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.





Conference Report: 2023 annual meeting of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society/Western Agricultural Economics Association

The 2023 annual meeting of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society/Western Agricultural Economics Association (CAES-WAEA) was held in Whistler, BC, on July 17. This meeting brought together professionals, researchers and enthusiasts in the field of environmental studies from all over the world from academia, government agencies, industry, and international organizations, expanding our professional network and exploring potential collaborations. The purpose of the meeting was to provide a platform for networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration to address the pressing environmental issues facing our society today.

Getu Hailu, CAES President (and Gentec collaborator), and Stephen Devadoss, WAEA President, welcomed participants and highlighted the many challenges (and opportunities) facing the agri-food sector. They pointed out that the conference program illustrated the wide-ranging and interconnected nature of the challenges, emphasizing the substantial economic research efforts being undertaken to tackle them effectively.

In theory, the carbon tax is the most efficient approach to address climate change. What do Canadian economists say?

Kathryn Harrison from the University of British Columbia presented a joint plenary session titled “The Challenge of Carbon Taxation: Economic Theory Meets Partisan Politics,” offering valuable insights into this complex issue. She mentioned that carbon taxes offer a cost-effective way to reduce carbon pollution. However, governments that propose carbon taxes invariably face political opposition from carbon-intensive industries, farmers, small businesses and voters. In some cases, such as Canada in 2008, carbon taxes were rejected outright. In others, including Australia and Alberta, carbon taxes were adopted but repealed. In still others, including France, carbon taxes have been frozen in response to public protest.

Jill E. Hobbs, University of Saskatchewan, emphasized that understanding how to measure and account accurately for environmental outcomes from agricultural production, such as greenhouse gas emissions, is essential for progress to be made. Incentivizing the adoption of beneficial management practices and optimal fertilizer use at the farm level are valuable tools for this effort.

How do genetic advancements affect Canadian agriculture and the environment? 

Tristan Skolrud, University of Saskatchewan, emphasized that, in developed countries, farming occupies a smaller share of labour than ever as a result of technology, automation and genetic advancements. It is very important to understand the possible influence of automation on land tenure, the adoption of best management practices and land use, climate mitigation and adaptation, and perhaps, most importantly, potential changes in the control over farm-level decision making. It was good to hear genetics mentioned, as Gentec works hard to show how genetic improvement can help contribute to Canadian objectives in terms of reducing the footprint of livestock agriculture. As is often said the impact (of genetics) may be incremental or small, but it is cumulative and grows with every generation.

Attendees participated in various panel discussions, workshops and presentations that covered topics related to environmental studies, including climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, environmental policy, and more. Key highlights were:

  1. Biodiversity Conservation: Talks on the protection and restoration of ecosystems, conservation biology, and sustainable management practices.
  2. Environmental Policy and Governance: Panels on policy frameworks, government regulations, and international agreements concerning environmental issues.
  3. Sustainable Development: Presentations on strategies for achieving sustainable development, balancing economic growth with environmental considerations, and fostering social equity.
  4. Energy and Resource Management: Discussions on the transition to clean and renewable energy sources, resource conservation, and sustainable energy policies.
  5. Consumer Preference for Plant-based diet and Consumer Behaviour and Novel Foods

Renowned experts in these fields shared their insights and research findings, sparking meaningful conversations and inspiring new ideas.

Whistler offered a stunning natural backdrop with its magnificent mountains and pristine alpine environment. This setting immersed attendees in nature and provided them with first-hand experiences and observations that are integral to understanding environmental issues. I left feeling better equipped to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities available through genetics and genomics.

Niloofar Pejman
Postdoctoral Fellow, Livestock Gentec

REPORT: AAFC Lacombe Research Station Field Day 2023

The AAFC Lacombe Research Station held a Field Day on July 26 as an opportunity for producers, industry, academics and the community to learn more about their many areas of livestock, crop and meat science research. The event was well attended and, with excellent organizing and weather, it was a huge success.

In the morning, attendees were taken by bus to different areas of the research station for mini sessions on projects in cattle genomics (including projects with Gentec), grazing and forage management, feed additives to reduce methane emissions, weed control, crop rotation, field pea breeding, crop disease management, and oat varietal development. Each session was led by a scientist, and covered past and current work in their areas of expertise as well as future research directions. It was wonderful to tour with such an engaged group of attendees, resulting in many questions and applied discussions.

The afternoon session was a tour of the research abattoir and meat science building, with mini sessions held with scientists and their students and a variety of topics. One of the many highlights was the federally-inspected research abattoir and the livestock phenomics program (cattle, swine, bison). This fantastic facility and staff have been involved in many Gentec projects for beef and pork. State-of-the-art technologies were on display for investigating automating carcass evaluation, meat classification, optimal cut-out locations, and carcass composition. Other projects discussed included gut microbiology, swine production, pork evaluation, food safety, reducing antibiotics in aquaculture, and reducing food waste with alternative uses of carcass offal. Another highlight was the meat sensory lab and the presentation on objective and subjective (meat sensory taster panel) methods used to evaluate meat quality, tenderness and taste.

Thank you to the organizers and participating researchers for a very well run and extremely informative Field Day! It is wonderful to see first-hand all the incredible work that is taking place at the Lacombe Research Centre

Attendees gathering before the start of the Field Day

Gentec’s Dr. Changxi Li and Dr. Carolyn Fitzsimmons discussing their work in beef genomics, influencing gene expression through nutrition, and adapting cattle to their environment.

Dr. Vern Baron discussing forage management to preserve/improve grassland carbon

Dr. Hushton Block discussing feed additives to reduce methane emissions and delivery methods on pasture

Dr. Bethany Uttaro discussing pork belly firmness and methods to separate cuts.

Dr. Manuel Juarez demonstrating an augmented reality headset for carcass evaluation

Dr. Oscar Lopez Campos discussing Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) to assess carcass composition


Steve Miller: A perspective on Canada’s beef industry. Part 1

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.

Steve developed a cross-continental perspective on the issues and opportunities facing the beef industry after working on selection indexes as a postdoc at AgSights (formerly Beef Improvement Ontario or BIO); as Principle Scientist with AgResearch New Zealand (think USDA or AAFC); Director of Genetic Research, American Angus Association / Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI) of Missouri, where he still “sublets” a portion of his time.

Several themes emerged from our discussion. Taken together they provide context to the complexity of arriving at workable solutions for beef improvement.

Some of that complexity is the long-time delay—in many instances a minimum of 5-years—from ideation to any commercial benefit, which can lead to frustration and a lack of credibility in the eyes of producers. Steve told the story of the owner of Nelson Farms (Iowa) who had a habit of pounding the table and pointing out that while there had been “lots of talk, there had been nothing delivered to actually make the cattle better”. To emphasize the point, Steve says, “In the beef industry, you work for Mother Nature and get paid by Father Time.” One way to minimize the impact of these delays is to create a structure that allows the beef industry to be proactive and, (paraphrasing Gretzky) skate to where the puck is GOING to be.

A second critical element is that the adoption of genetic technology is “a rope that reacts better to a pull than a push” and that, unlike for some other species, the structure of the beef industry can make this difficult to achieve. But again, there are opportunities, generally around price signals. When we spoke with Steve several years ago, he cautioned to “beware the call of the promised land” as it related to the economic potential of genomics in the commercial cattle sector. In other words, it might have huge potential to impact change but is a hard nut to crack! Part of the challenge has been a combination of factors that include inefficiencies in the supply chain; the fact that every producer knows what their cattle sells for (revenue) but few know the cost of production (cost); and that virtually all genomics for commercial beef relate to improving said cost.

The theme (and opportunity) of thinking globally and acting locally, which involves two very different perspectives, may provide the balance and allow the industry to capitalize on the push and pull of genomics adoption while incorporating the advantage of time.

As the science evolved, reference databases increased and prices of genotypes declined, work done on pure breed selection indexes became accessible to commercial producers. Steve was involved with some of this work through BIO (now AgSights) and formed the core algorithms of Leachman Cattle’s $Profit and $Feeder indexes. The technology continued to be refined and was adopted by the Canadian and American Angus associations to create the first and largest custom breed specific genomics tool (panel) for beef cattle as Angus GS. Throughout our conversation, Steve stressed that network and collaborations make the advances possible. He specifically credits Gentec’s Paul Stothard and Gentec alumni Duc Lu as playing key roles in identifying markers or animal variants specific to the Angus breed and their economic validation.

This tangentially led to a discussion on how we all end up standing on the shoulders of giants, as this scientific foundation primed Gentec’s development and launch of EnVigour HXTM, Replacement Heifer ProfitTM and Feeder ProfitTM Indexes specifically for western Canadian commercial cattle.

This in turn was enabled by reduced cost of genotyping over time further expanding genomics application, and increasingly allowed genomics to impact a producer’s “revenue line” where genetic merit scorecards help identify fertile heifers and feed-efficient feeder cattle that benefit from profitable weight gain and favourable grid-grading. If it is possible to identify animals (calves) that command a premium come sale time, producers will ek out the animals (sires and cows) capable of producing them. These price signals further act to pull these improved genetics forward.  Steve called out the Angus Link program as an example of how the market is likely to develop along with the potential to apply evidence-based pressures on reputation/relationship-based purchasing.

… And surprises can spur change. 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.

These topics serve as a starting point to look to where the beef industry may need to move and, given the time lags involved, may be best suited to leverage the push-side of the genomics equation, starting with the pure breed / seedstock sectors.

Stay tuned for the rest of our interview with Steve, where we will look past the horizon to try to anticipate what opportunities may await there and where the next tipping-point(s) may lie.

At the Grill with William Torres: Harnessing Cattle Genetics for Sustainable Agriculture: A Path to Environmental Stewardship

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

In a world grappling with climate change, resource depletion, and growing food demand, the role of agriculture in achieving sustainability has become dominant. One innovative avenue in this pursuit is the utilization of cattle genetics to bolster sustainable farming practices. Cattle, as vital livestock in global agriculture, offer an opportunity to enhance productivity and environmental conservation through strategic breeding and genetic selection.

Modern agriculture often faces the challenge of balancing increasing food production with limited land, water, and other resources. Cattle genetics provide a solution by enabling the development of breeds that exhibit improved feed efficiency, reduced methane emissions, and adaptability to various climatic conditions. Precision breeding techniques, such as marker-assisted selection and genomic selection (e.g., see Gentec tools here), allow breeders to identify and amplify desirable traits while minimizing undesirable ones. By focusing on traits like growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, and disease resistance, breeders can develop cattle that require less feed and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat or milk produced.

Cattle farming often faces scrutiny due to its contribution to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. However, advancements in genetics can help mitigate this impact. Researchers are now identifying genetic markers associated with reduced methane production in cattle. By selecting and breeding animals with these markers, farmers can lower the carbon footprint of their herds. Moreover, breeding for disease resistance and overall health can reduce the need for antibiotics and other medications, minimizing the environmental impact of pharmaceutical use in livestock production.

The quest to increase productivity has resulted in a few dominant cattle breeds, which raises concerns about the loss of genetic diversity in the livestock population. This genetic homogeneity can leave the industry vulnerable to disease outbreaks and changing environmental conditions. By embracing cattle genetics for sustainability, we can reverse this trend. By supporting and promoting the breeding of indigenous or heritage cattle breeds adapted to local environments, we can maintain a broader genetic base that enhances resilience and promotes biodiversity in the agricultural landscape.

Cattle genetics can also be a powerful tool for small-scale farmers in developing regions. These farmers often lack access to the latest agricultural technologies, hindering their ability to increase productivity sustainably. Raising genetically-improved cattle breeds that are better suited to their local conditions can uplift their livelihoods. These improved breeds can provide better milk and meat yields, increased drought tolerance, and disease resistance, helping small-scale farmers adapt to changing environmental and economic pressures.

While the potential benefits of utilizing cattle genetics for sustainability are promising, there are challenges and ethical considerations to navigate. Striking the right balance between genetic enhancement and preserving the animal’s welfare is crucial. Additionally, the accessibility of these technologies to small-scale farmers, intellectual property concerns, and potential unintended consequences need to be addressed.

In a world where the demands of a growing population intersect with the imperative to protect the planet, innovative solutions are essential. The strategic utilization of cattle genetics holds immense promise in achieving sustainable agriculture. By selecting for resource-efficient traits, reducing environmental impacts, preserving genetic diversity, and empowering small-scale farmers, we can steer the course of livestock production towards a more sustainable future. As researchers, farmers, and policymakers collaborate to harness the power of cattle genetics, we can build an agricultural landscape that nourishes both people and the planet for generations to come.



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.