At the Grill with William Torres: Trust yourself, and let people know

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) develops the case for trusting that producers know what they’re doing to raise the best beef for the price and for sustainability.

Did you know that cowboys (and cowgirls) are some of the most trustworthy people? So why do consumers want to know how their food is produced?

Advertising products as “natural” has impacted how people choose what they buy. Our (the industry) problem is that we don’t speak out about the benefits of some of the technology we use, like hormone implants,  for example.

Using an implant reduces the carbon footprint, reduces water intake, and manure output because we reduce the time an animal requires to grow to maturity. If we removed such advantage, we would extend greatly the amount of time an animal requires to reach slaughter weight—and those benefits are gone.

Imagine you run a business and you hire an accountant, but you tell the accountant that you don’t like electronic files, and you rather have an old-school ledger. Oh, AND you want to reduce carbon emissions, so you want them to deliver this ledger on a bicycle every month. Well, they would probably charge more for this service, right? It doesn’t mean that this way of doing things is better, it’s just more labour-intensive and they must recover those costs. The same goes for cattle raised without hormones and/or antibiotics. Feeding these animals is now longer and more costly, and this cost will be passed on to the consumer.

Unfortunately, sometimes, when we see a higher price, we assume there’s an environmental reason or added benefit. But the reality is the opposite. When we (the industry) don’t speak out and let people know that food is safe, consumers at the grocery store make their own assumptions as to why some meats cost more than others.

Whether you choose to raise your cattle with added benefits of technology or decide to reduce these benefits, the care and pride you take with your cattle doesn’t change. It is your right to run your ranch as you see fit. If you decide to hug your cattle at birth , take a selfie for evidence, and provide them only with bottled water… and you believe that you can capitalize on this practice and sell your cattle for more money, then go ahead. But it doesn’t make that beef taste any better than the rest.

Genetically speaking, the breed of the cattle, the crossbreeding (if any), and their diet are the benefits you provide to the consumer to make their experience a delicious one. Take 100% grass-fed cattle vs. those that are grain-fed; grass-fed cattle can still finish with a desirable amount of marbling if the genetics are in place, and the dining experience will still be a favourable one. For those of us on the inside, we know that you can’t take an animal from Ethiopia, like a Zenga, and expect it to taste like Angus beef.

A 2022 public trust survey by the ministry of agriculture in Saskatchewan  revealed that “87% of Saskatchewan residents have a positive perception of (Saskatchewan) agriculture. In fact, overall public perception of agriculture has continued to remain strong over the last 10 years, with an average of 88.2 per cent.”

People trust us—and they should—because we do what we do for the love of it.

So, tell your story, explain why your choice in genetics is what makes your cattle different and taste better. Don’t sit there and expect some scientist to provide a 30-page paper with every roast purchase and for the consumer to make sense of it and understand why you care so much for your cattle, their well-being, and how your family has been doing this for generations with the same level of commitment.




The the real money behind calf petting

“I became fascinated about how we might increase the profitability of the livestock industry simply by improving the welfare of farm animals in Brazil,” says Désirée Gellatly, Research Scientist at the Olds College Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production. “Mostly, when we interact with animals—for vaccinations, health treatment, ear tags, etc.—it’s an adverse stimulus. There must be other ways of doing these procedures without causing animals to be frightened of us in the next handling occasions.”

Back in Brazil, Dr. Gellatly was part of a research group studying best practices to improve the productivity, health, and welfare of dairy calves. One of the studies involved assessing tactile stimulation in newborn calves by gently rubbing the hands on their body to mimic maternal stimulation, such as licking and grooming. The licking behaviour performed by the cow cleans the calf, induces calf thermal regulation and creates a bond between the cow-calf pair. Briefly, all mammals have a specialized type of nerve receptors in the skin which signal the brain to perceive a nonpainful stimuli (such as massage-like gentle stroking) as “affective” and “pleasant” sensations. Evidence shows that tactile stimulation performed by humans in laboratory animals permanently affected brain development (more synapses) and the HPA  axis,which mediates stress responses. More positive sensory interaction in early life, less secretion of stress hormones – so less fight-or-flight response in adulthood. These changes are permanent.

“All mammals and birds have a window in brain development where the brain is more sensitive to environmental influences,” says Désirée. “In humans, this window is enhanced in the first five years of age. That’s why young kids learn languages better than adults. It’s also why babies are given to mom immediately after birth… to start the sensory interaction that helps brain development.”

Why and how do you pet/massage a calf? The most sensitive period of brain development in calves is in the first week. So, we recommend immediately after processing the calves (weighing, ear tagging, vaccination, and injections), to apply gentle but firm pressure (avoid light tickle touches) with your hands around the legs, back and areas that the cow would lick.

Désirée has been working with Lance and Karyn Neilson of Neilson Cattle Development near Stettler, AB, on this approach. In their first study, half the newborn calves got just one single occasion of 1-minute massage after processing procedures at 1-day of age. The massaged calves required 20% less treatments for illnesses over time, and, at weaning, were 47 lb. heavier than the unmassaged calves.

“It’s interesting that recent studies in Brazil on zebu beef cattle are finding the same results,” says Désirée. “Studies in laboratory animals attribute the greater growth performance in massaged animals to the greaterexploratory behaviour observed in those animals compared to control groups, perhaps because their brain develops differently, so they start eating solids earlier.”

A second study on the Neilson’s ranch compared different weaning methods: abrupt separation, nose-flap,and fenceline weaning. The fenceline approach was best for improving growth and reducing illness post-weaning. The nose-flap method raised some welfare concerns due to the high incidence of animals with skin lesions in both nostrils that last up to 14-days after removing the devices.

All that is fine for calves but the Neilsons also wanted to improve the reproductive efficiency of their herd. So came the third study , which resulted in much calmer heifers after acclimation to handlingand a 2-3% higher pregnancy rate compared to the control group. A validation study a year later produced a 10.8% better pregnancy rate in acclimated heifers compared to the non-acclimated control group.

“Now the acclimation procedure is permanent on this farm,” confirms Désirée. “Lance and Karyn found value in it. They were worried it would take too much time out of their day so I checked. With just the two of them, it took 15 minutes a day to acclimate 100 animals. I believe it’s doable for most producers in Western Canada!”

Désirée’s next step is to assess whether the benefits of tactile stimulation in newborn calves comes from the treatment “massage”, not from the genetics (sire). She’s planning to apply for project funding in collaboration with Gentec to find out exactly that.

“Cattle don’t do well in new situations,” she says. “If we can reduce their fear from day one through best practices and make it worthwhile for the producer, it’s got to be a win-win.”

Hypor announces new research partnership with Gentec at the Banff Pork Seminar

Well over 700 people attended the Banff Pork Seminar (BPS) from all over Canada and internationally. Canada’s top pig producers, industry specialists and decision makers represented nearly 80% of the attendees, and nearly a quarter were pig producers. Overall, presentations and discussions could impact many of Canada’s 1.2 million sows and, since 8 of the top 16 USA Mega Producers (Pork Powerhouse) were present, influencing >2.0 million sows in total.

Key players from all sectors of the industry, including production, veterinary, feed, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and provincial pork organizations were in attendance. This audience represents a goldmine for academics to share their research and to hear what questions they need answering for the future success of the industry.

During the conference, Hypor announced a new research partnership with Gentec supported by an Alliance grant from NSERC (Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada). This 4-year project will identify the underlying genetic and phenotypic relationships between different traits in order to achieve more balanced selection to improve sow lifetime productivity, production profitability and sustainability. Greg Simpson, General Manager at Hypor North America, stated “This is an incredible opportunity to work collaboratively with world class researchers to further knowledge on sow longevity.”  See article here .

The project is based on Gentec’s core principal of “Research into Reality”. “From this project, we will be able to provide recommendations for the management of gilts, sows and their progeny to deliver improved performance at the commercial producer level.”

BPS continues put on an excellent program hosting world-class speakers and a blend of plenary speakers and practical breakout sessions. Banks Baker from PIC spoke on the role that genetic improvement plays in a sustainable food system. He noted how genetic improvements address problems and reduce impacts before they occur, that raising the right animal is critical to the sustainability of protein production (i.e., healthy, robust pigs are more profitable, and reduce environmental impact). PIC believes that technology advances such as gene editing are a part of future animal health, delivering value and supporting improvement across the full value chain.

Dr. David Rosero in the “Technology” breakout stated that, “Swine production systems are rapidly adopting smart farming technologies to address the increasing pressure of higher production costs and the limited access to qualified labour”. At Gentec, we see that imaging technologies will allow us to collect difficult-to-measure phenotypic traits that also play an important role in implementing genomics.