BCRC: 25 years strong

It all began with an explosive growth in production and exports in the Nineties, thanks in part to agreements like NAFTA, followed by a contraction in ag research funding through entities like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. But the growth period highlighted the need for targeted research to meet industry needs on topics as broad as forage, animal health and welfare and, more recently, sustainability and climate. Suddenly, it was clear that ag research was not adequately funded. The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) was born out of that need.

“In 2004 when I started, we funded a handful of research projects, and received 5c of the one dollar national checkoff,” admits Andrea Brocklebank, Executive Director at the BCRC.

(Editor’s note: Back then, the BCRC worked closely with the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Bovine Genomics, Gentec’s predecessor, and Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC’s Science Director, sat on Gentec’s Management Advisory Board. Also, Gentec CEO Graham Plastow remembers how meeting staff at BCRC and understanding their vision helped set the agenda for Gentec in terms of open collaboration. He says they have been a fantastic partner for Gentec’s beef research, and recommends subscribing to their blogs and webinars to keep up-to-date. They really do a fantastic job in bringing research to producers for application.)

Over the years, the BCRC focused on increasing investment and demonstrating value. That means extension and production-based research that leads directly back to benefits on the farm. BCRC’s portfolio also had to broaden because, from the consumer perspective, things changed. There was a new expectation to provide sound science to support agricultural practices and their impacts on animal welfare and the environmental footprint as well as to inform public trust and policy issues.

“We needed science to inform those issues because emotions get in the way,” explains Andrea. “That background compelled the understanding that we needed more industry investment in research.”

In 2012, the BCRC launched an important extension initiative aimed at producers—a growing online presence focusing on the beefresearch.ca website. The annual webinar series and the monthly newsletter, The Wire, are industry benchmarks. And the economic tools that help producers make customized decisions for their operations are a particular source of pride for Andrea.

“Extension excites me because we don’t have a traditional model but we make it relevant so we’re more likely to increase uptake. As an economist, I’m most proud of bringing economics into extension. Now, we can say, ‘Here’s the science. It’s valid. Here are the economic costs and benefits to consider when implementing in your operation.”

For example, should a producer drill a new well to improve water quality? Better access to water improves calf growth and animal health even though there’s an upfront cost. That benefit is hard to calculate, and drives industry adoption or not.

“Demonstrating BCRC’s contribution to industry really paid off when we went to increase the checkoff in 2016,” says Andrea. “We got an increase to $2.50/head for research and marketing of which the increase for research was around 70c.”

A more unusual aspect of extension has been the growing relationship between researchers and producers. Being a new researcher, being new to Canada and not knowing the Canadian beef context or simply not having an ag background are significant extra barriers to an already fraught process. To address that these researchers weren’t always successful in getting industry funding, the BCRC launched the Beef Researcher Mentorship Program.

“It’s been five years now. I thought we’d run out of applicants but far from it,” says Andrea. “Now, researchers are more confident in asking questions. Their connections are wider, and their proposals stronger. Some of the earlier mentees are now leads in fairly large projects that we fund.”

Looking ahead, the BCRC’s 2030 goals focus on economic sustainability, the environment and targets set by producers, vets, funders and a broad cross section of the industry to bring strong buy-in for the priorities. Among those is genetics.

“We recognize that, compared to other sectors, genetic improvement has significant potential to address some of our goals on increasing productivity,” says Andrea. “We also recognize that genetic improvement has been slower in beef than in other areas. So we look to organizations like Gentec and the Canadian Beef Improvement Network to accelerate that.”

That will take a two-pronged approach: research and extension, at which BCRC, Gentec and CBIN all excel. Because, as Andrea says:

“Being with producers reminds me about sustainability and the strengths of Canadian beef as, for example, having the one of the lowest global environmental footprints. But, at the end of the day, if producers aren’t financially sustainable, the rest doesn’t matter! That’s what the BCRC is about.”

For more insight on the BCRC’s milestone birthday, see here, and video here.









Hands-on Learning: Grazing management and the Alberta Agrisystems Living Laboratory

The Alberta AgriSystems Living Laboratory (AALL) represents a new approach to combating global climate change, and is a component of the broader federal Agricultural Climate Solutions (ACS) program. The ACS program is designed to combine traditional agricultural research with on-farm/ranch producer knowledge in a co-development process that evaluates newly-implemented beneficial management practices (BMPs).

Individual BMPs are evaluated on how they can improve productivity and profitability, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints and increase carbon storage in agricultural lands. ACS projects are led by non-research organizations (e.g., industry and not-for-profits) who serve as liaisons to facilitate on-farm/ranch co-development and evaluation of BMPs. The AALL is one such organization, led by the Alberta Beef Producers. It draws on the expertise of a wide range of industry partners from across the province, including crop commissions, non-governmental organizations, and private industry.

The network of living labs nationwide has the goals of increasing our fundamental understanding of agricultural impacts on soil carbon stock, stability, and GHG dynamics, and of fostering a greater understanding among producers as to how they may help combat climate change while benefiting their bottom line. The combination of fundamental research and on-farm/ranch co-development in which agricultural experts advise on implementing BMPs as well as monitoring field-level responses allows for an enhanced predictive framework on how widespread changes in agricultural land-use practices can benefit all of society.

Several BMPs are capable of contributing to carbon storage and GHG mitigation. These include practices such as intercropping, restoration of perennial forage lands, strategic enhancement of plant diversity (e.g., in forage lands), agroforestry, riparian area conservation, and the use of technologies to increase fertilizer use efficiency and reduce nutrient loss. Additionally, with nearly 10 million hectares of grazing land in Alberta supporting more than 1.5 million breeding cows, finding ways to increase carbon storage in perennial grazing lands is an important strategy to combat climate change. Grazing lands are important for storing soil carbon, typically supporting 30-50% larger carbon stocks than annual cropland. Moreover, grazing lands provide other environmental goods and services (EG&S), such as conserving biodiversity, supporting wildlife, reducing erosion, and maintaining water quality. While the benefits of perennial forage lands over croplands are relatively well-known, what is less understand is HOWgrazing can be fine-tuned to increase these EG&S, including enhancing carbon storage and GHG reduction.

Recent work completed at UAlberta using a network of study ranches across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba suggests that a specialized form of rotational grazing, known as adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing, could benefit grasslands and producers. AMP grazing entails the use of small paddocks and elevated stock densities, with frequent moves to ensure long recovery periods between grazing events. On those sites, long-term use of AMP grazing improved water infiltration and forage production. In addition, AMP-grazed grasslands had deeper topsoils that contained more carbon, and the microbial community of AMP soils had greater methanotrophic activity, which increased ‘consumption’ of methane. Based on these very encouraging results, this work is being expanded within the AALL to more comprehensively field-test the benefits of AMP grazing on a variety of EG&S, including pasture health, forage agronomics (yield and quality), carbon storage and GHG dynamics.

Among the novel aspects of the AALL program is the projects’ interdisciplinary nature. Researchers work hand-in-hand with producers to identify opportunities to implement BMPs, foster their implementation, and then monitor their impact. Together with the collection of field data evaluating changes in carbon stock and stability, and ongoing fluxes of GHGs such as CO2, CH4 and N2O, is the assessment of net impacts of BMPs on producer cost of production and, therefore, profitability. Additionally, detailed management data on the land use activities prior to the study and during the interval encompassed by the monitoring period from 2023 through 2026, during and following BMP implementation, are used to better understand when, where and how land use practices may mitigate climate change, while fully assessing their feasibility of implementation. Furthermore, the AALL includes a socio-economic evaluation of the uptake of BMPs by participants directly involved in the AALL and producers throughout Alberta. Producers interested in adopting BMPs themselves will have the opportunity to view and learn about the impacts of newly-implemented BMPs in similar production scenarios. The grazing management component of the AALL is being led by Edward Bork (of the Rangeland Research Institute and Gentec partner) with a large team of scientists from UAlberta with expertise in many disciplines. Gentec scientists including Carolyn Fitzsimmons and ChangXi Li of Agriculture and AgriFood Canada and John Basarab and Paul Stothard (UofA) will be considering how genomics can support these efforts.

If you are a rancher and interested in participating in the project, contact Edward Bork for more information.

If you are an agricultural producer (cropping, beef, forage) and interested in the AALL and other BMPs, check out the website.



At the Grill with William Torres: Things I learned about the cattle industry that apply anywhere

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) writes about the on-farm management skills that are valuable commodities in any industry.

Decades ago, I left our family’s ranch to venture on my own path in the military. Little did I know that agriculture and military service had a lot in common. The top three things I noticed after I returned to ag-life are:

  • The public has no idea what we do.
  • The government is always trying to take more money away from us.
  • Activists are always trying to tell us how to do our job.

But what other similarities do agriculture and military service have? Well… I believe it is as much a national service to be in agriculture as to be in the military. A very small percentage of Canadians serve in the military (1.4%); those primarily involved in ag number just over 2%. Not to mention that veterans feel right at home working in a farm. Both sectors are mission-focused, require discipline, and are physically demanding.

If you think about it, these last items are just some of the skills that can translate anywhere. If you ever left the farm, any employer should gladly welcome them. Then there’s problem solving skills, because we all know you need to fix a never-ending number of problems on the ranch.

Another similarity is the early adoption of technology. Many farmers and ranchers utilize tools to aid in their everyday chores. Think about it, how many of you use apps to track things at the ranch? From calving data, feed deliveries, commodities trading, etc. Data management is crucial. Even now as we approach bull sale season again, many ranchers have already downloaded or ordered their bull sale catalogue. This is just the first step in data-crunching to make decisions for your outfit. Making sense of EPDs (see my take on this in February 2022’s At the Grill feature) is just data analyzing.

We all use data management skills daily, most times unaware of what we are doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re going over last year’s crop records, plotting them against the last 10 years, forecasting this year’s outcome based on new mixtures of fertilizers, perhaps a new seed type—all are examples of how we examine and use data on every level. On the cattle side, you might be closer to getting your licence as a commodities broker than you realize. Making sense of the beef market report, trading against the US dollar, locking in contracts, hedging your longs and shorts are no easy tasks. It takes some serious dedication and knowledge to stay alive in the markets.

We learn so many skills at the farm that we could use anywhere else. So why leave the farm when you could put all that knowledge to good use—or better yet, send your next generation of farmers and ranchers to master these skills at an institution, and bring them home to ensure your long-term sustainable operation plan has the tools to succeed.