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.



Sean McGrath joins Gentec’s Management Advisory Board

Gentec welcomes Alberta producer and 5th generation / Centennial Ranch owner Sean McGrath to its Management Advisory Board. A feature-length article on Sean and the Round Rock Ranch will appear in our October 2021 issue as the second installment of our Centennial Ranch series.

Sean, his wife Tanya and three children manage and maintain a herd of 200 cows on native rangeland, and brings a unique mix of the practical, experimental and entrepreneurial perspectives to the MAB. The cattle work is still done on horseback (“nothing more effective and more time-tested”); he provides skin-in-the-game by enrolling his cattle and pastures into our research projects as well as providing strategic and practical oversight; and he is the founder / President of  Ranching Systems Ltd.

Through these initiatives, Sean brings an invaluable skill set to Gentec: He graduated from USask with a BSA with Distinction1999 and from the Animal Science Major Executive Development Program (George Morris Centre – now AgriFood Management Excellence). He has an extensive understanding of the science and application of genomics through providing genetic evaluation services to national breed organizations, experience in delivering consulting and extension services to beef producers while working hard to instill the agricultural skills in the next generation as an instructor at Lakeland College.

All these aspects are consistent with Sean’s approach to his own operation … right down to having DNA on file for every cow and bull in his herd.

REPORT: Silos of excellence webinar

On September 23, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss the most effective ways to advocate in meetings with federal ministers, and whether Canada’s plethora of industry groups is the right approach versus a single unified voice. The panelists were:

  • Bob Friesen, Past President and VP of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, member of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
  • Andy Mitchell, PC, former minister of AAFC in the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.

Opening comments

Mitchell. Advocacy is central to the development of policy. Without it, ministers would not have the information they need. There are three key points to effective messaging:

  1. Quality trumps quantity. Concise, well-presented information is welcomed.
  2. Expertise trumps politics. We need to know your expert opinion, not the colour of your politics.
  3. Relationship trumps rhetoric. Relationships build trust and a rapport that makes the messaging more than just words.

Advocacy is about getting information from experts so you can test hypotheses. Organizations need to be effective, prepared, professional, knowledgeable and have a few key messages. Messaging should ask for what the government has power to achieve. Make sure the ask is clear. Too often it isn’t. Blue-sky requests waste everybody’s time. Understand the difference between policy and politics, again to avoid wasting time. Be prepared to listen but let the minister’s team talk because that’s how you gain intelligence.

Friesen. I agree with the above. Often, meetings with the minister feel like a conversation. That’s not what these meetings are about. They are for a precise policy issue or an ask. Also, we tend to forget that government is not there for us to right. Collaboration is the best approach.

Thousands of organizations represent agrifood, of which 1,200 are registered to lobby. Is that too many? Is it effective?

Mitchell. Too many voices can be a problem but agriculture is complex and operates at a number of levels, so it’s not surprising that there are so many. It’s useful to deal with umbrella organizations that represent others at a national level. Not all organizations take the same view because some issues don’t have common ground. Those umbrella organizations play a role in trying to build that consensus. That process is critical. Again, the message is what’s important, not the size of the organization.

Friesen. The number of organizations doesn’t necessarily mean the sector is divided. Some of them are sector-specific or commodity specific or speak to specific policy issues. When an issue transcends a sector or commodity, that’s when organizations should collaborate. When I was President of the CFA, our approach was not to speak on commodity issues unless we had a position that endorsed it. The current president has done an excellent job of reaching out to non-CFA members, even internationally, to collaborate and agree on messaging.

Farmers are funding a plethora of CEOs and Executive Directors. It’s a lot of overhead to carry, and farmers are confused as to whom to send their dollars to.

Mitchell. Organizations need clear lines of communications and accountability. I don’t believe that’s a problem with CFA members or many other organizations. However, they have to communicate to their members what they stand for, and how they fit in the larger agenda. And at the end of the day, farmers choose whom they support.

There’s a concern that umbrella organization have a long list of issues. Do you get a sense that umbrella organizations have trade-offs on what is presented to ministers?

Mitchell. If it’s a broad policy issue, then an umbrella organization like CFA makes sense, especially if it has worked to build consensus already. But for a commodity issue, you want to hear from a commodity organization. It’s never a good idea to go to a minister’s meeting with a list of priorities because it looks like nothing is a priority. So both types of organization are important.

Friesen. Ministers can’t deliver on everything so it is the responsibility of organizations to prioritize. Another thing to note is that ministers have to go ask for the money. For a while we had brutal net farm incomes, and always wanted funding—but we were sensitive to the fact that the minister has to sit at a Cabinet table where every minister is asking for money for their issues.

Trade policy is an example of commodity vs general issues. I had turkeys and pigs on my own farm. Both have different trade policy interests. So if I said to Andy (Mitchell) that I didn’t care about supply management, I just want more market for pigs, Andy can’t advocate for just one sector. As minister, he must negotiate for all agriculture so that all farmers are better off. It amazes me that commodity groups meet the minister, hammer in their interests, and think the minister believes nobody else matters. That’s not how it works. Collaboration works.

Is there a fear that when you collaborate, is there a concern that some of the expertise or individuality of the case will be lost? Collaboration is great but how do you see beyond that to ensure all voices are well represented?

Friesen. There’s no fear of losing individuality. I would ask the Canadian Pork Council, What is your issue? Do you want us to weigh in on it in public? They would let us know the commodity messaging. If the issue was general, they and all the other commodity groups brought expertise. We have ten provincial farm organizations all doing the same thing we’re trying to achieve nationally.

Mitchell. When I got to Cabinet, I worked with the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray who had been around a long time. He said something that stuck with me: When you go into the Cabinet room and insist on your way, and others do too, none of you get anything any of the time. That shows the importance of building consensus—because if you can get 80% of what you need 80% of the time, you’re probably successful.

Was the research agenda a top priority when groups came to see you?

Mitchell. I believe that pushing the research and innovation agenda on broad pillars is more effective than narrowly, by commodity. Examples of a broad approach would be increasing yield, environmental protection, production processes. These are more effective and easily actionable.

Another way to encourage collaboration is to reward it in research proposals. There’s only a finite amount of money in the federal pot, so collaboration leverages that funding to make it go farther. That’s what we like to see.

Alberta’s Centennial Ranches strongly connected to Gentec

Cherie is CEO of the vast CL Ranches located just outside Calgary’s western city limits. The ranch itself consists of seedstock and commercial cow/calf operations, a backgrounding lot and a large mixed-grain farming operation.

After graduating from the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program, Cherie managed an 11,000-cow beef operation in Uruguay, selling beef directly into Canada and the EU. Her time in Uruguay also exposed her to the packing industry through an investment into an 850-head capacity packing plant. Most importantly, Cherie is the mother of the 5th generation of ranchers at CL Ranches, and as such, dedicates much of her time to defining what sustainability will mean to them. Towards this end, Cherie has been generous with her time providing her expertise and leadership through participation in the following initiatives, to name a few:

  • WA Ranch Advisor Member – University of Calgary
  • Advisory Board Member of Strategic Engagement Group, Olds College
  • Advisory Member Rangeland Research Institute – University of Alberta
  • Executive Committee Member – Canadian Beef Improvement Network
  • Sendero – Director & Co-Founder
  • Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef – Executive Officer
  • Canadian Cattlemen’s Young Leaders -Mentor
  • Calgary Stampede – Board of Directors
  • Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) – Interim Chair & Executive Committee Member
  • Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) – Chair
  • Calgary Stampede – Chair Agri-Food

She speaks affectionately of the sustainability of the operation and the resiliency of the cattle. Upon hearing her story, it is easy to infer that these are also the traits the family has had to exhibit to advance the ranch into its current, 4th generation of stewardship.

The genesis of the ranch stretches back to 1887 when brothers Richard and John Copithorne arrived in Canada from Cork, Ireland. They established a homestead, and began a new life raising cattle along the Jumping Pound Creek under the Lazy J brand. It was also here that they built the foundations of an operation that paved the way for Richard to register is own independent CL brand in 1895. One hundred and twenty-six years later, Cherie is leading it through its 4th generation and working hard to hand it off to the 5th in even better condition than she inherited it.

Although the entrepreneurial spirit may be the same, the operation has morphed from a range herd of Durham cattle that saw the brothers survive hard times, in part through bartering butter, into to a sophisticated operation—but one that still uses all the resources available to grow and sustain the legacy.

To this end, Cherie and her team capitalize on the abundance of gravel on their property; partner with a local outfitter to allow hunting on their land; and undertake land development initiatives. There is even a complete Hollywood filmset featuring scenes from the 1850s through to 1940 on the property.  As any cowgirl will grimace, “Cows can’t pay all the bills!”

As in any industry, progress occurs and the innovations of the day are adopted to stay competitive. The Durham cattle gave way to horned Herefords. Later, the “heresy” of crossbred cattle entered the fray – in Alberta, this occurred through the pioneering work of Roy Berg and as a result of enterprising ranchers willing to try out “what seemed to work” as opposed to blind orthodoxy. Other advances pursued over the years included becoming an early adopter of artificial insemination technology and an intense selection for the maternal characteristics that still characterize the herd. As for the latter, much of this work was done through collaboration with the Beefbooster system led by John Stewart-Smith. Through the years, CL Ranches has been an early and continual adopter of this science, exhibiting a curiosity and habit of applied experimentation that still exists today.

Today’s herd has been developed around the (still evolving) CL SuperCross seedstock cattle breeding program, and employs any and all tools that deliver practical results. This means pursuing a balanced approach focused on optimizing the herd as opposed to maximizing any single characteristic. Here, everyone is expected to work hard. The cows must be efficient and raise a strong calf every year—and not in not the easiest of conditions (Alberta!). Calves are expected to maintain a high and efficient-post weaning gain, and their beef to be tender, of high yield, abundant marbling, and great taste.

“At the end of the day,” says Cherie. “If we want to thrive, our cows have to deliver for us, for our customers, and ultimately our customer’s customer”.

Included in this is the belief that you can only manage what you measure. SuperCross cattle must perform on a 40-45 day breeding interval (still in Alberta), demonstrate conception rates well in excess of 90%, and deliver on pounds of weaned calf per cow in the fall.

This is why we at Gentec are so excited to have Cherie join our Management Advisory Board. As stated by Chair David Andrews, “If you look at the priorities of CL Ranches, they overlay almost perfectly with the performance metrics established for Gentec over the next 5 years. Cherie’s ranch and management is as good as it gets. She wakes up every morning thinking about exactly the same mandate as we do; she is exceptionally well connected within the industry through a lifetime of ranching, industry leadership, and boots-on-the-ground practicality that resonates with other producers. We need that to succeed and that is why we are so excited to have her and Sean, joining the MAB.”

Cherie concurs. The adventure is not over. The future of breeding cattle lies in finding profitability through the predictability of an animal’s performance within all segments of the beef value chain. CL Ranches is also a founding investor in Sendero Limited, a company that focuses on bringing together like-minded producers, feeders (and one day possibly even packers) to make this a reality.

“We want to create a value chain that improves and optimizes the genetic merit of the cattle,” says Cherie. “This is done through genetics and by improving the management practices used in the environments that produce them. To do this, phenotypic and genotypic information needs to be collected, analyzed, and result in better combinations of cow, environment and management.”

As the saying goes, if you actually want to get something done, ask a busy person. How does Cherie respond?

“I am honoured to be a part of the MAB. Gentec is a world leader when it comes to innovation, and I look forward to contributing to this journey of continual improvement for Canada’s beef industry.”

UAlberta’s Dr. David Wishart talks with the Alberta Farmer Express about the “Arm-Chair Rancher”

The Arm-Chair Rancher is an app that will harness a huge database of beef industry data (weather, soil condition, commodity prices, genomics, etc.) and use machine learning to generate guiding scenarios, recommendations and predictions to improve productivity on beef farms. Dr. Wishart is a professor in computing sciences and biological sciences at the University of Alberta and is co-developing the app with Livestock Gentec.

Read the full article here.

Frontline Farming Canada talks beef genomics with Gentec’s John Basarab

Diane Finstad of Frontline Farming Canada met with Dr. John Basarab (Gentec’s Head of Beef Operations) to discuss hybrid vigour and its potential to improve the health and sustainability of Alberta’s beef herds.

The interview is airing on RFD-TV, available through Shaw’s satellite service, Telus Optik and rural cable companies. You can tune in on Fridays ats 8:00 pm. Sunday 8 am, Mondays 5:30 am and Tuesdays 8:30 pm throughout the month of May. The interview will also be airing on the Cowboy Channel Tuesday’s at 3:30 pm.