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.”