The technical breakout sessions at the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) in Calgary between July 3-6, focused on advancements in beef-production and genetic-improvement.

“Advancements in Producer Applications”

Shannon Argent focused on “VBP+: How Sustainability and Genetics Fit Together.” Continual improvement in sustainability and genetics have improved efficiency in the Canadian beef production system. All stakeholders in the beef production chain came together to strategize to monitor sustainability. VBP Canada can use on-farm data collected during audits and herd assessment to help inform policy and stakeholders on actual situations and activities at the various farm levels. Roughly 1.76 million cattle are under the management of VBP Canada-certified operations. Those operations also account for about 6.4 million acres used for beef production.

“Advancements in Genomics and Genetic Prediction”

Steve Miller, now Director of AGBU in Australia and long-time Gentec collaborator, spoke on the art of identifying and choosing who becomes the dam/sire of future generations in breeding programs. This process involves a series of decisions using information available at the time. Consideration may include purebreds and composites. There are no clearer signals on the outcome of selection except at the point of sale. The big changes in the use of genomics information are helping in the decision and selection process. This effort relies on data, without which we can do nothing. Genetic trends suggest improvement in key traits. Despite the use of novel technologies like genomic selection, the black box is still powerful, requiring a scramble for data to get ahead. The recipe is clear – more data, more accuracy, more progress – for just about any trait.

Troy Rowan (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) posed the question Gentec has been focusing on most recently, “Why Should Commercial Cattlemen be Interested in Genomics?” Gentec’s Marzieh Heidaritabar liked the phrase “heterosis pays”. Crossbreeding is used to create heterosis or hybrid vigour, as happens when different breeds are mated. The crossbred offspring are less inbred than their parents, and this can result in calves performing at a level above the average of their parents. Not only individual heterosis but also maternal heterosis (from crossbred dams) was shown to be beneficial. Rowan indicated increased performance of the crossbred cows relative to the average of straightbred females of the parental breeds was 38% for longevity, 17% for number of calves, and 25.3% for cumulative weaning weight. Crossbred cows also demonstrate improvement for feed efficiency.

John Basarab, Gentec Director of Beef Operations continued this theme in his presentation on “Non-additive Genetics”. Genomic-retained heterozygosity is an indicator of heterosis linearly related to female fertility and fitness traits. Non-additive genetic effects are due to dominance and epistasis. Dominance variance is a main source of phenotypic variation for female longevity and stayability traits. Additive and dominance models can improve genomic prediction by 20-40%. Non-additive genetic effects are useful for breeding plans to increase longevity and lifetime productivity. These effects are incorporated in Gentec’s tools when appropriate, such as its Replacement Heifer Profit Index™.

“Advancements in Emerging Technology”

Mahdi Saatchi (Iowa State University and Top Genomics) presented a demo of “RightMate: Precision Breeding by Genomic Mating”. RightMate is a genomics-based precision breeding tool designed for seedstock providers. It optimizes genetic diversity/improvement with customized breeding objectives by integrating them into Brian Kinghorn’s MateSel software using EPDs and the power of high impact genes (see also the General Session highlights).



The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) completed its 55th annual symposium in Calgary between July 3-6, focusing on precision breeding. BIF has always sought to integrate science into the beef industry, and to improve the beef industry through genetic improvement.

Tuesday’s general session focused on the main theme for the conference “Precision Breeding”. Keynote presenters included Peter Amer – Managing Director, AbacusBio Limited; Mike Lohuis – The Semex Alliance (eg Gentec ISAC); Filipo Miglior – Scientist and Innovation Executive, Lactanet Canada; Brian Kinghorn – University of New England, Australia. All of whom are Gentec associates. On Wednesday, the focus was on “Novel Phenotyping Strategies.” Speakers included Dr. Juan Pedro Steibel – Lush Chair for Animal Breeding & Genetics, Iowa State University and Mokah Shmigelsky who showed a demo from Canadian company OneCup AI.

Peter Amer’s presentation was on “Precision Breeding Opportunities in an Evolving Breeding Objective Landscape”. Looking back, significant genetic progress has been achieved for weight traits (yearling, mature cow, and weaning) in beef cattle. These genetic gains have had an impact on the beef value chain, lowering costs for labour, transport and infrastructure for the beef packer, improving efficiency and days on feed for the feedlot and improving the weaning weight for cow-calf operations. Market signals are clear for weight traits and commanding better returns to producers.  Where we are now is that efforts are ongoing to improve on key indicator traits like marbling, heifer pregnancy, stayability and feed efficiency. These efforts mean different things for different producer types like: 1. Yield maximizers focus on manipulating the environment to obtain better performance despite costs, 2. Cost minimizers are more interested in lowering the cost of production, and 3. Others may focus on outcome for visual attributes, product quality and specific disease resistance traits. What lies ahead is an effort in lowering the carbon footprint for beef cattle by breeding for a low-emissions farming system – Extensive or Intensive beef system.

Mike Lohuis presented on “Changing the Narrative Around Animal Agriculture Using Innovative Genetic Selection”. He argued that livestock producers have built a challenging narrative around animal agriculture as a source of high-quality protein, providing enjoyable food and livelihoods, contributing to the overall economy and essential for developing countries. As animal breeders, we need to change this narrative by focusing on mitigating climate change, improving animal health and welfare, and engaging in sustainable beef production with limited impact on the environment. He also introduced producing beef from dairy herds or “beef on dairy”. More than 90% of dairy herds now use beef semen as standard practice. Dairy-beef can help reduce the environmental footprint of Canada’s beef supply. Sire selection for dairy-beef is crucial to address the deficiencies of dairy genetics, such as slower growth rates, lower feed conversion, and meat colour; and this is a great opportunity for genomics tools such as those being developed at Gentec.

Filipo Miglior focused on “Genetic Selection Tools That Support Dairy Farmers of Canada Achieve Net-Zero GHG Emissions By 2050”. The talk described the collaborative effort among various players in measuring, benchmarking and monitoring GHG emissions in the dairy and beef industries with the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 55% by 2050. The research shows that predicted methane is moderately heritable, and has zero correlation with production traits. Reducing methane emissions will improve production efficiency and animal welfare, and have a positive impact on consumers, rural communities and the environment. Lactanet has incorporated methane emission traits into its genomics index since April 2023 (with Gentec contributing to this effort). Selection for methane efficiency will help reduce emissions from a herd without affecting production levels.

Brian Kinghorn spoke on “Precision Matching of Objectives and Technologies in the Implementation of Breeding Programs”. Breeders set their breeding objectives and decide where to go, while technology such as EPDs or EBVs, genomics, etc. help them achieve those objectives. New and old technologies bring opportunities. Which ones you pursue depends on your objectives. Whenever possible, all available information should be used to drive technology, thus improving precision. Heritability, genetic correlation and economics can all be taken into consideration. There is often the need to have a view of your long-term outcomes in closed breeding programs and to balance that with short-term genetic gains. There is also a need to control diversity and inbreeding outcomes by carefully managing the distribution of sires across herds and progeny. MateSel, a computer program that can help breeders and researchers better design breeding programs and mating decisions, to help balance long-term and short-term genetic gains and control the rate of inbreeding. A new feature concerns use of high calving-ease bulls. The conventional approach was “grouping” bulls to allow heifers to be mated only by such “calving-ease” bulls. With the new approach, better use is made of the calving ease EPD resources available. MateSel provides management of distribution of sires across herds (sire referencing schemes and genomic reference populations), creating multi-sire mating syndicates. “A system that brings precision in predicting the impact of your decisions can also bring power to discover a wide range of alternative directions and give more control and confidence in chosen directions.”

Juan Pedro Steibel presented on “Use of Hardware and Sensors Towards Phenomics to Deliver Complex Data and Advance Animal Breeding”. Phenomics is the acquisition of high-dimensional phenotypic data on an organism-wide scale. Phenotyping offers the opportunity to conduct genetic evaluation and improve relevant traits. Most novel traits are hard to measure, and may require special technology like sensors for data collection. Sensor-based phenomics (acquisition of high-dimensional phenotypic data) has several advantages for animal breeding: (1) accuracy of genomic prediction of novel traits such as behaviour, welfare and health-related traits, GHG emissions and feed intake traits. (2) These novel/hard to measure traits and the environmental variables can be measured in more relevant contexts matching genetics to your environment. However, JP Steibel pointed out some of the challenges including validating the phenotyping algorithms in broad contexts, linking phenotypes through animal identification (tags), and validating genomic predictions for the difficult-to-measure traits at the beginning of the process. Again as Gentec’s ISAC advised, these are areas where Gentec can contribute to Canada’s beef improvement efforts.

Mokah Shmigelsky at OneCup AI demonstrated the opportunities Steibel discussed showing how coupling artificial intelligence with computer vision through on farm cameras can help to deliver a sophisticated phenotyping system in beef farming systems.

Marzieh Heidaritabar and Everestus Akanno

Gentec Research Associates


The Beef Improvement Federation’s (BIF) aim is to drive improvements in efficiency, profitability, and the sustainability of beef production. The annual BIF convention has become an anticipated forum to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing beef production, and allow the exchange of ideas and best practices between the various sectors involved in beef production spanning research, and commercialization through to the producers and circling back.

Perhaps most closely aligned with Gentec’s mission, the July 4 session titled Advancements in Producer Applications featured a 3-part session chaired by Dr. Darrh Bullock, University of Kentucky, that included talks titled: Why Should Commercial Cattleman Be Interested in Genomics (Troy Rowan), VPB+: How Sustainability and Genomics Fit Together (Shannon Argent), and a Panel Discussion: A Business Case for Using EPDs.

Given that there is no interest like self-interest, we will focus on the panel discussion, which featured Gentec’s own Management Advisory Board member, Sean McGrath. Sean should be familiar to our newsletter readers as a poly-math cow/calf producer and owner of the Centennial Round Rock Ranch located near Vermillion, Alberta, but if you would like a refresher, click here.

Sean’s message was a summary of his approach to starting with the end in mind. He runs DNA on his entire herd, and aims to achieve 3 targets: $1,000 / head gross margin, to minimize cow herd depreciation (maximize lifetime productivity) and, given the vast geography and constrained labour on his operation, he budgets about 10 minutes per cow per year.  The prognosis for any cow exceeding its labour allowance is… dinner.

Other members of the panel were Paul Bennett of Knoll Crest Farm out of Red House, VA, and Donnell Brown of RA Brown Ranch based out of Throckmorton, TX.

Knoll Crest prides itself on being a full-service provider of genetics using EPDs to provide bulls, cows, embryos, and semen targeting the commercial producer. The Knoll Crest approach is to provide the commercial producer with a differentiated suite of traits that provide the traits commercial producers need and not what they have. Paul’s main message was that the farm uses EPDs to provide cost-effective genetics and “service, service, service”. Part of this service involves a 12-month unconditional guarantee of the performance of the bull.

Interestingly, a comment was also made regarding removing the data from the catalogues as the information overload just confuses many potential clients. So Knoll Crest removed the details and instead focus on client education and decreasing the degree of information that they need to know to make an informed decision. The data provided is comprehensive enough that 50-60% of bulls are sold sight unseen. Quality, service and simplification.

RA Brown Ranch focuses on Quarter horses in addition to registered pure breed and commercial cattle. As tends to be the case with cattlemen (including Sean and Paul), Donnell’s message regarding the use of EPDs was clear and concise: EDPs are best used for selection, marketing, and risk management.

The strategies that flow outwards from these concepts should encourage producers to select for animals that match the environment they are to be raised in. Environmental fit is critical, and, in some cases, small distances matter a lot. The next step involves knowing what you are selling (marketing), and how to select the bulls to augment the existing characteristics within your cow herd to make their offspring command the highest price from those who will buy them. And lastly, to thine own self be true. Understand the strengths and limitations of your operation and management style. Make sure that your breeding system fits your own personal inclinations. If you are an interventionist (or have an excess of labour), you may be able to thrive with a high-maintenance herd.  On the other hand, if your thought process aligns more closely with Sean’s approach, you might want to work with a different set of EPDs.





Given the challenges surrounding increases in the global population, the reduction in global poverty and the corresponding increase in animal protein consumption, the urgency to act in the face of climate change and environmental deterioration has never been greater. Thus, the Young Producer Symposium at the the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) annual symposium in Calgary between July 3-6, 2023, sought to focus on how to make the future better.

“Canadian AG-Tech: Innovation and Investment” presentation

Gentec associate Dawn Trautman of SVG Ventures noted that global drivers such as population growth, climate change, shifting demographics, consumption behaviours, etc. will continue to create demand for innovation in the agrifood sector. Therefore, investment in agtech is a critical catalyst for scaling innovation and supporting continued advancement of the Canadian agrifood industry. Areas of focus for investment include improving productivity, increasing food security, and reducing emissions and environmental impact.


One of the highlights of the first day was the Young Producer Symposium panel discussion on On-farm Innovation featuring three young-producer operations taking their products directly to market.

The panel consisted of: Charlotte Wasylik of Chatsworth Farms near Vermillion, Alberta, offering beef, lamb, eggs (chicken, duck, goose), grains and flour, as well as pet food / bones; Jordan Miller of Grandview Farms on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Their operation centres around a large cow/calf herd and the concept that every product sold is born, raised and fed in a sustainable manner with all feed produced as part of the operation; and Ben Campbell of Grazed Right Ltd located 30 minutes out of Calgary, selling beef, chicken, and eggs.

Ben summed up guiding principles common across all the panelists best: to protect the natural environment (“sustainability”, if you had to pick a word), to provide an “awesome life for our livestock”, and to reconnect people with the land, their food, and nature. Each panelist described how their venture aimed to deliver this while capitalizing on the growing movement towards marketing direct-to-consumer livestock and consumers’ desire for increased transparency, trust, and to know where their food comes from. This approach allows them to bypass traditional middlemen, such as wholesalers and retailers, and offer several benefits – not the least of which is transparency and trust in the quality, freshness, handling, and processing, which then have knock-on effects on approaches to:

Customization and education. Direct sales drive engagement and, in the case of several restaurant customers, the willingness to customize menus (think this Delicious Bits newsletter) to capture value from the entire carcass, to provide specific cuts or provide other unique products.

Branding, marketing, and differentiation. Sometimes around sustainability, efficient farming, animal welfare or unique products while other typical approaches involve farm tours or promoting weekly on-farm egg pickup or delivery (sometimes across considerable distances) to build the relationship to point of a larger beef or meat sale.

All tactics work towards developing a “support local” ethos, which helps to ensure that producers receive a fair price, and encourages local agriculture and a locally-derived food culture. The results have been encouraging, and are viewed by some as evidence of the gradual reshaping of Canadian agriculture to perhaps resemble the European “terroir” model.

In closing, here are some nuggets of wisdom that we took from these young producers as words to live by:

  • We market ingredients not products. Our customers don’t want products; they want ingredients to make the food they serve to their families.
  • We all eat with our eyes. In our business, photos (and video) are critical. They help the consumer to experience our food before they receive it; and perhaps, most encouraging for other producer-entrepreneurs considering a different approach.
  • Done properly, direct-to-consumer allows a degree of profitability to do things that commodity producers never could.

All this echoes some of the discussion back at Gentec with its industry partners. For example, AgSights provides tools that link the animal to the plate including images and QR codes to provide feedback on product experience. As you all know, DNA can provide the connection to help track and also select for the best genetics based on such data.




At the Grill with William Torres: What is precision livestock farming? And how does it work with genetics?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about talks about the benefits of precision livestock farming for animal health and the bottom line

Well, it’s a complicated answer with a simple translation. With Earth’s population rapidly building towards nine billion by 2037, every resource we produce is being stretched thin. Sustainability is no longer a simple buzzword of the environmental movement, it’s now the prime focus of progress in our world. Though precision agriculture is a concept that has been around for decades, Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) is newer. And I can summarize it in three key words: “Attention to Detail.”

PLF involves monitoring animals or using objective measurements on the animals, using signal analysis algorithms and statistical analysis. These techniques are applied in part with the goal of regaining an advantage of older, smaller-scale farming, namely detailed knowledge of individual animals. Think of it as getting back to your roots when you knew every animal on the farm.

Before large farms became the norm, most farmers had an intimate knowledge of their livestock. Moreover, a farmer could typically trace an animal’s pedigree and retain other important characteristics. Each animal was approached as an individual. In the past three decades, farms have multiplied in scale, with highly-automated processes for feeding and other tasks. Consequently, farmers are forced to work with many more animals to make their living out of livestock farming, so work with average values per group. Variety has become an impediment to increasing economies of scale.

With individual genetic and other information, one can utilize such management. Many companies offer individual animal management but it’s also applied to the pen or lot of cattle, as “group” management. Think about it, even from a feeding perspective, you couldn’t possibly have a diet for each animal but chances are, many of them can be on the same diet. If you know and understand how to manage your genetics, you can also deliver the best diet for them. Cattle are mammals, and, just like you and me, we all gain weight differently. Many of us will have the same genetic marker for appetite, fat deposition, marbling, etc. Therefore, if we are grouped together, management can be easier and more lucrative.

Precision feeding involves reducing feed and nutrient waste by only feeding the precise amount needed to reach optimum production. It’s already being used extensively in the dairy industry, and we should at least think about implementing on the beef side. The process uses quality data management and recipe management to ensure that each animal is getting exactly what they need without wasting precious resources that could be used elsewhere. Generally speaking, precision feeding reduces the inputs required on the farm, which lowers farm overhead and improves profitability.

PLF is developing rapidly, and is moving beyond health alarms towards an integrated decision-making system. It includes animal sensor and production data but also external data. PLF offers opportunities for the cattle sector through early disease detection, capturing animal-related information more objectively and consistently, predicting risks for animal health and welfare, increasing the efficiency of animal production, and objectively determining animal affective states.



A conversation with Temple Grandin

On Monday July 12, 2023, UAlberta awarded Temple Grandin  (distinguished Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and renowned advocate and expert in animal welfare and autism) an Honorary Degree during the Convocation ceremony to recognize her remarkable achievements. This prestigious recognition highlights her exceptional contributions to the field of agriculture, particularly in improving livestock handling practices and implementing animal welfare auditing programs with industry in North America.

During her visit, she dedicated time to meet and have lunch with faculty members, research associates, undergraduate and graduate students of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences. What an honour it was for two Gentec team members to meet this lady, scientist and icon in the animal welfare field.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Stanford Blade, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, UAlberta

She was genuinely interested in our research. She kindly asked each of us to introduce ourselves and our research interests. In particular, she offered insights about the value of rigorous research. She also offered her precious advice to our undergraduate and graduate students, describing what a good scientific paper should be, focusing on the proper description of the scientific methodology and analysis. She mentioned that, when she reads a scientific paper, she wants to be able to visualize it – not a surprise for anybody familiar with her career or the biopic “Temple Grandin”. If the methods are not properly described, then the scientific value of the paper is compromised.

She also talked about her books, especially her new one “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions,” which explains that we live in a language-dominated world that tends to sideline visual thinkers, screening them out at school and passing them over in the workplace – even though visual thinkers constitute a far greater proportion of the population than previously believed. Her take-home message for us was: There is a place for visual thinkers in science.

Thank you, Professor Grandin!

Elda Dervishi and Niloofar Pejman