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

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