“Kick the tires, see what falls off, try to understand why”

In summer 1991, BA student JC Cahill found himself walking throughout the coastal estuaries of Connecticut. It was an undergraduate research project within Craig Schneider’s lab at Trinity College, Conn that set him on a hunt for some elusive green algae.

“It was beautiful,” he remembers. “Being on the water… working with plants … and realizing professors don’t really have a boss and have great job security! It was then I naively decided that was the career path for me.”

During his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he gained a deep interest in grassland ecosystems, and the below-ground interactions that were very poorly understood at the time.

“We didn’t have genomics tools; we didn’t know what was happening in the soil so every question was new and likely important,” he remembers.

Now a Professor of Biological Sciences at UAlberta (since 1999), JC focuses on Alberta’s grasslands, and has a long history of research at the Kinsella and Mattheis ranches.

“I’m a researcher first,” he points out. “But I also really care about teaching and mentoring students.” (Ed. note: JC was awarded the 2023 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentorship, UAlberta’s most prestigious award for mentorship.)

He’s also a botanist. He has a whole other program focused on plant behaviour, how plants make decisions with their roots, interact and find food. That falls under behavioural sciences. And, depending on the task, he’s a microbiologist as well.

“Ecologist would be a good umbrella term for my research interests,” he says. “Or simply biologist.”

It’s this diversity of interests and disciplines that makes his lab attractive to the next generation of scientists.

“I have a general policy that no grad students should work on the same question at the same time,” he insists. “Because of that, the group has lots of diverse themes, including grasslands ecology, plant behaviour, and general studies of the maintenance of biodiversity and how ecological systems function.”

Most recently, his lab group has more explicitly included cattle and grazing into their research. Cattle are critical to maintaining grasslands in Alberta, although their direct and indirect consequences are less well understood than anticipated.

“As grassland ecologists, we realize that if we want to understand plants, carbon storage, and healthy ecosystems, we have also to understand the critical role played by the large herbivores of the system.”

Although JC has worked with Gentec-associated researchers Ed Bork and Cameron Carlyle for over a decade, it was more recent engagement by Gentec CEO Graham Plastow that really helped him see the potential value and need for a more holistic research program.

“The questions about the ecological impacts of grazing are more explicit now in my research, as is a clear understanding of the need to understand the consequences of forage production and other critical aspects of livestock production,” says JC. “The science isn’t as well developed on viewing grazing systems as a whole agricultural ecosystem. Instead, the focus has typically been on studying one part at a time (plants or soils or cattle). We are moving to a more holistic view to get a better balance out of these systems long term.”

That explains the diversity of interests but what about kicking those tires?

“My research group loves experiments,” explains JC. “There’s a lot of math theory in ecology that I struggle with; I’m not convinced it necessarily reflects reality or how it’s useful. That doesn’t stop it being influential in academic ecology. We prefer to test assumptions rather than argue about their accuracy. That way, we can see what holds up and what doesn’t. So we go into the field, manipulate something (kick the tire) like defoliation, resources or water, and measure plant, animal and diversity responses. Then see what falls off so we can refine the idea.”

JC is going to spend a lot of time on the CAT-G project ($6.3 million, funded by Genome Canada, RDAR and other partners), of which he and Carolyn Fitzsimmons (AAFC/UA and a Gentec-associated researcher) are co-leads. The project takes this holistic view of the grazing ecosystem, testing the impacts of adaptive multi-paddock grazing systems on plant, soil, microbe and cattle responses, all with an eye towards soil C storage, GHG production and critical animal production metrics. As part of this work, the team aims to develop bio-indicators of carbon cycling in grasslands to help enhance carbon markets by identifying climate-smart management actions. Tools like this could record changes in soil carbon storage and lower GHG emissions on grazed land much sooner than waiting for the soil carbon to accumulate and stabilize.

“We don’t believe that environmental gains have to come at an economic cost to producers,” points out JC. “The CAT-G project starts from a place where both can be achieved, kicking those tires and tying the knowledge into Gentec and other groups that will benefit from our data. It’s important to facilitate collaborations. Just as Gentec facilitated this project. Because there won’t be just one solution that works in just one place.”







CAPI Webinar. Animal Agriculture in Canada

On December 11, 2023, CAPI hosted a webinar supporting its latest report: Forces Impacting Animal Agriculture in Canada: A Synthesis with Gentec-associated researchers Tim McAllister (AAFC) and Ellen Goddard (UAlberta) among the panelists who discussed the common challenges and opportunities surrounding sustainability in animal ag. Here’s a summary of their comments.

TYLER MCCANN, CAPI’s Managing Director reported that Canada’s livestock sector should be thriving thanks to a dedicated land mass, economics and efficiencies—but instead faces difficulties mainly due to the challenging policy environment. CAPI’s white paper, Forces Impacting Animal Agriculture in Canada: A Synthesis, was developed to inform the policy environment.

Source: CAPI Webinar, December 11, 2023

BRUCE SCHUMANN, Director of Sustainability, Regulatory and Quality Assurance at GVF Group of Companies stated that one of GVF’s roles was to empower farmers to produce meat, milk and eggs profitably. Livestock are being villainized because of methane emissions but Canada is already one of the most sustainable and most efficient producers in the world. We need to embrace and communicate that reality to the public and to our leaders, and to help other nations be more sustainable for the good of the world.

AL MUSSELL, CAPI’s Director of Research, summarized the report, confirming that ag is 10% of Canada’s emissions, and animal ag is about 50% of that. Over time, animal emissions have declined, consistent with the decline in the cow herd. Canada is also an efficient producer of feed. But there are complications. Emissions are not limited to GHGs but include nitrogen into the water table, phosphorus in the water and coliforms. Measures to reduce GHGs will not necessarily reduce those as well. Ruminants, especially, are governed by a biogenic carbon system that is circular. It is not NEW methane into the system. It should still be reduced because it is an important GHG but it is possible that the contribution of animals may have been exaggerated. Less animals on the grasslands impair the grasslands, yet the productive capacity of ruminants is conversely impaired without the grasslands. We cannot simply intervene at one level. So where does this leave us. The world has a food security problem and a climate change problem. Canada is one of the few countries that can influence both. How do we move to food policy that addresses that?

Source: CAPI Webinar, December 11, 2023

TIM MCALLISTER, Principal Research Scientist, Ruminant Nutrition & Microbiology (AAFC) reminded participants that climate change issues have been around since the Nineties. What is changing is a new appreciation for the systems approach like the interaction between livestock and their impact on biodiversity. No one scientist has the expertise to do that.

On December 10, 2023, the Government of Canada announced a new economic incentive to reduce methane emissions from beef cattle. Emerging technologies such as diet formulations and bringing animals to the finishing phase faster will help.

Information and databases are getting stronger, and there are more open data available. All countries need to pull together to make a difference, just like for COVID-19. Even regulatory agencies are sharing knowledge and pathways to assessment. It is not likely that one technology will work for all conditions. Technologies exist for animals in confinement but not for rangelands so work is going on there. So it is a sector by sector assessment.

ELLEN GODDARD, Distinguished Fellow (CAPI) said that, as the science gets more complicated, public perceptions are more nuanced and can be confused by the seemingly conflicting messaging from different directions. They look for ways to simplify their decisions by listening to those they trust (farmers, some NGOs and scientists). They want to be able to compare product A with product B on environmental impact or health impact, for example, at the store. Those common standards are not available yet so people are frustrated.

Record-keeping to monitor impacts that can be used consistently in labelling will engender costs. If consumers are paying $10 for ground beef today, will they pay $12 if it has a sustainability label? In fact, they might stop being willing to pay the $10 if the information is not available. Providing the information  may be the cost for the industry to stay in the market, even at the original $10 price. Paying the same or more are all parts of the same decision to purchase the product.

The public remains cautious about genetic tools if called genetic modification but less so about other genetic technologies, and they desperately want those technologies used to improve animal health, their health and the environment. But a number of messages about how and why genetic technologies are used need to be distributed to get there.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, Vice President Government & Industry (Maple Leaf Foods) said that Maple Leaf was the world’s first carbon-neutral food company. Led by CEO Michael McCain, it created a blueprint and identified pillars to focus on: community, environmental security, animal welfare, food safety among them. The company is obliged to deal with the fact that it is an environmental protagonist. Generally, the public doesn’t realize that the company is made up of farmers (plant protein, poultry and pork). It owns and operates 200 hog farms and five feed mills, mostly in Manitoba. For pork, it runs the entire process from production to sales and international trade because it makes the company more reliable in terms of its footprint, how it is addressed and how all the pieces fit together. In 2019, Maple Leaf committed to reducing GHG emissions by 30% by 2030 (current carbon neutrality comes from buying carbon offsets and insets). That means dealing with manure in-house to reach the desired result. In Manitoba, the solution costs $0.5 billion and involves coordinating a lot of enterprises and players. The conversation is how to bring people together to do that.

RYDER LEE, General Manager (Canadian Cattle Association) said that defending cattle and sustainability is a local, national and international conversation. That entails producers working together, funding research on best practices, sending the CCA to engage with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and going to COP28 in Dubai. There, we hosted events on sustainability in Canada and on the grasslands.

Canada’s competitors are knocking at the door or at customers’ doors, asking what is being done, measured, and its impact. The National Beef Sustainability Assessment, first done in 2016, benchmarks the environmental, social and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry. It highlights the areas where industry is doing well and identifies opportunities for improvement. CCA also looks at peer-reviewed science on the gamut of environmental services, asking questions such as how are measurements done, what the measurement burden is and how to incentivize producers to make changes.

OVERALL TAKEAWAY MESSAGE. Canadian animal agriculture has among the lowest emissions intensities in the world. Policies that integrate sustainability, food security and growth can help meet climate targets, and build Canada’s comparative advantage.












Strategic Herd Management: Embracing Genomics for a Sustainable Future

In the ever-evolving landscape of agriculture, the future of cattle herds hinges on strategic planning and embracing cutting-edge technologies. Among these technologies, genomics stands out as a powerful tool that can revolutionize the way we manage and optimize our cattle herds. This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) exploresthe importance of planning for the future of your cattle herd, with a specific focus on the transformative role that genomics can play.

Genomics—the study of an organism’s complete set of DNA, including genes and their functions—has become a game-changer in the realm of agriculture. In the context of cattle herds, genomics information offers unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of individual animals. This wealth of information allows farmers and ranchers to make informed decisions about breeding, health, and overall herd management.

Precision Breeding for Desired Traits

One of the primary advantages of integrating genomics into cattle-herd planning is the ability to engage in precision breeding. Traditional breeding methods are effective but time-consuming, often requiring several generations to achieve desired traits. Genomics information accelerates this process by enabling the identification of specific genes associated with desirable traits, such as milk production, disease resistance, and meat quality. By selecting animals with the desired genetic markers, farmers can optimize breeding programs to enhance overall herd quality. Precision breeding boosts productivity and contributes to the sustainability of the herd by reducing the environmental impact associated with larger, less efficient populations.

Disease Resistance and Health Management

Genomics also plays a crucial role in fortifying the health of cattle herds. Through genetic screening, farmers can identify animals with inherent resistance to certain diseases. This information allows for the development of resilient herds that are better equipped to withstand common health challenges. Furthermore, genomics aids in the early detection of potential health issues. By analyzing an individual animal’s genetic code, farmers can assess susceptibility to specific diseases, enabling proactive health management strategies. Early intervention ensures the well-being of individual animals and prevents the spread of diseases within the entire herd.

Optimizing Feed Efficiency and Environmental Impact

In an era where sustainability is a key concern, genomics contributes to the optimization of feed efficiency, directly impacting the environmental footprint of cattle farming. By identifying genetic markers associated with efficient nutrient utilization, farmers can select animals that thrive on less feed while maintaining optimal growth rates. Reducing the overall feed requirements of a herd minimizes operational costs and mitigates the environmental impact associated with large-scale livestock farming. Genomics insights empower farmers to make ecologically-conscious decisions, fostering a more sustainable and responsible approach to cattle-herd management.

Long-term Economic Viability

Strategic planning for the future of a cattle herd involves considering economic viability. Genomics provides a pathway to increased profitability by enabling farmers to make data-driven decisions that enhance overall herd performance. Investing in genetically-superior animals leads to higher-quality products, whether it be milk, meat or other by-products. These premium products command higher prices in the market and contribute to the establishment of a reputable brand. By planning for the future with genomics, farmers can secure a competitive edge in the industry, ensuring long-term economic sustainability.

Challenges and Considerations

While genomics offers immense potential, it is crucial to acknowledge the challenges associated with its implementation. Initial costs, data management, and ethical considerations are among the factors that require careful attention. However, as technology advances and becomes more accessible, these challenges are likely to diminish, making genomics an increasingly integral aspect of cattle herd management.


Planning for the future of your cattle herd is a multi-faceted endeavour that demands foresight and adaptability. Embracing genomics as a cornerstone of your strategic planning positions your operation at the forefront of innovation and ensures the long-term success, health, and sustainability of your cattle herd. As the agricultural landscape continues to evolve, those who leverage the power of genomics will undoubtedly shape a future where efficiency, resilience, and profitability coexist harmoniously in the world of cattle farming.