue to deliver tremendous value to producers.”

Gentec focuses on producers and how to deliver the tools needed to address local opportunities and challenges that genomics and genetic improvement can solve. Gentec prioritizes activities identified by industry that have a clear line of sight to industry benefit.

Part of the invisibility is due to timing. Since 2010, Gentec has been compiling uniquely-Canadian databases of phenotypes and genotypes of beef and swine. That will never make headlines. What has are the tools created out of those data:

Using EnVigour HX could increase net returns to producers by $160/cow/year, creating a total benefit of $205 – $410 million AND reduce the sector’s carbon footprint. gEPDs can improve fertility and feed efficiency, and quality for carbon credits estimated at $145 – $324 million over 5 years. Using the Indexes costs a couple of thousand dollars vs several thousand for the old-style, individual genetic tests.

With these tools and the numbers that support their use, Gentec, in the form of new Head of Beef Operations, John Basarab, Clinton Brons and Kira Macmillan, is more visible in the agricultural community (as seen in August 2021 at AgSmart).

“That’s where I see Gentec’s role,” says Andrews. “We provide the dedicated research and the data to back up the arguments for everybody in the value chain who uses genomics. We communicate with the industry associations, packers and retail; they relay consistent, evidence-based messaging to their members.”

That mandate is reflected in Gentec’s latest Strategic Framework, with a virtuous circle of generating revenue from research to fund extension activities in a self-sustaining way.

“One thing that will help with uptake is the growing number of young managers of large herds,” says Andrews. “They’re more inclined to read and understand the research, so I expect to see significant progress in the coming years. Gentec will have an important role in communicating credible information that producers can trust.”

Ambitious 10-year goals for the beef industry

The world has changed enormously in the last decade. The beef industry wanted a roadmap that takes it 10 years out (but still building on the 2020-2024 goals) to support Canada’s regional beef organizations and speak to the global conversation on sustainability and climate-change.

“We also wanted to showcase that a strong Canadian beef industry is integral for climate mitigation and the sustainability of the food system as a whole,” says Brenna Grant, Secretariat of the Canadian Beef Advisors. “The thinking behind these seven goals is to spur innovation in the industry so we can achieve more than if we hadn’t set the goals in the first place.”

Goal 1. Greenhouse gas and carbon sequestration

Can we keep global warming from exceeding the 1.5°C target? Even though they are unintentional by-producers of methane and carbon, beef and agriculture also contribute to the solution. The 2030 industry goals are:

  • Safeguard the existing 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon stored on lands managed with beef cattle.
  • Sequester an additional 3.4 million tonnes of carbon every year.
  • Reduce primary production of GHG emission intensity by 33% by 2030.
  • Reduce food loss and waste from secondary processing to consumer by 50% by 2030.

Agriculture is one of the front-line sectors in terms of being affected immediately by weather fluctuations and extremes, so building resilience within production systems is critical. One of agriculture’s advantages is the potential to sequester additional carbon in grasslands managed by cattle-grazing.

“We want to empower producers to measure and monitor the change and get paid for it,” says Grant. The US government is already looking at that.

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 2. Animal health and welfare

Animal health and welfare are closely tied, not only through management practices that allow animals to engage in the species-specific behaviours that keep them healthy but also through the appropriate provision of medicines that heal them.

  • Ensure the five freedoms of animal wellbeing by increasing adoption of on-farm management practices.
  • Ensure the effectiveness of existing and future antimicrobials is preserved to support human and animal health and welfare.

What makes sense in one production system and species may not in another. Just in the beef sector, there’s a huge diversity of production systems across the country, from cow-calf to backgrounding and finishing. Producers already have a high level of care, and that needs to be recognized. The new goals show that the Canadian beef industry is committed to welfare; and part of that means protecting the effectiveness of antimicrobials so those products are still around in the future for humans and animals. Like Goal 1, the agriculture sector won’t achieve this on its own. For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 3. Land Use and Biodiversity

“We can’t safeguard 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon on land if we don’t maintain 35 million acres of native grassland,” acknowledges Grant. “If it gets converted, plowed or developed, a lot of carbon is released. So to achieve Goal 1, we need this underlying land-use goal.”

  • Maintain the 35 million acres of native grassland in the care of beef producers.
  • Maintain a network of natural landscapes and healthy functioning ecosystems through well-managed grazing systems that maintain sustainable plant communities and healthy rangelands.

This goal has the most support—but is by far the most difficult to achieve because commodity prices drive land conversion; and with technology, rainfall and new cultivars, more areas are amenable to crops. If farmers aren’t getting paid for carbon capture and biodiversity, that land is at risk of being converted to other uses. So payment for ecosystem services is critical, and will make the difference in maintaining the grasslands and other areas around Canada that can sequester carbon even faster than native prairie. For more information, see the factsheet here.

Goal 4. Water

The water goals were designed to be principles that recognize the effect water has on the landscape and to reflect the diversity of Canada’s regions.

  • Promote practices that maximize water quality and retention to deliver healthier landscapes, resilience to drought and flood events, and groundwater recharge as appropriate to the region’s precipitation.
  • Improve water use efficiency in the beef value chain.
  • Build recognition by the public and policy-makers of the benefits provided by grassland ecosystems.

“Canada has one of the lowest water use numbers in the world for beef cattle,” says Grant. “We definitely want to promote practices that continue to ensure efficiencies throughout the supply chain.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 5. People health and safety

Goal 5 is about taking care of the people in the beef industry: producers, employees, ranchers, feedlot operators, packers, etc.

  • Create a culture of safety across the beef industry supply chain.
  • Reduce serious, fatal, and fatigue-related incidents by 1.5% per year up to 2030, by supporting education, awareness and improvements in farm and ranch safety.

“Increasing education, awareness and training helps reduce serious incidents,” says Grant. “We were developing these goals during the lockdowns, which raised our own awareness of mental health issues and the lack of supports for this in some rural areas. Plus, COVID comes on top of other stressors like adverse weather events, market challenges, supply issues that are making these challenging for everybody in the supply chain. We want to make sure that support and training are available in rural areas.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these principles, see the factsheet here.

Goal 6. Beef quality and food safety

Canada has a lower percentage of AAA and Prime carcasses than the US, and premiums for Canada AAA are smaller than those for USDA Choice. Demand must be built for every cut on the AAA carcass to match premiums and send a market signal back to producers to produce more. AAA and Prime provide a more consistent and satisfactory eating experience, and consumers prefer them. The enabling goals are:

  • Establish the inherent quality and value of Canadian Beef in domestic and export markets which supports comparative equivalency or superiority to alternatives.
  • Increase the value of AAA and Prime carcasses to be equivalent with the US by building demand for all cuts on the carcass.
  • Remove internal regulatory impediments to innovation, export and commercial trade and the competitiveness of Canadian beef in domestic and international markets.
  • Support the development, regulatory approval and adoption of improved food safety interventions and technologies throughout the supply chain.

As well, the industry needs to keep a closer eye on developments in food safety technologies in the supply chain so that regulatory approval can be obtained faster.

“We’ve seen that regulatory impediments are reflected by a reluctance to adopt a technology, especially if that technology is not recognized internationally by trading partners,” says Grant. “Either it gets implemented everywhere quickly, or everybody waits to see what everybody else is going to do. At the same time, we can be proactive about consumer acceptance to avoid past mistakes.”

For more information on the beef quality and food safety goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 7. Technology

“We realized that, if we didn’t have specific goals around technology in terms of providing solutions for industry, we weren’t going to reach our other goals,” says Grant. “Technology really is an enabling goal.”

  • Improvements in speed, reliability, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness of traceability solutions that advance both business and regulatory objectives.
  • Supporting functional information flow solutions to producers derived from a competitive service sector.
  • Invest in technological solutions that reduce costs, improve competitiveness and enable regulatory approvals and business functions that support trade and commerce.
  • Support innovation, research, refinement and commercialization of technologies throughout the supply chain that support economic viability and worker conditions.
  • Promote the acceptance of sustainable and safe beef production technologies by customers and regulators, in both domestic and international markets.

“There has to be a willingness to invest up front to address the challenges that producers face so we tried to identify those challenges. We want to partner with those who have expertise in technology. Sometimes, it’s already invented, it just needs to be adapted to the sector,” explains Grant. “The answer lies in demonstration and trials to see what works best.”

For more information on the technology goals, see the factsheet here.