CBIN: Promising value for the beef industry

The idea behind CBIN—the Canadian Beef Improvement Network—has been percolating for decades. In November 2020, it progressed from an initiative to a concrete entity, under the leadership of David Sibbald (Interim Chair) and Sandy Russell, Director of Business Development.

Today, CBIN has a well-defined purpose—to improve the genetics of Canada’s national beef herd by collaborating across the beef production system to unlock the value of genetic data—and a growing number of partners across the entire beef value chain to get the job done.

For Russell, who grew up on a cow-calf operation in Saskatchewan and has 20 years of experience in agriculture, CBIN is a no-brainer.

“As an agricultural economist, I realized that the lack of coordinated information and our inability to capitalize on what we had was leaving dollars on the table. We have a strong industry but we’re continually under pressure to generate value. Genetics addresses that pressure from the monetary side and the environmental side.”

But it’s been a long haul due partly to the hesitancy around whether genetics really does create value. Producers are busy people, and sceptical about innovation without seeing the proof. And they don’t want to spend their days poring over paperwork, either. Standard opinion says that, if there truly were value to be had, a CBIN lookalike would have been done years ago. Russell’s answer: it wasn’t done because it’s a huge, difficult undertaking, and requires collaboration across the industry. No single organization can deliver CBIN.

In the last year, with backing from the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, Russell and Sibbald started knocking on doors—and found significant industry engagement. Seeing the value in the innovation that lies ahead, the Charolais, Hereford, Angus and Simmental breed associations committed to collaborate and share resources to making CBIN happen.

“The assumption was that they were in competition… not willing to collaborate,” explains Russell. “We should all be proud that everybody came together for the best interest of the Canadian beef industry to achieve a lofty goal. To see that daily, especially at the seedstock level, is wonderful.”

As sometimes happens, once momentum starts to build, it develops its own multiplying energy. Russell was hired full-time in November. Since then, she and Sibbald have been going flat out to keep up, and move into the operational stage. That means bringing the leadership together, agreeing on a governance structure, unifying existing genetics data and figuring out how to collect it in uniform ways in future, and, most of all, improving genetic literacy to help inform decisions at the producer level.

Staying focused on the vision and what CBIN can achieve is helping to overcome the natural hesitancy, as is the determination of the breed associations and the leadership to deliver value from genetics to the industry—and the extension work that Gentec has been doing these last 10 years.

“The science that Gentec does and the resources it brings will be critical to advance CBIN’s initiatives,” says Russell. “When CBIN thrives, so does Gentec—and vice versa. Gentec does the innovative thinking. CBIN is the link for those innovative research and technologies to reach the cow-calf level and across the entire beef production chain.”

In April, CBIN is announcing the Executive Committee members who will lead the charge on the governance structure. Then, announcements about key partnerships.

We’re a long way from the finish line, there is still a lot of work to do” says Russell. “Keep your eye on CBIN’s accomplishments because big things are coming soon that will get the industry’s attention!”

How do Canadians view livestock products, 2016 vs 2020

Consumption of livestock products, particularly from cattle, is becoming more and more controversial. Issues such as the contribution of cattle to GHG emissions and/or climate change, the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and competition from plant and cellular-based substitutes are all influencing consumption. From two national Canadian surveys, we examined whether things are changing and how fast.

Between 2016 and 2020 (August/September, so well into the pandemic), there was a significant increase in the perceptions of Canadians about the contribution of farming for meat and dairy production to climate change. Not that they thought it was the biggest contributor—but that more people thought it was a significant contributor. Given that, people were more committed to giving up meat (increase from 41% of respondents in 2016 to 45% in 2020) than dairy (stayed flat at 34% of the population) to reduce their own contribution to climate change. However, when asked specifically whether they had reduced their dairy consumption over the last two years, only 25% replied yes in 2016 versus 32% in 2020 – a big jump. When those who had reduced their dairy consumption explained why they had done so, health was the most important reason in both years, although fewer people selected health as the reason in 2020. Concerns about the use of antibiotics in livestock production decreased between 2016 (third most important reason) and 2020 (seventh most important reason) as did concerns about the use of hormones. There was a significant change between 2016 and 2020 about concerns about the environmental footprint of dairy production, which rose from the fifth most important reason for reducing dairy consumption to the second most important reason. There was no change in the contribution of substitutes (plant or cellular) to reducing dairy consumption: it remained the fifth most important reason.

From the results, from a pre-pandemic period to a pandemic period four years later, concerns about the link between food consumption and environmental footprint are stronger. Although there is no denying the public health concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria; those do not seem to be affecting dairy consumption as significantly as they did four years ago. It is difficult to ascertain why without further study, but it is important to note that people (in pandemic period) are dealing with so many major challenges to their lives that they may have a reduced focus on some issues that were previously important. Understanding and being able to reduce the environmental footprint from beef and dairy, sectors that are cattle-driven, is important and growing in importance with or because of the pandemic. That too requires further study.


AgSights: Helping clients to build their brands through traceability

AgSights was one of the earliest companies in Ontario to collect phenotypic data on beef cattle, starting in 1993, thanks to a provincially-funded program to support the beef industry. When that funding stopped, the enormous database was a valuable starting point to develop solutions focused on traceability.

AgSights’ original farm management software has been upgraded and renamed Go360|bioTrack. Originally, it focused heavily on genetics; today the emphasis of Go360|bioTrack is on helping producers evolve their business and management style to take advantage of ALL the data they collect. It features a chute-side application to capture data in real  time that fits into existing tagging methods and an interface in a grid format that allows for instant, easy comparisons and effective decision-making.

AgSights’ bioLinks solution, on the other hand, is designed for small-to-medium-sized processing plants. “We bought a food inventory tracking and sales program that Alberta Agriculture (as it was known then) developed,” says Betty-Jo Almond, AgSights’ General Manager. “We added a production piece that connected the source farm and RFID of animals to follow each animal and meat cut using a bar code to the individual consumer. So today, we can connect the data across the whole value chain. We also offer weekly genetic evaluations through Go360|bioTrack. As we continue to evolve, it would be great to incorporate data from both softwares into the evaluation process.”

Also using RFID tags/technology, bioLinks follows animals from the farm to the processing plant—and then each cut from inventory to individual purchases. And that part is the clincher. By directly reaching the ear of the consumer and supporting feedback through a QR code, producers and processors can learn about the consumer experience when eating the product.

“Consumers like to give feedback,” explains Betty-Jo. “It’s empowering. Just look at the way product is promoted and labelled in your grocery store. They want to know more about the food they’re eating. We just haven’t enabled this to benefit consumers or the livestock industry.”

bioLinks provides the opportunity to build the story of the product and brand it. In a chain grocery store, for example, since each meat cut gets its own unique ID, it is possible to bring up a quick webpage of key marketing information on the consumer’s mobile device. This might include: what farm the animal was raised on (and therefore, whether it is locally-sourced); whether the animal was sustainably produced without hormones; whether it was corn-fed or grass-fed. Should there ever be a recall on the product, the traceability is bullet-proof—both backwards to the carcass and the farm and forwards to the consumer’s fridge—and that minimizes any potential impact. Producers and processors can evolve their businesses to satisfy consumer demands, and consumers get the source information they’ve been asking for. Win-win!

“Cory Van Groningen from VG Meats is one of our Board members. He uses bioLinks. And another, Mike Buis, is a supplier” says Betty-Jo. “So we have first-hand feedback on the endless potential when you start connecting the data from farm to fork. VG Meats is a great example. They want to buy more animals within a range of 5-13 mm backfat, and they test for tenderness because that’s how their consumers select meat for their dinner table. Not enough cross-linkages like that are happening across the industry.”

But, before data can be applied… we need the research! That’s where Gentec comes in. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow has been a member of the AgSights board since 2013, and AgSights was a partner on Gentec’s Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard) funded by a Genome Canada project and its Genome Alberta-funded successor project on feed efficiency (led by John Basarab, now at Gentec).

“Different technologies can play a role, depending on the question being asked,” says Plastow. “However, DNA is the ‘passport’ providing the basis to add information, such as that provided by AgSights. Collecting data throughout the chain allows us to identify tools to help improve product attributes. The QR code allows the consumer to ask those questions, indicate what is important to each of them—and get the answers”

The best that I can be

It was while studying Animal Science as an undergraduate that the concept of ‘how characteristics are inherited across generations’ struck Dan Hailemariam’s curiosity. He pursued that curiosity in a Master’s program in Applied Genetics at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. However, it was at the University of Bonn, Germany, where he completed his PhD on cattle molecular genetics that his ideas about his career and research coalesced.

“I see myself as always researching to understand more about animal science,” he says. “My goal is to help solve the challenges of modern dairy cattle production, specifically, improving feed efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

A post-doc position at UAlberta, screening biomarkers for dairy cow diseases under Dr. Burim Ametaj, brought Dan to Edmonton. When that project ended, he sought out Gentec as a centre with a good reputation in carrying out genetics research. In fact, he credits Gentec with helping him understand and define himself. He tells it this way:

“At one of my first group meetings, Graham [Plastow, Gentec CEO] talked about Gentec’s core values: trust, excellence, learning and leadership. He said, ‘if you’re not learning, come and see me.’ I thought, this is where I want to be. These are the values I share. I’m ambitious and I believe in hard work. Here, I can be the best of myself. His words changed my life, the way I think, and the way I do. I make sure I learn every day.”

Currently, Dan is a Research Associate working on a project out of UoGuelph with Gentec-associated researcher Christine Baes to develop genomic tools to enable implementation of selection to increase dairy cow resilience. The project is a 4-year international collaboration. As part of UAlberta’s dairy group, Dan is involved in expanding the reference population for feed efficiency and methane emissions, and developing methods to utilize milk spectra data.

Dan’s own research focuses on identifying biomarkers of feed efficiency, and understanding the metabolic adaptations of feed-efficient lactating dairy cows. He uses a systems biology approach that integrates multi-omics data (genomics, metabolomics and proteomics) to understand the physiology of feed efficiency. This approach also helps identify reliable, cost effective and easily-detectable biomarkers of feed efficiency, which could lead to tools that facilitate the selection for feed-efficient cows, and help dairy farmers save on feed costs and reduce the carbon footprint of dairy production.

One interesting result that has been published is “Comparative analyses of enteric methane emissions, dry matter intake and milk somatic cell count in different feed efficiency categories of dairy cows” in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science. In that research, the team showed that the most efficient cows consume 12.9% less feed and emit 15.5% less methane compared to the least efficient cows for the same level of milk production. The most efficient cows also had lower milk somatic cell count, indicating desirable correlation between subclinical mastitis and feed efficiency in dairy cows.

“At Gentec, every day is exciting,” concludes Dan. “I like my work because the more I engage, read, write, design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data, the better I am becoming, and the more I find myself. I feel good about it. I’m optimistic that I will be part of an accomplishment that develops tools to improve feed efficiency and reduce GHG emissions from dairy cattle.”

Consistent genetic selection for RFI brings economic and environmental results!

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” -Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

This quote from “The Rock” especially resonates in the area of genetic selection in beef cattle. But goals are one thing. Putting in place a plan to meet those goals, and sticking to this plan, is what yields results.

To this end, researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and UAlberta conducted a breeding and selection program for residual feed intake (RFI) in the crossbred cattle herd at UAlberta’s Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch. The 1st years of selection were supported by grants from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, and the Beef Cattle Research Council. To start, the main crossbred herd was split in two based upon cattle age, and calving date the previous year, to yield equal herds. Then one herd was subjected to a traditional selection scheme, which was growth from birth to one year of age for both replacement heifers and bulls, including a cut-off for birthweights. This was the “Control” herd. For the other herd, replacement breeder selection was based on a selection index that included EPDs for maternal weaning weight, and genomically-enhanced breeding values for RFI (but still including the cut-offs for birth weights). This herd was named the “Efficient” herd.

Even after project funding ended, researchers maintained these Control and Efficient herds, and continued selection for RFI in the Efficient herd though their replacement bulls. They also continued testing all potential replacement breeding animals for RFI through funding from other projects. Replacement heifers in the Efficient herd have slowly decreased their RFI values, and in winter 2019-2020, Efficient heifers consumed 4.8% less feed than the Control heifers during their RFI test. This is an improvement of 0.7%/year for RFI, which is in line with the 0.5%-0.8%/year improvement rate as reported at the end of the formal projects.

To put this in an economic context, we can compare the difference in feed costs for these heifers:

For example, a crossbred heifer at Kinsella consumes on average 8.71 kg DM (dry matter)/day. The difference in intake between the Efficient vs Control heifers is 0.42 kg DM/d or 4.8%. Therefore, feed savings would be $0.15/kg DM x 365 days x 0.42 kg DM/day = ~$23/heifer/year.

Would any cattle producer like to save $23/head/year in feed costs? Of course, they would! Multiply that by 100 head of cattle, the savings could reach $2,300. And the savings increase as more feed efficient cattle are fed.

Now, what about environmental benefits? Well, a heifer of the same size and genetic background as the above Efficient heifers at Kinsella emits ~179 g CH4/day as measured by Manafiazar et al (2020). The same study found that heifers with a difference in DMI of 8% also had a difference in CH4 emissions of 2.5%/day. Therefore, a difference in DMI of 4.8% as a result of selecting for RFI as described above would be associated with a difference in daily CH4 emission of 1.5%. This equates to 2.69 g CH4/day, or 0.98 kg/year. The global warming potential of methane is its grams emitted multiplied by a factor of 28, which, in our example, equals a difference of 27.4 kg CO2e/year. Thus, enteric CH4 emissions from an Efficient heifer would be predicted to be 27.4 kg CO2e/year lower than from a Control heifer. Multiply that by 100 heifers and now you have a difference of 2,740 kg, or 2.74 tonnes. So what?

To put this in context, we will compare these emissions to GHG emissions from an average car, which emits ~404 g of CO2/mile. The reduction in enteric methane emissions brought about by selection for RFI in these 100 cattle is equivalent to a car driving 6,782 miles. Whoa! Can we do that? Yes, we can. 🙂