Improvement of Feed Efficiency, Carcass Traits, Fertility and Profitability in Commercial Beef Cattle

Acceleration of genetic improvement of Canadian seedstock though increased use of genomic technologies and development of multi-trait indexes that perform in commercial crossbred cattle

Genomic tools can help the beef industry address challenges in global competitiveness, production efficiency, and sustainability. This project bought together international leaders in beef genomics to leverage vast amounts of genomic data and deliver commercial value to producers. The first ‘made in Canada’ genomic tool was developed to assess hybrid vigour (degree of cross-breeding). High hybrid resulted in a net return of $160/cow/year and was associated with improved fertility, stayability, feed efficiency and health resilience. Additionally, two multi-trait indices are being developed for commercial crossbred cattle in Alberta. 1) Feeder Profit Index to improve growth, feed efficiency, carcass quality and profitability in feeder cattle and 2) Replacement Heifer Profit Index to improve hybrid vigour, feed efficiency, fertility and lifetime return for cows in the herd.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project or genomic testing and indexes, please contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: 780.248.1740

Institution: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

Primary Investigator: John Basarab

Co-Primary Investigator: Donagh Berry (AGRIC), John Crowley (CBBC), Changxi Li (AAFC)

Term: 2015 - 2020

Funding: $849,251 from Genome Alberta

Genetic Analyses of Feed Intake, Feed Efficiency, Female Fertility, and Cow Lifetime Productivity in Beef Cattle Raised in Two Environments

Optimization of a multiple trait selection index for replacement heifers to reduce production costs and increase sustainability of beef production

Feed efficiency, feed intake, production performance, and fertility are major determinants of sustainable beef production. Understanding genetic correlations among these traits is crucial for optimizing multiple trait selection indices that improve calf crop percentage and sustainability. This project aims to develop a genomic selection tool for improved feed efficiency while maintaining or improving heifer/cow reproductive performance. An accurate and reliable multi-trait selection index for heifers and cows will improve feed efficiency and sustainability, as well as profitability and competitiveness. Production of more efficient cows with improved performance will reduce production cost and carbon intensity.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project or genomic testing and indexes, please contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: 780.248.1740

Institution: University of Alberta and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Primary Investigator: John Basarab (UAlberta

Co-Primary Investigator: Changxi Li (AAFC)

Term: 2018 - 2023

Funding: $1,047,314 from BCRC

Development of a Functional Genomic Prediction Platform for Industry Application

Development of a platform to increase genomic prediction accuracy and promote the use of genomic tools in commercial cattle producers

Genetic improvement of beef production efficiency and carcass quality is a key strategy to enhance national and international competitiveness and sustainability of beef production. However, the rate of genetic improvement using traditional phenotype and/or pedigree based genetic evaluation and selection has been slow for important beef performance traits that are difficult/expensive to measure, such as feed efficiency. In recent years, researchers at Livestock Gentec (AAFC, AAF, UAlberta) developed a number of genomic prediction tools for commercial producers who do not have access to herd improvement tools from a breed association and who want to select the best replacement animals from their own herd. This project aims to refine those genomic tools and to improve prediction accuracy for multiple beef breeds. The genomic prediction platform with improved accuracy will help service providers to deliver genomic decision support tools to their customers, which will allow the beef industry to improve beef production efficiency and quality via selection and management of genetics in their herd.

Download the full project summary here.

This project has led to the development of a Genomic-Enhanced Whole Herd Genetic Management Platform that is now ready for demonstration in the beef industry. For more information or to participate in the new project contact Michael Vinsky:

Institution: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Primary Investigator: Changxi Li

Co-Primary Investigator: John Basarab (UAlberta)

Term: 2019 - 2021

Funding: $230,328 from Genome Alberta

Development and Deployment of a Computation Tool for Efficient Whole-Genome Sequence Association and Prediction Analysis

A more statistically powerful and computationally efficient tool is needed to improve the efficiency and accuracy of whole-genome sequence analysis and prediction 

A vast amount of genetic information has been generated from the 1000 bull genome project across 171 cattle breeds. This information can potentially be used to facilitate the discovery of causal mutations and to greatly improve the accuracy of genomic prediction for economically important traits in beef cattle.  Recently, Livestock Gentec has imputed its legacy genotypes on about 25,000 beef individuals to whole-genome sequence data. This project aims to develop a powerful and efficient computing algorithm for whole-genome sequence association and prediction analyses. Successful development of this tool will provide the Alberta beef industry and research institutions with a powerful tool for fast integration of sequence information into genomic research and applications.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: (780) 248-1740

Institution: University of Alberta

Primary Investigator: Graham Plastow

Term: 2020 - 2021

Funding: $120,000 from Genome Alberta

Remote Monitoring of Cattle Performance: A Path Forward to Long Term Sustainability

Multispectral cameras may improve remote monitoring of cattle and measurement of performance traits in both drylot and extensively managed cattle herds

Feed intake, growth, carcass yield and fatness, methane production and cattle behaviour can be measured by a range of technologies to identify the best animals for breeding or production, or to identify those animals which are sick and require treatment. Currently this requires specialist equipment that are relatively invasive and require significant handling and labour. A new generation of monitoring technologies are based on imaging. Imaging systems offer a number of potential advantages: reduced labour, increased accuracy of measurement or prediction, new phenotypes, and improved animal welfare. This project aims to validate the remote monitoring of cattle using multispectral cameras to determine health, growth and production efficiency. Successful remote monitoring and collection of data on cattle will support the competitiveness and development of precision beef production in Alberta.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information on this project contact Livestock Gentec:

Phone: (780) 248-1740

Institution: University of Alberta

Primary Investigator: Graham Plastow

Term: 2021 - 2023

Funding: $196,000 from RDAR

Development and Demonstration of a Genomic-Enhanced Whole Herd Genetic Management Platform to Improve Beef Production Efficiency and Quality

A platform to aid producers in herd genetic management will increase genomic tool adoption and improve beef production efficiency and quality

Constant improvement of beef production efficiency and quality is essential to enhance the competitiveness of the beef industry. A key strategy to improve beef production efficiency and quality is to manage the genetics of the whole cattle herd to achieve optimal beef production performance. This project aims to refine and demonstrate the Genomics Whole Herd Management Platform to the beef industry. The platform will allow beef producers to easily access information on the genomic profile of their herd including status or ranking of genetic merit for production traits and hybrid vigour. Based on the genomic profile, producers will be able to select breeding stock (sire and dam) that will optimize genetic gain and improve efficiency and profitability.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information or to participate in the project contact Michael Vinsky:

Institution: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Primary Investigator: Changxi Li

Co-Primary Investigator: John Basarab (UAlberta)

Term: 2021 - 2024

Funding: $318,900 from BCRC

Demonstrating the Impact of Genomics-Enhanced Whole Herd Genetic Management Platform on Reducing Beef GHG Emissions

Reducing beef cattle greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved through an effective and accessible genomic selection and whole herd genetic management program

More efficient cattle consume less feed and produce less GHG emissions than inefficient cattle. Additionally, cattle with enhanced retained hybrid vigour (more cross-breeding) have improved reproductive performance and reduced GHG emissions. Beef cattle GHG emissions can be reduced through genetic selection, but the industry lacks effective and science based tools to select and breed more efficient cattle with maximum hybrid vigour. This project aims to demonstrate the genomics enhanced whole herd management platform to the beef industry. The adoption of this tool can help the beef industry make genomic decisions for their herd more easily and contribute towards improved efficiency and sustainability.

Download the full project summary here.

For more information or to participate in the project contact Michael Vinsky:

Institution: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Primary Investigator: Changxi Li

Co-Primary Investigator: John Basarab (UAlberta), Graham Plastow (UAlberta)

Term: 2021 - 2024

Funding: $487,370 Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA)

“Made in Alberta by Albertans”

Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry announced in July that local produce could soon carry a little sticker with these very words.

This label, which can be used throughout the food system—farmer’s markets, grocery stores and restaurants, for example—will be a key piece of information generated by producers to communicate the evidence in which they are highly interested. There are a variety of reasons for consumer interest in local food, such as freshness and a sincere desire to support local producers.

It is worth mentioning that other provinces have similar programs. For example, Foodland Ontario has been around since 1977, and BC reintroduced a Buy BC program in 2018 after an almost ten years hiatus.

Do these programs benefit producers and consumers? Most research shows that that they are effective from the standpoint of consumer awareness and sales of products. For example, Foodland Ontario noted that over 90% of Ontario consumers are familiar with and value the Foodland Ontario logo. A benefit of using a common logo throughout the food system may be increased awareness of the range of foods produced in Alberta throughout the year.

Throughout the pandemic consumers have increased their demand for ‘local’ foods, partly in response to concerns about shortages but also through a desire to shorten the food supply chains… have fewer steps and fewer hands between producer and consumer. A 2021 AgriNovus report on the impact of the pandemic on Indiana agribusiness highlighted the increased importance of transparency and traceability to the future resilience of the sector. If consumers want ‘local’, they also want to know that ‘local’ is verified and can be traced through supply chains. This means an increased focus on traceability systems will naturally accompany the application of local food branding. The AgriNovus report highlighted the variety of technologies which can enhance traceability, including genetic tracing, block chain, near-field communication (NFC), radio-frequency identification (RFID) and the Internet of Things. These technologies can make the operation of multiple supply chains for identity-protected products more efficient and provide guarantees to customers and consumers. Whether buying local means visiting a u-pick, a farmers’ market or a supermarket, traceability can support a Made in Alberta by Albertans identification program.

A few years ago, we studied Canadian consumer interest in genetic or RFID traceability systems in pork. At that time, traceability back to farm of origin was highly valued by Canadian consumers, with a preference for the use of genetic traceability over RFID systems. It will be interesting to monitor the roll out of the Alberta program across commodities and to assess the role of genetic technology in enhancing the labelling/identification program. Research suggests that this use of genetic technology generates few concerns for the public.

REPORT: Trust in agri-food innovation in the face of decreasing public confidence

On August 26, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss factors contributing to the decreasing public trust in the food sector, implications for agri-food research and innovation, and recommendations to build public trust. The panelists were:

  • Dr. Jill E. Hobbs, Professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan
  • Mr. John Jamieson, President and CEO, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity
  • Dr. Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science and Innovation, Institute on Governance

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

What is the current state of trust in the agri-food sector?

KINDER. Trust is higher than in the US but it’s a mixed bag right now, partly because of the pandemic. Governments put scientists front and centre in their communications with the public. But that highlighted that there’s a general misunderstanding of how science works, as shown in the public not understanding why the signals changed around wearing masks. And the pandemic also gave voice to anti-vaxxers. We see Canadians’ trust reflected in the Adelman Trust Barometer, which shows 83% of trust in scientists compared to only 43% who trust CEOs, business leaders and government. But the latest 3m survey cautions that 58% of respondents think scientists are elitist and 38% think they’re not as ethical as they should be.

HOBBS. The challenge occurs when drilling down to the context. Consumers trust some things but not others so the issue is more nuanced than just “trusting science.” Cultural, economic, social and other values are involved. In our research, we were surprised that 80% of people picked credible sources (Health Canada, traditional media, etc.) and science over consumer blog posts. That’s encouraging. We know there’s more trust of biotech in medicine than in agriculture. Why the difference?

JAMIESON. We saw a marked increase in support for the food system during the pandemic because it was able to pivot and continued to put product on store shelves. But I agree that, when we drill down, consumers are wary. When we look at GMOs and pesticide use, less than 50% of people support these. It’s interesting that we want technology in almost every facet of life—we don’t go to a doctor who uses leaches—but we also don’t recognize technology that creates better animal welfare and affordability. We know that Canadians are concerned with affordability so it’s interesting that they struggle with technologies that enable it. In our interviews of 3,000 Canadians, less than half say agriculture is heading in the right direction. It comes from a lack of knowledge. Ninety percent say they know little or nothing about agriculture. That’s not surprising. As people get farther away from the farm, they know less about processes and practices.

However, squeaky wheels in relation to social media and misinformation are major sources of concern. Social media has allowed everyone to have an opinion, not necessarily based on fact. And because of algorithms, there’s a bias in your social media feed. So if you happen to view something with negative connotations around GMOs, you will continue to see that. As a sector, we see that researchers are second only to farmers as the most trusted source of information, so if we can continue to cite sources, be open and transparent and use social media, we can advance from some pitfalls.

HOBBS. The way we make decisions is heuristics. With availability heuristics, we tend to use information that’s readily available and easy to digest. That’s what social media is about. Social media is not going away so we must engage creatively in terms of how people respond to different types of information.

KINDER. Food is special because it’s essential, so it hits close to home. It’s a dynamic we partake in every day but we don’t understand where it comes from because we’re removed from the farm. Plus, there’s skepticism around disruptive technology. Agri-food is not starting with a clean slate. Examples include rBGH, GMO, glyphosate, mad cow disease. They are not failures of science but of communication and transparency. So we have to deal with those failures.

How has the erosion of trust impacted researchers and consumers?

KINDER. It’s part of a broader concern about the erosion of the social contract. After World War II, society decided to continue funding science in peace time, and provided a certain autonomy in deciding funding and how to spend it. We continue to hear that scientists are in the best position to decide what counts as evidence but the post-trust reality may need a new approach and to rethink the social contract.

HOBBS. An additional dimension is that science must think about how to frame tech. For example, should we have given “food irradiation” a different name? The resemblance of the word to radiation and nuclear accidents freaks people out. Producer groups that fund applied research in agriculture and are a good source of communication play an important role, although their perspective is sometimes too narrow. For scientists, the incentives to communicate with the public aren’t built into the system. Whose role is it to communicate science? Not all consumers are concerned about agricultural technology—but is the vocal minority starting to shift policy?

JAMIESON. It has affected producers and shaken their confidence in what they do. You must be confident to do better. The sector has started to communicate the value of the technology to society, and increased the transparency in the sector. It prompted the industry to do better in terms of communications and framing. Gestation crates have a negative connotation but if you talk about maternity pens, suddenly, they are more acceptable. All of this will advance public trust.

Efforts are being made to increase trust in agri-food. What else could be done?

JAMIESON. The main thing to build trust is to have the industry communicate messages consistently and in unity. Don’t tear other parts of the industry down. The other side is doing the right thing and VERIFYING that you’re doing the right thing. Then communicate that. It sounds simple but it’s not. Being open and transparent does not mean being defensive. We might be scientists or producers but we’re all consumers as well. Communicating values is important because most of us have similar values.

I worked with AquaBounty, the company that has just brought GMO salmon to store shelves after 30 years because they had a difficult time getting the public to accept the benefits. One of the directors said,” We thought we had science on our side and that would be enough.” Of course, it wasn’t. That’s an important story. We’re doing a better job on communications. That’s how we will advance trust.

HOBBS. If there are issues, own your mistakes. There is always collateral damage because issues affect everybody, so work together to communicate better across the supply chain. We don’t always do that. People respond well to stories because they are easy to understand so we must tell stories that resonate with people.

KINDER. Communications with an “s” typically means a one-way broadcast model. Communication with no “s” is a multi-way dialogue. It’s listening as much as talking. Eighty-eight percent of 3M respondents want communication in plain language. Eighty-five percent want more results more often and 80% want them more relatable to everyday life. So we need to avoid the deficit model of communications that assumes the public are empty vessels that need to be filled.

Also, political, legal, cultural and other considerations need to be taken into consideration at the policy-making stage, not just scientific evidence. Science is just part of what goes into a policy decision.

Great wins for science communications in agri-food that won “hearts and minds” include Arctic apples.

What do we do next to avoid the erosion of trust?

KINDER. Bring the public in sooner in the discussion on agri-food. It will be messy but that’s where we need to go.

HOBBS. Nobody has a crystal ball, but keep communications transparent and stay ahead of the issues collectively.

JAMIESON. This is the mandate of the Centre. It boils down to doing the things we’re doing, understanding what people are thinking about, what’s important to them, then working on shared knowledge and shared values. It’s progress rather than perfection. It’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s only been 10-15 years since the system has thought about public trust. We’re getting better all the time.

Health… welfare… planet

“So often, at beef producer meetings, I hear people say that we need to educate the public about agriculture,” says Mike McMorris, CEO of the Ontario-based Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC). “But most consumers don’t want to be educated. They want to trust that the system functions to the highest standard. Trust being the key word.”

Animal-free protein products

Instead, in polls on why consumers find alternative proteins appealing, the answers (rightly or wrongly) focus on better human health, animal welfare and environmental health. Gaudy headlines promising Armageddon should agriculture continue in its current direction don’t help.

“That’s a pretty clear signal that people think livestock products are not better. Every producer should ask themselves how they are progressing on those three issues,” warns McMorris.

However, those issues are “wicked problems” that take time and resources, and on which the livestock sector will have to collaborate with a wide range of players (such as researchers, economists, nutritionists, veterinarians, consumers, environmentalists). To add another layer of complexity, the issues are tied to other wicked problems that may not even be on most people’s radar. McMorris and LRIC have developed a webinar and white paper on each one that we at Gentec encourage our community to check out. We also provide the potted version below.

The impacts of livestock on climate change and soil health

Globally, agriculture uses about 70% of all water withdrawn from renewable fresh water sources. The livestock industry consumes water mostly for drinking, out of which we get products such as milk, eggs and meat—and products such as urine and manure, which must be managed because they may degrade freshwater systems in several ways (E. coli, etc.) when released. Livestock are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions in the form of manure, and methane released through belching, although not to the extent you hear in the media.

“Don’t just read the headlines,” fulminates McMorris. “You’ll get the wrong story or be confused. You have to understand the context behind the numbers.”

In Canada, for example, 80% of beef cattle live most of their lives on the range and drink rainwater. In Alberta especially, they contribute to controlling invasive species on the Prairies, one of the most endangered ecosystems. That’s very different from raising livestock intensively in a feedlot—in Alberta or anywhere else—where water needs will be higher but, in the case of Australian lamb, still not affect freshwater supplies.

“For producers, knowing that each individual operation has an impact, they can find the counterpoints,” argues McMorris. “Cows burp? Yes, but they also turn unusable land into a nutritious protein for humans. Everybody’s looking for the simple answer. It’s always more nuanced.”

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains how ideas spread like epidemics, little noticed until exponential growth hits a point of rapid change… and then things seem unstoppable. McMorris fears that “livestock = bad” is approaching that tipping point.

“Most consumers are generations removed from the farm, and don’t discriminate between beef cows and laying hens,” he laments. “It’s all just ‘animal agriculture’. The media often present a wrong, incomplete or biased context. The only way to avoid that is for ag groups to be proactive and collaborative in getting out messages about what we’re doing on the health, welfare and planet issues that matter to consumers.”

AMR: Antimicrobial resistance (taking a new One Health approach) and zoonoses

In Canada, 75% of antibiotics are used in animals, of which a small percentage involves pharmaceuticals of importance to humans. Canadian pharmacies and hospitals gave out 250,000 kg of antibiotics in 2016 alone. Because antibiotics are so widely used, they no longer always kill common bacteria. These resistant bacteria travel through lakes, rivers, ditches, water treatment plants, soil and landfill sites through the food chain and up to humans.

“Again,” says, McMorris, “context matters, so read deeper than the headlines. In dairy and poultry, where supply management regulates the price of the product, farmers normally work with their veterinarian and a herd health plan. Other sectors, like beef, respond to various external pressures so they are more cost conscious. The vet is as an expense.”

McMorris recommends that beef producers understand the bigger picture surrounding AMR, that they track their use of antibiotics, dispose of excess product safely, and follow the treatment according to the label and the vet.

AMR is the quintessential wicked problem that binds us all together. Although some consumers are willing to pay a small premium for products that are certified “raised without antibiotics,” thinking they are helping with AMR, few realize that withholding antibiotics from sick animals is a terrible welfare strategy, putting the whole herd, and ultimately humans too, at risk of infection. Good intentions don’t cut it.

One of the great fears is that some bacteria will eventually resist even the most powerful antibiotics reserved for human use. Should that happen, we can expect more animal-to-human and human-to-animal transfer of disease (zoonoses). COVID-19 is the mother of all zoonoses (so far); others include rabies, salmonella, Ebola, encephalitis from ticks and Lyme disease.

Part of the answer lies in the JUDICIOUS use of antibiotics, which requires compromise by all parties. Another part lies in thinking globally. As COVID-19 has taught us, variants can appear anywhere, at any time. Being vaccinated in Canada isn’t enough. All the world’s citizens need to be vaccinated for the response to be effective. It’s the same on the farm, especially since animals and products move around a lot and are exported. Producers must have thorough biosecurity that includes people, family and pets as well as the more obvious delivery trucks, feed and farm machinery.


Humans have used genetics in agriculture from its earliest days to create products they want; the development of corn from a weedy grass into the powerhouse we know today is good example. Whereas breeding used to be done by “eye”, now we have technology, databases and tools such as CRISPR to help out. The rationale is still the same: deliver affordable, nutritious food to 7.8 billion hungry mouths.

Genetics has made incredible differences to the dairy sector. For example, milk yields have increased, butterfat has increased and decreased according to demand, polled (hornless) cows have improved farm safety and reduced injuries. The beef sector has not benefitted from genetics to the same extent. Cow calf producers are interested in the longevity of the cow, a live calf on the ground every year. Feedlot producers want daily gain, marbling; and packers want a big carcass. And consumers want low cost, sustainable production and good animal welfare. The Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) was launched to help derive the benefits of genetics for the entire beef supply chain, always with a key focus on the consumer.

The Gene: An intimate history should be required reading,” says McMorris. “It’s about mankind’s understanding of genetics from 5,000 years ago to today with some thoughts about the future. Today, genetic technologies are incredibly powerful, and we all need some understanding to develop well thought-out positions on what parts of it we will and will not use—in humans and in agriculture. Right now, there are a lot of uninformed people with strong opinions.”

Many years ago, a staff member at the Elora Beef Research Station told McMorris that, given a chance to start over, he’d take Psychology at university instead of Animal Science because he finally realized that when you get out into the world and see how things work, it’s all about people.

“That’s why, on genetics and all the other Big Things, the livestock sector needs consistent, informed, collaborative messaging. Because we have to connect with people.”


“We all need to change a little bit,” concludes McMorris. “Life is changing fast. We can be part of that change and help to create the future—or risk becoming a victim of what others decide.”