“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.

Gentec’s unique tool for commercial producers: Yes, we can!

If you’re a commercial beef producer in Western Canada, generally speaking, you’ve got a herd of crossbred cows. That means Gentec’s Replacement Heifer Profit Index (RHPI) Score™ should be one of your go-to tools. Why? It speaks to selecting replacement heifers with an optimal level of hybrid vigour, fertility, longevity and lifetime productivity.

A study (as reported in The Western Producer) led by Jared Decker at University of Missouri-Columbia, tells a good news story about the sires’ gEPDs and the predicted outcome in the feeder progeny. Using an Angus database as a starting point, Jared found relationships between sire gEPDs and the outcome in commercial cattle, giving the GeneMax tool a suite of gEPDs for weaning weight, carcass weight, marbling, ribeye area, among others. But… all for Angus crossbred cattle, and not for feed efficiency.

What does Gentec do differently?

“We didn’t want to repeat what each breed association would do so we concentrated on crossbred females mated to purebred and crossbred bulls common to western Canada. This also included the crossbred offspring, and was our starting point. Commercial cattle first,” says John Basarab, Gentec’s Director of Beef Operations. “So our database has a high percentage of Angus, Simmental, Charolais, Limousin, Hereford, Gelbvieh and other crossbred females and feeder cattle offspring. And our purebred database (bulls) for determining genomic breed composition and retained heterozygosity has 14 breeds. That’s quite different right off the bat.”

While the GeneMax tool concentrates on growth and carcass traits, it’s missing something that Gentec has been working on for over 20 years: feed intake and feed efficiency or dry matter intake (DMI) and residual feed intake (RFI). So again, Gentec’s reference database contains lots of phenotypes with genotypes for DMI and RFI, from which it developed molecular breeding values (MBVs) for DMI and RFI that most other genetic evaluation companies and breed association don’t presently offer.

Another key difference has to do with replacement heifer selection. Breeding values and maternal indexes for most purebred associations select for the genetic merit of the daughters produced from the sire and dam. Trait gEPDs in the maternal index usually include calving ease, growth traits (e.g., wean weight, direct and maternal milk, residual ADG), and heifer pregnancy. But that’s down the road quite a bit. The female calf has to be born from a single, unassisted birth early in the calving season, grow well from birth to yearling, and be from a mother with many retained daughters in the herd. But the line on the 50-year genetic trend for heifer pregnancy EPD is flat (!!) indicating not a lot of progress made. So Gentec has focused on the immediate need of selecting for PRESENT replacement heifers, not future daughters. In that case, hybrid vigour is very important, especially since, as identified by Gentec’s RHPI Score, it’s related to higher pregnancy rates and lifetime productivity.

“Clients have been “fascinated with the breed composition and gEPDS. It’s been an invaluable asset for our consulting practice and is adding value for the customer,” says Waylon Wise, veterinarian and owner of Cow/Calf Health and Management Solutions.

Most genomic evaluations concentrate on the “additive” genetic effect, where a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced “snip”) with 2 B alleles is better than 1 B allele, and better than no B alleles at all. This approach is particularly effective for moderate to moderately-high heritability traits like growth, feed efficiency, behaviour and carcass traits. However, traits with low heritability (like fertility and general fitness) are more influenced by the non-additive genetic effects of dominance, epistasis and genomic diversity, all related to hybrid vigour. General health and resilience to environmental stress (that is, hybrid vigour) are becoming more important, especially in the context of our rapidly-changing climate where animals need to be more resilient to extremes. This is an important component of Gentec’s index score.

“We concentrate on commercial crossbred cattle,” says John. “Then on providing what that producer is asking for—a replacement heifer that gives a calf during the first calving season at 2 years of age and stays in the herd for at least 5-years… a very tall order. We know that commercial producers don’t keep the best of records, and they definitely don’t keep pedigree information. Doing things using DNA or from a genomics point of view just has many advantages.”








Savouring the Season: Celebrating the Holidays with Beef

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) explores the mouthwatering cuts of beef to try during the Holidays.

The holiday season is a time for joy, togetherness, and, of course, delicious food. While many traditional holiday dishes focus on poultry or ham, there’s something special about celebrating the holidays with beef. Whether you’re a carnivore at heart or simply looking to try something new, beef can add a unique and delectable twist to your holiday feasts.


One of the key reasons to celebrate the holidays with beef is its incredible versatility. Beef comes in various cuts, allowing you to choose the perfect option for your festive meal. From succulent roasts to mouthwatering steaks, beef offers a wide range of possibilities to suit your taste and preferences.


A prime rib roast is the epitome of holiday extravagance. Its juicy, tender meat is bound to impress your guests. A perfectly-cooked prime rib, seasoned with herbs and spices, is a centrepiece that makes a statement. Whether you prefer a rare, medium-rare or medium roast, a prime rib is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.


For an intimate holiday dinner, consider grilling or pan-searing filet mignon. This cut is known for its tenderness and mild flavour. Pair it with a rich mushroom sauce or a decadent Béarnaise sauce to create a luxurious, restaurant-quality meal.


Beef Wellington is a classic holiday dish that combines beef, mushrooms and puff pastry for a show-stopping creation. This dish offers a delightful contrast of textures and flavours, making it a memorable option for a special holiday dinner.


If you’re looking for a cozy, comforting meal, a pot roast is the way to go. This slow-cooked beef dish is the perfect choice for a relaxed, family-oriented celebration. The tender meat, accompanied by hearty vegetables and a rich broth, is sure to warm hearts and bellies alike.


Beef can also add a twist to traditional holiday dishes. For example, you can swap out the usual turkey or ham for a succulent beef roast. Whether you choose a bone-in ribeye roast or a tenderloin roast, it’s an excellent way to infuse new flavours into your holiday meal.


The holiday feast isn’t just about the main dish; it’s also about the sides and accompaniments that complement the star of the show. From creamy mashed potatoes to flavourful gravy, beef pairs well with a variety of holiday classics.


Another reason to celebrate the holidays with beef is the opportunity to enjoy the perfect wine pairings. Red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, complement the flavours of beef dishes beautifully. The deep, robust notes of red wine enhance the overall dining experience, making your holiday meal even more memorable.


Beef is not only delicious—but also a nutritious choice for your holiday feast. It’s a good source of high-quality protein, essential vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc. When prepared with care and paired with vegetables, beef can be part of a balanced holiday meal that satisfies the taste buds and the body.

While tradition is essential during the holiday season, embracing new culinary experiences can make the festivities even more special. Celebrating the holidays with beef allows you to explore a world of flavours, from tender roasts to succulent steaks and creative dishes like Beef Wellington. The versatility of beef, its pairing with red wine, and its nutrient-rich profile make it a delightful choice for those looking to elevate their holiday celebrations. So, this year, consider making beef the star of your holiday table, and savour the season with a mouthwatering, beef-inspired feast.

Gentec: pivotal element in Michelle Miller’s career growth

“The punchline,” says Michelle Miller, Director of Global Portfolio Marketing for Genomics at Neogen, “is that if Graham Plastow and the folks at Gentec hadn’t created Delta Genomics, I wouldn’t have the career I have today.”

It all started at Gentec where Michelle had a technical role. As it became clear that Delta was in the works and that she would follow, Colin Coros, Delta’s first CEO, encouraged her to do a part-time MBA in the evenings. By the time Delta was spun out in 2014, Michelle was ready to take on the role of Director of Operations, in charge of running the labs instead of doing the lab tasks.

“I was happy to let the science part go in favour of management,” says Michelle. “There are only so many steps up in a technical role. The MBA opened the doors to keep the career ladder going upwards.”

Letting go of the science meant letting go of the processes, procedures and SOPs. Consistency was out. Figuring out what motivates each individual to be a productive employee was in. So was growing Delta to the point where Neogen might be interested. This took several approaches.

One was improving the awareness of genomics testing in the livestock sector, especially beef, then increasing adoption of tools. Still today, the biggest competitor for genomics are the “laggards” who don’t use genomics. Picking away at them took education, then putting together an ordering system that is easy to use so customers don’t get put off.

Delta had started with the beef breed associations. To grow, the commercial producers needed to be involved, again through education and good customer service. So this was another approach. However, that also meant a sub-approach of introducing operational efficiencies, running like a commercial lab and making sure the IT was in place to support the growth. All in all, the whole process was a significant interdisciplinary project over a couple of years. It resulted in doubling the number of samples processed.

“We needed valuable products to support the expansion,” says Michelle. “With John Basarab’s research at Gentec, we brought EnVigour HX™ to market. It’s a foundational tool for commercial beef producers, and includes a hybrid vigour score (longevity and fertility) which is how the producer makes money. It was one of the products that Neogen liked during the acquisition.”

In 2018, Delta’s board received a letter of intent from Neogen about buying Delta’s assets. Delta started the due diligence and putting together the asset deal. Again, Michelle’s MBA proved its worth. While a generalist degree, it provides enough spectrum so you know where to start. In January 2019, Michelle, 5 employees and Delta’s assets were transferred to Neogen.

“As GM, I was now responsible for a sales team, recruiting, finance, budgeting and overseeing the company,” she says. “Instead of worrying about cash flow I became more concerned about budgets, efficiencies, and communication across the network of Neogen genomics labs.”

In June 2023, Michelle became Director of Global Portfolio Marketing for Genomics. She’s still in Edmonton but responsible for the products sold in all 7 Neogen genomics labs, and has a team of product owners who help her manage the product lifecycle.

“Gentec is well funded, well connected to partners in the industry, which is key because you need to understand the issues so you can solve them through research,” says Michelle. “In fact, Neogen will want to be part of that continuum. I see it as a synergistic opportunity for Gentec to drive innovation and for us to make it real. As we did with EnVigourHX™.”


Enhancing Livestock Management: The Advantages of Multi-Spectral Cameras

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) explores the advantages of using multi-spectral cameras to improve animal welfare and farm profitability.

Agriculture has been undergoing a technological revolution; and one area that has seen significant advancements is livestock management. Traditional methods of monitoring and caring for livestock are being complemented by cutting-edge technology, such as multi-spectral cameras. These specialized cameras are proving to be invaluable tools for farmers and ranchers, offering a wide range of benefits that improve animal welfare and farm profitability.

One of the most significant advantages of multi-spectral cameras in livestock management is their ability to detect early signs of illness or disease. These cameras can capture images beyond what the human eye can perceive, including infrared and thermal images. Changes in an animal’s body temperature or the presence of unusual patterns in their thermal image can indicate the onset of illness well before visible symptoms appear. This early detection allows farmers to take prompt action, isolating sick animals and providing them with appropriate treatment, reducing the risk of spreading disease within the herd.

Multi-spectral cameras also play a vital role in enhancing reproductive management on farms. They can accurately assess the reproductive health of individual animals by capturing thermal images that reveal the heat patterns associated with estrus or heat cycles. This information enables farmers to optimize breeding programs, ensuring that animals are bred at the right time, which increases the likelihood of successful pregnancies. It also helps reduce the need for hormone treatments, and enhances overall breeding efficiency.

Maintaining proper nutrition for livestock is essential for their health and productivity. Multi-spectral cameras can be used to assess the overall health and well-being of animals by analyzing the spectral reflectance of their skin or fur. These data provide insights into an animal’s nutritional status, and can help farmers adjust their feeding programs accordingly. By tailoring diets to meet the needs of individual animals, farmers can optimize growth rates, milk production, and meat quality while reducing feed wastage.

Livestock welfare is closely linked to the environment in which they live. Multi-spectral cameras can be used to monitor various environmental factors, including temperature, humidity, and air quality. These cameras can detect stressors such as extreme heat or cold, which can lead to reduced productivity or health problems in animals. By continuously monitoring environmental conditions, farmers can adjust their facilities or management practices to create a more comfortable and healthy environment for their livestock.

Multi-spectral cameras are integral to the concept of precision livestock farming (PLF). PLF involves using advanced technologies to manage livestock on an individual or group basis, rather than treating all animals the same. These cameras provide data that can be integrated with other technologies, such as sensors and automated feeding systems, to create a holistic approach to livestock management. With PLF, farmers can make data-driven decisions that optimize resources, reduce waste, and maximize the efficiency and profitability of their operations.

Efficiency gains from the use of multi-spectral cameras can lead to significant cost savings for farmers. With the ability to monitor large numbers of animals simultaneously and collect data around the clock, these cameras reduce the need for manual labour and constant oversight. This lowers labour costs and allows farmers to allocate their resources more effectively, focusing on critical tasks that require human intervention.

The ability of multi-spectral cameras to detect early signs of illness, improve reproductive management, enhance feeding and nutrition, monitor environmental conditions, and enable precision livestock farming all contribute to the overall health and productivity of livestock. Additionally, the efficiency gains and cost savings associated with these cameras make them a worthwhile investment for farmers and ranchers looking to optimize their operations. As technology continues to advance, the integration of multi-spectral cameras into livestock management practices is likely to become even more commonplace, benefiting both farmers and the animals under their care.

Part 3: GHG and the beef industry: Reducing the environmental impact in the medium term

As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat climate change, agriculture is increasingly under scrutiny for its contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Among livestock, beef cattle are often singled out as significant emitters of methane, a potent GHG. However, promising tools and strategies can help reduce these emissions while improving the productivity and quality of beef production.

In this, our 3rd article (see article 1 presenting a general overview here, and article 2 on short-term solutions here), we explore ways to mitigate GHG and methane emissions from beef cattle in the medium term (5+ years). Many of these options are already in use, having been investigated for many years, continually being improved upon, and becoming more widely adopted as the value they deliver increases with price reductions as the technologies mature. Much of our discussion will centre on advancements in genomics, molecular breeding values, and animal selection indexes.

In the medium term which we define as having an approximate lag of 5 years to take effect, several methods can be implemented to improve the carbon footprint and reduce methane emissions in beef cattle production. Many of these practices have been under development, in some cases for reasons unrelated to environmental impact, for over a decade and are now being adapted to address climate change.


Genetic selection is a powerful tool in addressing environmental concerns without compromising the industry’s economic viability. This can be achieved through genetic selection strategies to breed cattle with improved feed efficiency, lower methane emissions, and a better ability to thrive under Canada’s varied environmental, management, and production systems.

  1. Genomics and Molecular Breeding Values (MBVs) – Advancements in genomics have opened new possibilities for identifying and selecting cattle with lower methane emissions and improved feed efficiency. MBVs involve analyzing an animal’s DNA to identify specific genetic markers and predict its traits using only this molecular information. MBVs are increasingly being used to predict and select for animals with improved health, fertility, longevity, efficiency, and carcass quality using a single DNA sample taken shortly after birth. Using these markers can help breeders make more informed decisions about which animals to breed and how to feed and manage them most efficiently, reducing GHG emissions over time.

    For example, an animal that stays healthy, gains more weight faster while eating less and maturing quickly will require less feed, be harvested earlier, and produce (burp) less methane over its lifespan than its less healthy, less efficient, slower-growing counterparts. Multiply this by 9.3 million (animals in the Canadian cattle herd) to get an idea of the impact even small improvements can make.

    To get an idea of the scale at which technology has already reduced the environmental impact of livestock production … “Better breeding, genetics and nutrition have increased the efficiency of livestock production in the U.S. In the 1970s, 140 million head of cattle were needed to meet demand. Now, just 90 million head are required. At the same time, those 90 million cattle are producing more meat”.

    The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a single cow produces 154-264 lb of methane/year; the UC Davis article referenced above uses 220 lb/year. Assuming equivalent gains in Canada… Canada would have started with a herd of 14.5 million animals, experienced a similar decrease in herd size of 36% to arrive at the current 9.3 million cattle. This equates to a reduction of 5.2 million cattle/year (or 1.14 billion lb of methane/year @ 220 lbs/cow/year) while still producing more beef. This does not include any of the other advances made in improving the environmental footprint/efficiency of today’s cows, such as feed supplementation (and others) discussed in our last article. Also, keep in mind that gains from these different approaches tend to be both cumulative and continually improving. What we are seeing are the first effects of a virtuous cycle taking hold.

    Clearly, technology is playing an important role in increasing sustainability AND allowing Canada to serve as one of the world’s best suppliers of safe, delicious, nutritious beef.

  2. Selective Breeding for Improved Feed Efficiency – One key focus area is improving feed efficiency. Cattle that can convert feed into meat more efficiently require less feed overall, reducing the environmental footprint of beef production. MBVs allow breeders to identify animals with genetic traits that enhance feed conversion. Over the medium term, this can substantially reduce the GHG emissions associated with cattle ranching.
  3. Targeting “Methane Emission Genes” – Methane production in cattle is primarily attributed to their digestive processes, specifically enteric fermentation in the rumen. Research has identified specific genes associated with methane emissions in cattle. This is a work in progress as opposed to an existing tool.


Two other aspects of beef production gaining increasing attention in the quest to improve the environmental impact of the industry are grazing and manure management. The environmental and grazing aspects link directly into the genomic aspects of animal selection and management as the carrying capacity of the land in terms of feed/forage production determines the ideal animal profile and stocking capacity. Rapid advances are being made to integrate forage mixes, swath, bale, rotational and other management practices. Here, the goal is increased efficiencies through to optimal forage use; soil health and preservation; animal stocking rates, maturation, body conditioning; fertility and longevity; and to minimize the need for additional feed and/or mineral supplementation. Well-managed grazing systems also help sequester carbon in soils and reduce overall emissions.

Regardless of the approach being deployed, the goal of manure management is to improve the efficiency of production while minimizing the environmental impact through GHG emissions or otherwise. Methane, in particular, is transformed energy. Energy that was provided to the cow with the intention of the cow partitioning it to subsist, reproduce or to produce more “beef”. So, the primary goal is to increase the digestibility and usability of any feed provided to the cow and thus minimize waste in any form. Various precision-feeding approaches can assist in achieving this.

The simplest approach is to ensure that any nutrients not used by the cow are returned to the soil to better optimize the next feeding cycle, be it crop, bale or forage. These range from high-intensity grazing where manure is naturally deposited by the cows onto the pastures and “stepped-in” to the soil. This has the added benefit of helping to deposit new seeds into the soil, improving production, soil health, and carbon carrying capacity.

Manual collection, spreading, and working of manure into the soil is another “composting” option, and as was the case with rotational grazing, helps to reduce methane emissions from manure while acting as a valuable soil conditioner.

Several emerging technologies are coming on stream to intercept various GHGs before they impact the atmosphere. These include methane recovery systems, algae-based treatments, and anaerobic digesters among others, and involve capturing and converting GHGs into usable forms of energy, soil nutrients or other feed sources.


Reducing GHG and methane emissions from beef cattle in the medium term is not only a matter of environmental responsibility taken seriously by the beef industry but also a critical step toward sustainable beef production by each individual producer. As with many things, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing especially when dealing with complex, multifaceted situations. What works well in one production system may be a disaster when inappropriately used in another. The most honest answer in these instances is often, “it depends”.

With this principle in mind and the philosophy of “first, do no harm” we suggest seeking expert advice when considering these tools. Each tool outlined above has many excellent sources of information and application considerations. The Beef Cattle Research Council is an excellent resource covering a broad range of topics, as is Alberta Beef Producers. The individual beef breed associations and, in particular, local forage and research associations are also great resources with respect to regional considerations on how to best match soil, grazing, nutritional, supplementation, and genetic / genomic considerations.

And of course, modesty aside, Livestock Gentec… where we have focused on advances in genomics and molecular breeding values that deliver powerful tools to select cattle with lower emissions and improved feed efficiency, and are critical in the optimal selection and management of animals in a given forage and production system.

Since 2008, we have developed an extensive range of collaborators, the largest database of Western Canadian crossbred commercial cattle, and introduced specific genomic tools for Canadian producers including EnVigour HXTM, the Replacement Heifer Profit IndexTM, as well as the Feeder Profit IndexTM.

And for the opportunity to be even a small part in how far the beef industry has come, we are grateful.












Cutting-Edge Trends in Genetic Improvements for Cattle

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about the different ways genetic selection can benefit people and the planet.

In the world of agriculture, genetic improvements have long been the cornerstone of enhancing productivity, efficiency, and sustainability. Cattle farming, in particular, has seen remarkable advancements in recent years, as scientists and breeders harness the power of genetics to create healthier, more resilient, and higher-yielding cattle. In this article, we will explore some of the cutting-edge trends in genetic improvements for cattle that are shaping the future of the industry.


Genomic selection is a revolutionary advancement in cattle breeding that has gained significant traction in recent years. It involves analyzing an animal’s DNA to identify desirable traits and genetic markers associated with traits such as milk production, meat quality, and disease resistance. By studying the genetic make-up of individual animals, breeders can make more informed decisions about mating pairs, leading to accelerated genetic progress and reduced generation intervals. This trend is helping farmers produce cattle with superior characteristics and reduced environmental impact.


Disease susceptibility is a significant concern in cattle farming, as it can lead to substantial economic losses and animal welfare issues. Genetic improvements in disease resistance have become a top priority. Scientists are working to identify and select for genes associated with resistance to common cattle diseases, such as bovine respiratory disease and foot-and-mouth disease. The goal is to breed cattle that require fewer antibiotics and experience fewer health issues, resulting in more sustainable and ethical farming practices.


Feed costs represent a substantial portion of cattle farming expenses. To address this, genetic improvements are trending toward enhancing feed efficiency in cattle. Researchers are identifying genes and markers that influence how efficiently cattle convert feed into meat or milk. By selecting for cattle with improved feed efficiency, farmers can reduce resource consumption and environmental impact while maintaining or even increasing production levels.


Climate change poses a growing threat to agriculture; cattle farming is no exception. Genetic improvements are focusing on breeding cattle that are better adapted to changing environmental conditions. This includes selecting for traits such as heat tolerance, resilience to drought, and resistance to diseases that may become more prevalent with shifting climate patterns. Climate-adapted cattle reduce the risk of production losses and contribute to more sustainable farming practices.


Cattle welfare has become a central concern for consumers and producers. Genetic improvements are being used to breed cattle with better temperaments and physical characteristics that promote animal well-being. This includes selecting for docile behaviour, which reduces the occurrence of stress-related conditions, and minimizes the need for painful procedures such as dehorning or tail docking. By prioritizing animal welfare through genetics, the cattle industry aims to align with evolving societal expectations.


Advancements in genetic technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9 (used to create gene edits), have opened up new possibilities for customizing cattle-breeding programs. These technologies enable precise modifications of the cattle genome to introduce or remove specific traits. While this area is still in its early stages and faces ethical and regulatory challenges, it holds promise for creating cattle with highly-desirable traits, such as disease resistance or enhanced meat quality.


Genetic improvements are also influencing cattle nutrition. By understanding the genetic make-up of individual animals, farmers can tailor their diets to optimize growth and production. Precision nutrition minimizes over-feeding, reduces environmental impact, and ensures that each animal receives the nutrients it needs, leading to healthier and more efficient cattle.

In conclusion, the cattle industry is undergoing a genetic revolution that is reshaping the way farmers breed and raise their livestock. From genomic selection to disease resistance, climate adaptation to animal welfare, and the potential for customized breeding through advanced genetic technologies, these trends are advancing the industry towards greater sustainability, efficiency, and ethical practices. As these genetic improvements continue to evolve, we can anticipate a brighter and more sustainable future for cattle farming, meeting the growing demand for animal products while reducing their environmental footprint and enhancing animal welfare.


Steve Miller: A perspective on Canada’s beef industry. Part 2

Former Gentec collaborator Steve Miller has had quite a decade in terms of the chance to view the beef industry across various functional responsibilities (and continents). We caught up with Steve at the 2023 Beef Improvement Federation meeting in Calgary and again from his office in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, where he is the Director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit. (BTW, it’s the same office he worked out of for a year as an UGuelph exchange student almost 30 years ago.) We hoped to gather some of his insights around the progress being made in beef improvement, how it is being received, and get some perspective on where things may progress. Part 1 of that story is here.

As we said in Part 1, situations are stable until they are not; tipping points can occur suddenly… as they have many times, as with genomics, EPDs, MBVs, indexes and their general application in the beef industry. Applications advanced slowly and incrementally until the cost and value propositions tipped and the opportunities exploded, first in the pure breed sector, then in the commercial cattle sector.

Global pressure is mounting to reduce the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. The Netherlands, for example, aims to reduce the number of farmed animals by 30% (over 35 million animals) by 2030 (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Jan 16th, 2023)). Meat and Livestock Australia funded a summit (September 2023) looking at the sustainability of sheep and cattle in Australia, and is starting to develop a sustainability index. Today, if you’re looking for funding, you almost certainly need to include an environmental element in the proposal.

Carbon credit programs of varying cost and quality are developing quickly and with clear price signals. Anecdotally, a sheep and beef producer in New Zealand reported that the carbon tax on his operation was $80,000 more than the previous year but still only represented 5% of the amount owed. Government “waived” 95% of the tax ($1,600,000) but announced that the payable rate would rise by 1% per year.

Here, situations may develop where all cows are not equal. Different cows may incur different tax rates that may change the desirability of differing statures, feed efficiencies or growth rates. In such situations as these, there is a clear incentive for the seedstock sector to develop and “push” the genetics as well as for the producer to demand and “pull” the genetics they need forward. As with most market environments, clarity sooner is better than clarity later. There also may be the opportunity to use the sustainability push to allow other (tbd) genetics to tag along as free riders like, as Steve pointed out, Canada experienced along with the response to BSE. “The good breeders will see this, and skate to where the puck is GOING to be”. We can see this in relation to the slick gene, discussed below.

According to the US Forest Service, cows thrive up to a temperature of 77F (25C). Above this, productivity falls in terms of weight gain (beef), milk production (dairy), and fertility (both). As extreme temperatures occur more frequently, so do cattle deaths as a result of heat / humidity combinations. Necessity (being the mother of invention) and ability (afforded by advances in technology) are combining to offer solutions.

The slick gene occurs naturally in at least 6 breeds globally, and is viewed as providing greater heat tolerance due to its association with a shorter hair coat and more active sweat glands. Incorporation of these traits has been effective, although limited, due to the time constraints inherent in selective breeding programs involving cattle.

Thompson Rivers University professor and Gentec collaborator, Dr John Church, estimates that incorporating the slick gene into cross-bred cattle expands their tolerable heat range by approximately 13F compared to cattle lacking the gene. This trait provides greater climate resilience, the ability to maintain productivity metrics while extending the temperature range in which cattle can thrive to 90F (32C), potentially saving the dairy and beef industry billions in lost productivity.

In more general terms, Steve sees two emerging and interrelated trends occurring with respect to breeding and animal agriculture. The first is for scientific expertise to be increasingly hired into breeding corporations (such as Urus Genetics, Bayer, ST Genetics,) allowing them to use their resources to dictate to a greater degree the path chosen by the livestock industries including beef

Second, corporations can put systems in place to get there (wherever “there” is) faster as a result of having the combined capability to develop, breed, multiply, and distribute in quantity those animals with the characteristics and traits they elect to develop for their customers (be they producers or consumers). This may be done through direct ownership or, as has been seen in other species, through contracted services such as those employed by the hog and poultry industries. This may be how technology is ultimately fast-tracked into the beef industry.

Building on these concepts, although admittedly a little farther out and into the realm of science fiction, is the concept of creating a walking AI / avatar bulls program. The science exists where the testes of a bull can be replaced with the testes of another bull. So, in theory, you could have Short Horn bulls with the resiliency and ability of an invasive species to survive the harsh conditions of Australia’s Northern Territories delivering Wagyu semen to Brahman cows.

Gene editing, however, may be a little closer to achieving wider adoption. While gene editing has been used for slick and polled applications in North America, it almost non-existent in Australia and Gentec has suggested caution in terms of consumer acceptability (see previous articles in The Delicious Bits). Another example is insertion of the “dominant-red” gene [identified by Gentec team] into a Black Angus bull to help alleviate heat susceptibility. Although the possibilities are tempting, Steve views many of the genetic effects, particularly those of quantitative traits, as having ‘black-box effects’, making him hesitant to consider them at this point. One thing that you can be sure of is that change is constant, closer than it appears in the rear-view mirror, and often with unanticipated consequences.