Life after Gentec: What is Cameron Olson doing now?

These days, former Gentecer Cameron Olson is a Production Consultant on the Feeds and Feeding team at Feedlot Health Management Services.

“We help feedlot clients from Alberta to Ontario, from Idaho to the Texas panhandle and Mexico with their diet formulations,” he says. “We do commodity analysis and we offer animal health, management, and performance consulting.”

Cameron is based in Okotoks, working with southern Alberta producers in “Feedlot Alley” but other team members work with feedlots in Saskatchewan and… southern Ontario. Beef cattle in chardonnay country? Really?

“Southern Ontario is the second-largest cattle-feeding area in Canada after Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan” confirms Cameron. “But it’s a completely different environment than Alberta. Typically, the cattle are in barns with access to the outside because the ground moisture level is different. In Western Canada, no barns. And in Ontario, corn is a primary ingredient in the ration instead of barley. So we’re dealing with different management techniques depending on where the cattle are, what commodities are available, and so on.”

Cameron didn’t just walk into this perfect job after his PhD. Well, he did… but the story is a bit longer. The relationship with Feedlot Health started in 2015 with an internship while he was home between his BSc and his Master’s at Texas A&M. He was looking around for a summer job. The connection was totally serendipitous. For that internship, Cameron was on the Feeds and Feeding team, collecting samples at feedlots and collecting dry matter data from the drying ovens. In 2017, after his Master’s, he did another internship. This time, he was responsible for the on-site administration of a feeding trial in southern Alberta. The third iteration of the relationship came as a result of being selected as a Canadian Cattle Young Leader in 2019 while he was doing his PhD.

“My old boss at Feedlot Health, Matt May, was my mentor,” explains Cameron. “We worked together through the Young Leader program and, a year into that relationship, he offered me a part-time position on the Feeds and Feeding team with the goal of onboarding me in a full-time job. So it was a company I was familiar with, and a position I was familiar with that was offered to me because I was at the right place at the right time with the right kind of knowledge.”

That’s because Feedlot Health is expanding. Telus Agriculture, which bought Feedlot Health and Herdtrax (a long-time Gentec collaborator), plans to roll out services for the cow/calf sector in 2023. And that ties into Cameron’s PhD work on cow reproductive efficiency, dry matter intake and RFI in developing heifers and mature cows.

“Gentec is one of the very few organizations that does what it does,” he says. “It has concentrated a lot of knowledge in a tight organization that has like-minded partners. For students looking to enter the livestock industry in Canada and for a robust place to study, partnering with Gentec will allow them to gain real-world knowledge of how the industry functions here. For producers, the concentrated knowledge and research support becomes tangible results that benefit the producer directly.”

But Cameron acknowledges that persuading producers to pay for services that he knows can help but that don’t necessarily provide a product is a challenge.

“We can help them manage their herds more effectively and with more insight,” he says. “The Feedlot Health model promotes research and understanding so we hope to do the larger-scale research that we’ve done in the feedlot sector in the cow-calf sector as well to demonstrate that.”

At the Grill with William Torres: The Grill’s top five resolutions

I love this time of year! Christmas and New Year is when I believe mostly everyone to be in their best spirits. It doesn’t matter how bad the seeding or harvest season weather were. You forget about that “one” cow that almost killed you during calving. Right now, we are mostly glad for our families and all the things we have.

With the new year come resolutions. Some of us will start thinking about what, and how we can do things better. If you’re looking for guidance or wondering what others are looking to do in the new year, here is a list of the top resolutions for Alberta ranchers.

EVALUATE THE FUTURE. New year’s mean new beginnings, opinions and outlooks. Use the start of 2023 to evaluate the future of the ranch. How long do you want to keep running it? How involved do any children want to be? Does a succession plan need to be designed? Taking time to answer these questions can help you prepare for the immediate and distant future. We discussed sustainability already. This is where actions will dictate what future your ranch can have.

TRY SOMETHING NEW. During AgSmart 2022, we visited with Tim Wray. He and his family are continually adopting new technologies that reduce labour, avoid depreciation, and simplify management. Trying to find an edge, the Wrays have participated in a number of trials experimenting with genetic tools, pasture health, cover crops, residual feed intake, and artificial intelligence. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box. It is our duty to squeeze every opportunity to increase profits out of a low-margin business.

BECOME AN ADVOCATE. Make 2023 the year to use social media platforms and other means to become an advocate, and tell the real stories behind agriculture. Other ways to become an advocate can include joining a 4-H group or speaking to consumers about agriculture. Stop letting someone else tell your story! Consumers want to know how you do what you do; you should be proud to tell them.

KEEP LIVESTOCK PENS JUST A LITTLE CLEANER. We get it, life on the farm can get pretty crazy and hectic. Sometimes, you might not have a place to store the manure. Maybe conditions aren’t right for hauling. Take better advantage of the days that ARE good for it, and reap the benefits. When cattle pens are cleaner, there are fewer instances of illness and disease. Less medication and vet bills equals more money in your pocket. Healthy, clean animals are a key component to that. Take the time to ensure they’re raised in the best conditions possible, and both improved rate of gain and the farm process will go much smoother.

INCORPORATE TECHNOLOGY. It’s definitely time to work smarter, not harder. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to adopt or re-evaluate your herd data-tracking system. Most veterinary practices offer some sort of data collection but not all are designed to manage your herd’s potential. Maybe it’s time you contributed into a new app development? Smartphone apps rely on real data to validate their technology. The “arm-chair rancher” is one being developed here in Alberta. Look into contributing data.

Regardless of what your personal resolutions are, I wish you all a very Happy New Year. See you all for more stories in 2023. We’ll keep the grill sizzling with information.




Gleise da Silva, 2022 CCA Young Leader and Gentec collaborator

The BCRC-Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems at UAlberta is a full-time tenure-track appointment in Beef Production Systems, with 25% teaching, 50% research, and 25% service in leadership and extension. The initial vision for the Chair, as outlined by BCRC Chair Matt Bowman, was to capitalize on UAlberta’s leadership in both beef genomics [Gentec] and rangeland research [Rangeland Research Institute]. The Chair will complement and connect those programs to improve the whole cow-calf production system.

Gleise da Silva—the inaugural Chair—is using some of her research time on a collaboration with Gentec (specifically, CEO Graham Plastow) funded by Alberta Beef Producers to determine whether heifers with different residual feed intake can be more weather-resilient.

She has also been busy meeting, talking with Alberta’s cow/calf producers, and familiarizing herself with the most pressing issues faced by industry. Gleise’s own aim (in addition to the Chair’s) is to advance Canada’s position as a world leader in sustainable beef production.

Gleise has formed a wide breadth of industry relationships, many through the assistance of her colleagues at UAlberta and Gentec who have made a special effort to introduce her to producers. These include the Alberta Beef Industry Conference (June 2022); UAlberta’s own Kinsella Field Day (July 2022); the Canadian Beef Industry Conference (August 2022); and Farmfair International (see below).

Some of her leadership/extension time is going towards developing leadership and networking skills, and learning how the Canadian beef industry can advance our global leadership position in beef sustainability by applying/adapting what other countries are doing in terms of sustainability and food security to make the sector more competitive and profitable. This she can accomplish through the BCRC mentorship program, which she recently completed, and now through the Canadian Cattle Young Leaders program, which she just started.

“I’ve been paired with a mentor,” she says. (Anne Wasko, a highly respected cattle market analyst and past chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.) “We’ll start developing a road map of what I want to learn and be involved with, and she will help me achieve my goals.”

In addition to the above local events, Gleise has attended Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock in Dublin, Ireland in October 2022 with two young leaders from the Canadian Cattle Association. See her summary of the event here.

“During the interactive plenary session led by youth, several topics were discussed around the food system opportunities through sustainable livestock. My topic was how to find opportunities for youth to be involved in livestock, how to attract them to agriculture. Furthermore, as a group, we discussed the challenges to agriculture on every continent in terms of food security, production and sustainability. We visited Teagasc Grange Animal and Grassland research centre, where various methods of reducing livestock methane emissions were being evaluated. It was an excellent opportunity to think about food production on a global scale and understand perspectives, challenges and goals from different countries. This is how networking will help us achieve real solutions.”

At Farmfair International in Edmonton in November, she and Gentec associate Clinton Brons met and mingled with an assortment of individuals with a vested interest in the beef industry. One highlight she mentioned was the international reception where she and Clinton sat with members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. Together, they delivered compelling messages (no turkey, just beef 😊) on the role Canada can play in delivering delicious, nutritious and sustainable food to the world, as well as on the importance of the beef industry within their ridings… both at our table and from the podium. Special thanks to Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk and Garth Rowswell of the Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville and the Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright ridings for their reciprocated interest in the important beef industry work being done at UAlberta and Gentec.

“I’ve had these wonderful opportunities in just a few months,” she says. “Opportunities for good conversations that open your mind to think differently; opportunities to meet interesting people and share experiences and learn from each other. I’ll be working with some of the Young Leaders and people I’ve met throughout my career.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: As BCRC-Hays Chair, Gleise was invited to be a panel member at the UAlberta Chancellor’s Forum on Food for the Future, focusing on climate, cost and creating food security. Read more about that event here.







Food for the Future: Cost, Climate, and Creating Security

On November 9, UAlberta hosted the 2022 edition: the Chancellor’s Forum on Food for the Future, where climate change, cost, and security were discussed in detail. The event brought together Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest Research Institute dedicated to cellular agriculture; Alison Sunstrum, founder and CEO of CNSRV-X; and three faculty members from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences: soil scientist William Shotyk, agricultural economist Ellen Goddard, and beef nutritionist Gleise da Silva. Goddard, Silva and Sunstrom are or have been regular Gentec collaborators.

Senator Paula Simons asked the experts “How do you think the events of the last two years have changed our perspective on the future of food and food security?”

From the beginning of COVID, everything was a shock to everybody. Most people had never imagined going to the grocery store, and not finding food. However, people are now more open-minded and tolerant of technology in food because they realize that food items aren’t going to appear on grocery store shelves in exactly the same format for the rest of their lives. So they are willing to try items they might have been a little bit more opposed to before. “I think trust in the people who create the products, trust in the people who are going to sell products, and trust in the government to regulate the products is very important.”

Alison and Gleise added that we still need to produce more; we know the population is growing; and we are losing space for agriculture. So we need to be more efficient and use less water and land, and try to implement technology agriculture to make sure everyone is fed. For instance, the investment of billions of dollars from hundreds of companies around the world show that growing food from cells is really important for our food system. Part of the plan going forward is: how can we grow more food in different ways? Growing meat from cells is one of those ways. According to Alison, the challenge of the future of food requires more than government funding to solve the problem; it will have to include everything from philanthropy to venture capital. However, academic funding is being squeezed all the time.

In response to what do we have to do to ensure we have healthy soil and water for our agricultural future, William mentioned that soil is the basis for 95% of our agricultural production but it is also important for forestry. Organic matter and soil help stabilize a global climate system.

“We have every possible mineral resource and fossil fuels and agricultural land and water resources. So we don’t have to think as much as other people do.”

The next question was “What are we going to be eating 50 years from now and what won’t we be eating?”

“I think for Christmas dinner, we’re probably going to eat the same food. I’m just not sure how or where it’s going to be created,” Ellen said. “But we will still want something that looks like turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. But it will come from different origins.” Dr. Goddard also discussed the importance of consumer perceptions in food, and gave her insights on what we will have access to food-wise in 30 years.

William replied, “I grow quite a lot of my own food in my tiny backyard. When I look around Edmonton, I see a lot of space not being used, and I just think about how much food could be grown in the city.”

Gleise mentioned that we may have more food options but the most important thing is to eradicate hunger by increasing food distribution. According to Alison “What we eat in 50 years is completely dependent on the choices we make now. If we continue on the path that we have been on, I don’t know what our choices will be. Probably fewer options, more local food because of a lack of choice, and less access to animal products. However, if we make the right investment into diversifying our food system and creating more resilience, we should bounce back from changes in the supply chain, and have a wide diversity of food.

Our abundant natural resources in Canada and genomics offer a way to develop more resilient crops and livestock to help with the challenges facing us and discussed at the forum.

To watch a recording of the Chancellor’s Forum, click here

Niloofar Pejman
Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec

AbacusBio strategy to lead Gentec to sustainability

Back in 2019, Alberta Innovates contracted AbacusBio—an ag science and business consulting company with core capability in breeding and genetics—to do an impact assessment of its dollars going into genomics research. That included an impact assessment of Gentec, and resulted in a high-level framework for the future. Fast forward to 2022, AbacusBio and former Gentecer John Crowley are back to flesh out that framework, especially around the funding structure, and Gentec’s sustainability.

John Crowley came to Gentec from Ireland in 2011 as a post-doc working on the Canadian Cattle Genome Project. He soon transitioned to BeefBooster in a role bridging Gentec and industry on genetic improvement. In 2014, he joined the Canadian Beef Breeds Council as Director of Scientific and Industry Advancement, which saw him conveniently co-located in Gentec offices and facilitated an adjunct professorship at the same time. AbacusBio opened an office in Edinburgh in 2018, and that’s where John found himself next.

“I’ve been in touch with this company since grad school and always admired its work,” says John. “When the opportunity came to be part of it, and close to home in Ireland, I jumped.”

Still with AbacusBio, John returned to Edmonton in 2021 to bring the company’s capabilities to the North American market in a more formal way than individual consultants.

“So instead of a few bullet points in the framework, we’re planning out a full five-year strategy, with the aim of reducing government funding as time goes on,” says John.

The background work involved deep reading of Gentec management reports and other reports; talking to Gentec staff/management, stakeholders who benefit from Gentec R&D; and funders to determine their priorities and what they want to fund in ag and genetics research.

The report, which is expected by end 2022, will take the form of a project proposal to take to funders. Very, very clever… because this avoids the time-consuming step of translating one type of document into another, and because funders and competitions have already been identified (notably, RDAR, CAAIN and Genome Canada) to which Gentec can bring value.

Funding is one piece of the strategy; one that scientists are familiar with. Branding, a second piece, is not usually in their wheelhouse. Clarifying Gentec’s role with industry will be critical.

“One approach is to get Gentec up as an institute for animal genetics within UAlberta with a focus on knowledge translation towards producers,” says John.

This would move Gentec away from the “centre of excellence” branding, which is federal language, and re-emphasize the affiliation to the university. The objective is to focus more on Alberta as the hub of beef cattle and swine genetics in Canada.

Gentec may be the best-kept secret in Canadian agriculture, partly because of the lack of stable funding for a top-notch industry liaison person. The strategic plan advocates for a steady stream of funding for such a person, funded through the above competitions.

“We know that profit is controlled by genetics,” says John. “Huge percentages in some cases. I see Gentec as the only obvious place for genetics R&D in Western Canada. So many organizations and producers can benefit from this incredible capacity that’s right in their back yards. THAT’S where we need to be.”








Friends with Benefits: Grey Wooded Forage Association

Given the prohibitive cost and large data sets required to identify the relationships between genetics, an animal’s environment and its management, the benefits of genomics in the cattle industry have often been limited to the pure breed and seedstock sectors. Recent improvements in the ability of producers to gather large quantities of data combined with massive reductions in the price of DNA analysis and the resulting shift in costs vs. benefits has opened the genetics door to the commercial beef producer, particularly the cow/calf sector. In accordance with this shift, commercial cow/calf producers are showing an increased interest in how genomics might help them better turn their forage into beef. And who better to turn to than their own forage and research associations.

Gentec’s work with Alberta’s forage associations has reached the point that we are pleased to announce a reciprocating, collaborative MOU with the Grey Wooded Forage Association headquartered in Rocky Mountain House. The agreement centres on research, education and demonstration of technologies to optimize the profitability and sustainability of turning sunshine into forage, and forage into beef. We are confident it will provide significant benefits to the stakeholders of both organizations. Watch for updates in this newsletter and in the GWFA’s The Blade.

Opening up the time capsule, GWFA was Gentec’s first forage association collaborator on our field days. It’s hard to believe that GWFA member Murray Abel opened the Cow-Forage Gentec Tour in as far back as 2017. See the article here. This was Gentec’s first pivot towards focusing on the forage aspect of beef production as part of a field-demonstration event, our first direct collaboration with a forage association—and one of our most highly-rated programs. Coincidentally, this was also the event at which Gentec launched the first genomic breed composition tool, EnVigour HX, which was also the first of several genomics tools Gentec developed to help Alberta’s commercial cow calf producers make better beef.

Our two organizations continue to work together to update GWFA members on opportunities to apply genomics and best forage and beef production practices, including opportunities to participate and benefit from practical on-ranch validation and research opportunities.




At the Grill with William Torres: Are you preparing your genes for calving season?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) talks about why feeding the dam now helps the calf later.

You’ve invested a lot of money on buying the right bulls. You spent a lot of time (and money) selecting your replacement heifers. It took you over a week to match your sires and dams appropriately to go with all of your pastures. Finally, you can treat your herd like an easy oven, set it and forget it! Right? Wrong! You can’t just step away; you have to continually manage your investment.

Pregnancy nutrition is one aspect we should focus on quite heavily. Previously, we didn’t think much about it as long as we had the cows in good condition or, at the very least, in decent condition at calving. However, the observable fact of fetal programing or developmental programming has revealed that improper feeding of dams during pregnancy can have long-term consequences on the subsequent calf.

Cattle fetal programming is the concept that a maternal stimulus or insult at a critical period in fetal development has long-term effects on the offspring. When we talk about humans, if an adult develops weight issues, we quickly chuckle and say “It’s in my genes” (or as I’ve heard, “I’m big boned”). If someone stays slim, we compliment their genes. But what we are talking about here is that any stressor—including inferior cattle nutrition—can be an insult and cause DNA methylation in the developing fetus. The DNA itself cannot change but DNA methylation will cause the activity of the DNA to change, meaning genes will be expressed differently.

Essentially, methylation is turning on or off specific genes. Fetal nourishment can impact biological processes, such as growth, fertility and more once the calf is born.

In other words, the over- and under-nutrition of a mother can change the expression of genes in its progeny. This can then affect certain traits for better or worse when compared to a properly-fed contemporary.

The weight and body condition score of a cow varies throughout the year even though it’s based on the same farm. It is impacted by forage quality, growing, and harvesting conditions of the forage as well as the seasonality of the cow’s production cycle, not to mention regionality. Each environment places challenges on cows, and those that are resilient to those changes are the ones who are able to pass on their genetics to the next generation.

So how can we manage it? There are a number of nutrition specialists you may contact, along with forage specialists. If you are rotating pastures based on harvest to winter your cows, have these analyzed to determine if you need to supplement them. A deficiency in your bred-cow nutrition can seriously jeopardize the future calf’s potential. And it shouldn’t be acceptable to force your cows to rough it.

Think about supplementation from the view of meeting fetus needs as well. It’s important to not just think about the needs of the cows; ensuring their eventual offspring get proper sustenance is key to maximize its genetic potential.

And if you’re raising replacement heifers, think about the role fetal programming plays on a cow’s longevity and fertility. What you do today can affect a cow’s fertility for the next decade or so.

This is an exciting area that Gentec researcher Carolyn Fitzsimmons has been investigating, see here for example. More in a future newsletter.

For more information, contact John Basarab, Gentec’s Director of Beef Operations.



At the Grill with William Torres: Get your money where your mouth is…how sustainability pays

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) presents some options on short- and long-term sustainability.

During a recent family trip, my wife asked what my favourite fast-food restaurant was. It turns out that I had two favourites… and guess what? They both had a lot to do with beef!

On one hand, I love Arby’s because, well, they have the meats! On the other hand, when Cattleland Feedyards and I became engaged in their early work on their sustainability approach in 2014, I actually frequented McDonald’s the most. It was easy to see that their plan would benefit Canadian and global farmers.

Why is this significant, you ask? Well, in my opinion, McDonald’s helped build the framework for our current Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. They didn’t focus on short trends or beef niches like others, they wanted everyone to be on board for the long haul. AND they were willing to pay for it. Last time I checked, qualified producers could receive a payment per head through some certification and verification processes. To sign up, producers also had to be trained and audited by VBP+ or be audited by Where Food Comes From. They then had to register for BIXS and age-verify their cattle in BIXS or the CLTS database. CCIA would then disperse funds to qualifying producers.

Now this is a quick example of sustainability return on investment. Another option is to focus on the genetic selection of your herd so you can maximize all payments available. Unfortunately, sometimes we lose sight of the forest because of the tree line. What I mean is that sustainability is a long-term investment that needs to include genetic selection and management alongside the certifications that enhance your payments. Sometimes we focus on the now payments rather than the actual sustainability plan.

Not all payments will hit your bank account immediately. Some payments come in the form of land management. Take selecting for Residual Feed Intake (RFI) as an example. A potential benefit of this is that you can increase your herd size in the same amount of land you operate because you have more efficient cattle. If you sell sires, those with a negative RFI can bring a better premium during your sale. If you retain them, the benefit will stay in your herd, improving your operation year after year.

Another area where you can manage your genetics is to utilize genomic information (from DNA tests) that focuses on beef production traits that are economically important to maximize feeding margins. For example, have you ever purchased a group of calves by weight and about 120 days later, they are all different sizes, and wondered why? The fact is, we all gain weight differently, even if we have the same parental source, diet, and environment. Most feedlots and cattle finishers may not choose all the genetics coming into their lot but they do have to manage what they get. Knowing the genetic make-up of that pen can help you manage their sorting, implant strategies, and even market dates. These DNA test can be quickly done by companies like Quantum Genetix.

Options sometimes create more confusion, but the reality is that you don’t have to execute all of them. Find out what’s important to you, explore your choices, and do the math to make sure your investment into sustainability and genetics will have the proper return for your outfit.

For more information, contact John Basarab, Director of Beef Operations, Livestock Gentec









Gene-edited plants get a lighter regulatory touch in Health Canada’s new guidelines for novel foods. What is next?

According to Health Canada, companies are allowed to sell new food that comes from genetically-engineered plants, without any government safety assessments, and only based on voluntary corporate information. In this voluntary transparency initiative (TI), plant breeders are encouraged to self-regulate the risks of their genetic products and provide concise information about the product, which Health Canada publishes online for public access.

At long last, Canada has opened door to the Canadian market for some genetically-engineered foods produced with new gene-editing (GE) techniques. Canada and several major crop-producing countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the USA have examined the potential risk from genome-edited products, and concluded that these products don’t require additional risk assessments if no foreign DNA is present in the final variety. Rick White, chair of the Canada Grains Council believes this will open up the very real possibility of dramatic improvements for small- and large-acre crops alike, from productivity improvements to new solutions for emerging pest pressures to advances in food and fuel crops that will benefit the entire value chain including consumers.

This regulatory decision will reduce the time and cost to develop new crop varieties. The benefit of this is that, as climates change continues, plant breeders will be able to commercialize new crops, fruits, and vegetable varieties more rapidly, which will benefit us as consumers with more food on store shelves. As a result, everyone can benefit from this new regulation, according to Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at University of Saskatchewan in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

Health Canada intends to develop similar guidance for genetically-modified animals and microorganisms. However, one question might come up: following this decision, could Canadians soon be eating GE animal products that have not been assessed for safety? Should we put food options on the market without even introducing the products and asking the opinion of the consumers? This is important because a study by Global Market Insights Inc. estimates that the gene-editing market value could reach USD 19.9 billion by 2030.

According to Kajal Devani, Director of Science and Technology, Canadian Angus Association, we need to convince our parents, our community, and all consumers of the benefits of genetic engineering before commercializing gene-edited products.

In this regard, she mentioned the importance of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) symposium as one of the annual conventions that rotate across US states to connect science and industry to improve beef cattle genetics. The symposium is a great way to address topics ranging from fertility (estrus synchronization, timed-AI, sexed semen, genetic correlations of scrotal circumference to other traits) to consumer demands (beef production as a consumer-driven business; who is our consumer; what do they want today and 20 years from now; the genetics of meat science; and what can we do to improve the palatability of beef). Fortunately, in 2023 BIF is scheduled to be held in Calgary just prior to the 2023 Calgary Stampede.

In summary, Canada will remain at the forefront of crop innovation and environmentally friendly techniques while ensuring the financial viability of family farms. Moreover, many plant breeders believe GE could revolutionize crop development. It will allow scientists to quickly and precisely alter the DNA of a plant to achieve desired characteristics. For example, scientists can improve wheat disease resistance or create canola hybrids with healthier oil. As a result of new breeding technologies, such as CRISPR gene editing, plant and animal breeding has become more accessible and efficient.

Niloofar Pejman

Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec









The value of genetics: selecting for resilience to disease

Bovine respiratory disease or BRD is usually caused by a variety of pathogens, both viral (bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), paraInfluenza 3 (PI3), adenovirus, bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV), and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR)) and bacterial (Pasteurella multocida, Mannheimia haemolytica, Histophilus somni, Mycoplasma bovis). This makes it a challenge for traditional biosecurity or vaccination. Unfortunately, the way that most beef cattle are finished compounds this problem in a number of ways. For example, the cattle are challenged with several types of stress in addition to the potential for infection by these pathogens. Stresses include weaning, transport, mixing with cattle from different sources, and change of diet. Our own experiences with COVID-19 may help you sympathize with these cattle in terms of them keeping healthy.

How important is BRD in Western Canada? Mike Jelinski (Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie) and Eugene Janzen (UCalgary) reported respiratory infections as the leading cause of antibiotic treatments in calves from birth to weaning. At least one calf was treated for respiratory disease on 77% of Western Canadian cow-calf operations (and BRD accounts for 65-80% of the sickness and 45-75% of the deaths in some feedlots).

Now, Gentec and its partners are taking a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the options available and the return on investment for different approaches. For example, Karin Orsel at UCalgary has been looking at how preconditioning (vaccination, different types of weaning, and handling) can reduce the incidence of BRD in the feedlot. This work is part of the Major Innovation Fund initiative on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) led by Prof Herman Barkema at UCalgary, as is a Gentec project looking at the potential to select for animals that are more resilient to polymicrobial diseases (BRD in cattle and PRRS in pigs). It made sense to combine our ideas, and look more closely at the problem. We have now been joined by Xiaoli Fan from REES at UAlberta who is also part of the AMR Consortium. She is modelling the cost effectiveness of the different potential interventions.

Although Gentec CEO Graham Plastow has long suggested the use of genetic selection for disease resilience, especially for polymicrobial diseases such as BRD (see here, here and here), the value of this approach is thought difficult to apply. Barriers include collecting the phenotypes required for progress and the low reported heritability of the trait. And until very recently, veterinarians and researchers have been skeptical about the value of using breeding to select for reduced disease susceptibility. The low heritability of the trait was one of the main reasons. However, recent work has reinvestigated the idea and provided strong support for its potential. Why? Well, it comes down to the R value – again perhaps you recall the importance of R in managing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers at Wageningen University combined the fields of genetics and epidemiology to show that selecting for animals that are less susceptible and less infectious has great potential for reducing the spread of animal diseases. Hulst and colleagues identified a major flaw in such criticism building on some of the work of Gentec collaborators, such as the late Steve Bishop and Andrea Doeschl-Wilson at the Roslin Institute. The Wageningen authors combined epidemiological models of transmission with quantitative genetic analysis of disease status to identify the potential response to selection for reducing the prevalence of endemic infectious diseases. Their results show that the typical heritability values seen support a very substantial genetic variation in disease susceptibility among individuals and, IMPORTANTLY, that eradicating infectious diseases by genetic selection IS possible. This is because previous genetic models ignored the positive feedback effects that occur when reducing the transmission of infectious diseases. These effects are related to concepts of herd immunity (again, see COVID-19) and contribute substantially to the response to selection. These authors conclude that the genetic variation in disease susceptibility that is available can translate into a large responses to selection in terms of disease prevalence and that this will “make it possible to eradicate infectious disease, at least in theory.”

With funding from RDAR (A Multidisciplinary initiative to apply genomics to reduce the incidence of BRD and antimicrobial use in western Canadian beef production: $363,000), the Alberta team is set to try to demonstrate this for BRD. The researche team including Fan, Orsel, Jelinski, and Brenda Ralston at Lakeland College will be working with two commercial feedlots to collect the evidence and find tools to enable selection to reduce BRD. We hope to build on this study in the future. Please contact us if you would like to know more and/or would like to be part of future studies.

Graham Plastow

CEO, Livestock Gentec