BCRC: 25 years strong

It all began with an explosive growth in production and exports in the Nineties, thanks in part to agreements like NAFTA, followed by a contraction in ag research funding through entities like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. But the growth period highlighted the need for targeted research to meet industry needs on topics as broad as forage, animal health and welfare and, more recently, sustainability and climate. Suddenly, it was clear that ag research was not adequately funded. The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) was born out of that need.

“In 2004 when I started, we funded a handful of research projects, and received 5c of the one dollar national checkoff,” admits Andrea Brocklebank, Executive Director at the BCRC.

(Editor’s note: Back then, the BCRC worked closely with the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Bovine Genomics, Gentec’s predecessor, and Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC’s Science Director, sat on Gentec’s Management Advisory Board. Also, Gentec CEO Graham Plastow remembers how meeting staff at BCRC and understanding their vision helped set the agenda for Gentec in terms of open collaboration. He says they have been a fantastic partner for Gentec’s beef research, and recommends subscribing to their blogs and webinars to keep up-to-date. They really do a fantastic job in bringing research to producers for application.)

Over the years, the BCRC focused on increasing investment and demonstrating value. That means extension and production-based research that leads directly back to benefits on the farm. BCRC’s portfolio also had to broaden because, from the consumer perspective, things changed. There was a new expectation to provide sound science to support agricultural practices and their impacts on animal welfare and the environmental footprint as well as to inform public trust and policy issues.

“We needed science to inform those issues because emotions get in the way,” explains Andrea. “That background compelled the understanding that we needed more industry investment in research.”

In 2012, the BCRC launched an important extension initiative aimed at producers—a growing online presence focusing on the beefresearch.ca website. The annual webinar series and the monthly newsletter, The Wire, are industry benchmarks. And the economic tools that help producers make customized decisions for their operations are a particular source of pride for Andrea.

“Extension excites me because we don’t have a traditional model but we make it relevant so we’re more likely to increase uptake. As an economist, I’m most proud of bringing economics into extension. Now, we can say, ‘Here’s the science. It’s valid. Here are the economic costs and benefits to consider when implementing in your operation.”

For example, should a producer drill a new well to improve water quality? Better access to water improves calf growth and animal health even though there’s an upfront cost. That benefit is hard to calculate, and drives industry adoption or not.

“Demonstrating BCRC’s contribution to industry really paid off when we went to increase the checkoff in 2016,” says Andrea. “We got an increase to $2.50/head for research and marketing of which the increase for research was around 70c.”

A more unusual aspect of extension has been the growing relationship between researchers and producers. Being a new researcher, being new to Canada and not knowing the Canadian beef context or simply not having an ag background are significant extra barriers to an already fraught process. To address that these researchers weren’t always successful in getting industry funding, the BCRC launched the Beef Researcher Mentorship Program.

“It’s been five years now. I thought we’d run out of applicants but far from it,” says Andrea. “Now, researchers are more confident in asking questions. Their connections are wider, and their proposals stronger. Some of the earlier mentees are now leads in fairly large projects that we fund.”

Looking ahead, the BCRC’s 2030 goals focus on economic sustainability, the environment and targets set by producers, vets, funders and a broad cross section of the industry to bring strong buy-in for the priorities. Among those is genetics.

“We recognize that, compared to other sectors, genetic improvement has significant potential to address some of our goals on increasing productivity,” says Andrea. “We also recognize that genetic improvement has been slower in beef than in other areas. So we look to organizations like Gentec and the Canadian Beef Improvement Network to accelerate that.”

That will take a two-pronged approach: research and extension, at which BCRC, Gentec and CBIN all excel. Because, as Andrea says:

“Being with producers reminds me about sustainability and the strengths of Canadian beef as, for example, having the one of the lowest global environmental footprints. But, at the end of the day, if producers aren’t financially sustainable, the rest doesn’t matter! That’s what the BCRC is about.”

For more insight on the BCRC’s milestone birthday, see here, and video here.









Hands-on Learning: Grazing management and the Alberta Agrisystems Living Laboratory

The Alberta AgriSystems Living Laboratory (AALL) represents a new approach to combating global climate change, and is a component of the broader federal Agricultural Climate Solutions (ACS) program. The ACS program is designed to combine traditional agricultural research with on-farm/ranch producer knowledge in a co-development process that evaluates newly-implemented beneficial management practices (BMPs).

Individual BMPs are evaluated on how they can improve productivity and profitability, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints and increase carbon storage in agricultural lands. ACS projects are led by non-research organizations (e.g., industry and not-for-profits) who serve as liaisons to facilitate on-farm/ranch co-development and evaluation of BMPs. The AALL is one such organization, led by the Alberta Beef Producers. It draws on the expertise of a wide range of industry partners from across the province, including crop commissions, non-governmental organizations, and private industry.

The network of living labs nationwide has the goals of increasing our fundamental understanding of agricultural impacts on soil carbon stock, stability, and GHG dynamics, and of fostering a greater understanding among producers as to how they may help combat climate change while benefiting their bottom line. The combination of fundamental research and on-farm/ranch co-development in which agricultural experts advise on implementing BMPs as well as monitoring field-level responses allows for an enhanced predictive framework on how widespread changes in agricultural land-use practices can benefit all of society.

Several BMPs are capable of contributing to carbon storage and GHG mitigation. These include practices such as intercropping, restoration of perennial forage lands, strategic enhancement of plant diversity (e.g., in forage lands), agroforestry, riparian area conservation, and the use of technologies to increase fertilizer use efficiency and reduce nutrient loss. Additionally, with nearly 10 million hectares of grazing land in Alberta supporting more than 1.5 million breeding cows, finding ways to increase carbon storage in perennial grazing lands is an important strategy to combat climate change. Grazing lands are important for storing soil carbon, typically supporting 30-50% larger carbon stocks than annual cropland. Moreover, grazing lands provide other environmental goods and services (EG&S), such as conserving biodiversity, supporting wildlife, reducing erosion, and maintaining water quality. While the benefits of perennial forage lands over croplands are relatively well-known, what is less understand is HOWgrazing can be fine-tuned to increase these EG&S, including enhancing carbon storage and GHG reduction.

Recent work completed at UAlberta using a network of study ranches across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba suggests that a specialized form of rotational grazing, known as adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing, could benefit grasslands and producers. AMP grazing entails the use of small paddocks and elevated stock densities, with frequent moves to ensure long recovery periods between grazing events. On those sites, long-term use of AMP grazing improved water infiltration and forage production. In addition, AMP-grazed grasslands had deeper topsoils that contained more carbon, and the microbial community of AMP soils had greater methanotrophic activity, which increased ‘consumption’ of methane. Based on these very encouraging results, this work is being expanded within the AALL to more comprehensively field-test the benefits of AMP grazing on a variety of EG&S, including pasture health, forage agronomics (yield and quality), carbon storage and GHG dynamics.

Among the novel aspects of the AALL program is the projects’ interdisciplinary nature. Researchers work hand-in-hand with producers to identify opportunities to implement BMPs, foster their implementation, and then monitor their impact. Together with the collection of field data evaluating changes in carbon stock and stability, and ongoing fluxes of GHGs such as CO2, CH4 and N2O, is the assessment of net impacts of BMPs on producer cost of production and, therefore, profitability. Additionally, detailed management data on the land use activities prior to the study and during the interval encompassed by the monitoring period from 2023 through 2026, during and following BMP implementation, are used to better understand when, where and how land use practices may mitigate climate change, while fully assessing their feasibility of implementation. Furthermore, the AALL includes a socio-economic evaluation of the uptake of BMPs by participants directly involved in the AALL and producers throughout Alberta. Producers interested in adopting BMPs themselves will have the opportunity to view and learn about the impacts of newly-implemented BMPs in similar production scenarios. The grazing management component of the AALL is being led by Edward Bork (of the Rangeland Research Institute and Gentec partner) with a large team of scientists from UAlberta with expertise in many disciplines. Gentec scientists including Carolyn Fitzsimmons and ChangXi Li of Agriculture and AgriFood Canada and John Basarab and Paul Stothard (UofA) will be considering how genomics can support these efforts.

If you are a rancher and interested in participating in the project, contact Edward Bork for more information.

If you are an agricultural producer (cropping, beef, forage) and interested in the AALL and other BMPs, check out the website.



At the Grill with William Torres: Things I learned about the cattle industry that apply anywhere

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) writes about the on-farm management skills that are valuable commodities in any industry.

Decades ago, I left our family’s ranch to venture on my own path in the military. Little did I know that agriculture and military service had a lot in common. The top three things I noticed after I returned to ag-life are:

  • The public has no idea what we do.
  • The government is always trying to take more money away from us.
  • Activists are always trying to tell us how to do our job.

But what other similarities do agriculture and military service have? Well… I believe it is as much a national service to be in agriculture as to be in the military. A very small percentage of Canadians serve in the military (1.4%); those primarily involved in ag number just over 2%. Not to mention that veterans feel right at home working in a farm. Both sectors are mission-focused, require discipline, and are physically demanding.

If you think about it, these last items are just some of the skills that can translate anywhere. If you ever left the farm, any employer should gladly welcome them. Then there’s problem solving skills, because we all know you need to fix a never-ending number of problems on the ranch.

Another similarity is the early adoption of technology. Many farmers and ranchers utilize tools to aid in their everyday chores. Think about it, how many of you use apps to track things at the ranch? From calving data, feed deliveries, commodities trading, etc. Data management is crucial. Even now as we approach bull sale season again, many ranchers have already downloaded or ordered their bull sale catalogue. This is just the first step in data-crunching to make decisions for your outfit. Making sense of EPDs (see my take on this in February 2022’s At the Grill feature) is just data analyzing.

We all use data management skills daily, most times unaware of what we are doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re going over last year’s crop records, plotting them against the last 10 years, forecasting this year’s outcome based on new mixtures of fertilizers, perhaps a new seed type—all are examples of how we examine and use data on every level. On the cattle side, you might be closer to getting your licence as a commodities broker than you realize. Making sense of the beef market report, trading against the US dollar, locking in contracts, hedging your longs and shorts are no easy tasks. It takes some serious dedication and knowledge to stay alive in the markets.

We learn so many skills at the farm that we could use anywhere else. So why leave the farm when you could put all that knowledge to good use—or better yet, send your next generation of farmers and ranchers to master these skills at an institution, and bring them home to ensure your long-term sustainable operation plan has the tools to succeed.




At the Grill with William Torres: Trust yourself, and let people know

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) develops the case for trusting that producers know what they’re doing to raise the best beef for the price and for sustainability.

Did you know that cowboys (and cowgirls) are some of the most trustworthy people? So why do consumers want to know how their food is produced?

Advertising products as “natural” has impacted how people choose what they buy. Our (the industry) problem is that we don’t speak out about the benefits of some of the technology we use, like hormone implants,  for example.

Using an implant reduces the carbon footprint, reduces water intake, and manure output because we reduce the time an animal requires to grow to maturity. If we removed such advantage, we would extend greatly the amount of time an animal requires to reach slaughter weight—and those benefits are gone.

Imagine you run a business and you hire an accountant, but you tell the accountant that you don’t like electronic files, and you rather have an old-school ledger. Oh, AND you want to reduce carbon emissions, so you want them to deliver this ledger on a bicycle every month. Well, they would probably charge more for this service, right? It doesn’t mean that this way of doing things is better, it’s just more labour-intensive and they must recover those costs. The same goes for cattle raised without hormones and/or antibiotics. Feeding these animals is now longer and more costly, and this cost will be passed on to the consumer.

Unfortunately, sometimes, when we see a higher price, we assume there’s an environmental reason or added benefit. But the reality is the opposite. When we (the industry) don’t speak out and let people know that food is safe, consumers at the grocery store make their own assumptions as to why some meats cost more than others.

Whether you choose to raise your cattle with added benefits of technology or decide to reduce these benefits, the care and pride you take with your cattle doesn’t change. It is your right to run your ranch as you see fit. If you decide to hug your cattle at birth , take a selfie for evidence, and provide them only with bottled water… and you believe that you can capitalize on this practice and sell your cattle for more money, then go ahead. But it doesn’t make that beef taste any better than the rest.

Genetically speaking, the breed of the cattle, the crossbreeding (if any), and their diet are the benefits you provide to the consumer to make their experience a delicious one. Take 100% grass-fed cattle vs. those that are grain-fed; grass-fed cattle can still finish with a desirable amount of marbling if the genetics are in place, and the dining experience will still be a favourable one. For those of us on the inside, we know that you can’t take an animal from Ethiopia, like a Zenga, and expect it to taste like Angus beef.

A 2022 public trust survey by the ministry of agriculture in Saskatchewan  revealed that “87% of Saskatchewan residents have a positive perception of (Saskatchewan) agriculture. In fact, overall public perception of agriculture has continued to remain strong over the last 10 years, with an average of 88.2 per cent.”

People trust us—and they should—because we do what we do for the love of it.

So, tell your story, explain why your choice in genetics is what makes your cattle different and taste better. Don’t sit there and expect some scientist to provide a 30-page paper with every roast purchase and for the consumer to make sense of it and understand why you care so much for your cattle, their well-being, and how your family has been doing this for generations with the same level of commitment.




The the real money behind calf petting

“I became fascinated about how we might increase the profitability of the livestock industry simply by improving the welfare of farm animals in Brazil,” says Désirée Gellatly, Research Scientist at the Olds College Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production. “Mostly, when we interact with animals—for vaccinations, health treatment, ear tags, etc.—it’s an adverse stimulus. There must be other ways of doing these procedures without causing animals to be frightened of us in the next handling occasions.”

Back in Brazil, Dr. Gellatly was part of a research group studying best practices to improve the productivity, health, and welfare of dairy calves. One of the studies involved assessing tactile stimulation in newborn calves by gently rubbing the hands on their body to mimic maternal stimulation, such as licking and grooming. The licking behaviour performed by the cow cleans the calf, induces calf thermal regulation and creates a bond between the cow-calf pair. Briefly, all mammals have a specialized type of nerve receptors in the skin which signal the brain to perceive a nonpainful stimuli (such as massage-like gentle stroking) as “affective” and “pleasant” sensations. Evidence shows that tactile stimulation performed by humans in laboratory animals permanently affected brain development (more synapses) and the HPA  axis,which mediates stress responses. More positive sensory interaction in early life, less secretion of stress hormones – so less fight-or-flight response in adulthood. These changes are permanent.

“All mammals and birds have a window in brain development where the brain is more sensitive to environmental influences,” says Désirée. “In humans, this window is enhanced in the first five years of age. That’s why young kids learn languages better than adults. It’s also why babies are given to mom immediately after birth… to start the sensory interaction that helps brain development.”

Why and how do you pet/massage a calf? The most sensitive period of brain development in calves is in the first week. So, we recommend immediately after processing the calves (weighing, ear tagging, vaccination, and injections), to apply gentle but firm pressure (avoid light tickle touches) with your hands around the legs, back and areas that the cow would lick.

Désirée has been working with Lance and Karyn Neilson of Neilson Cattle Development near Stettler, AB, on this approach. In their first study, half the newborn calves got just one single occasion of 1-minute massage after processing procedures at 1-day of age. The massaged calves required 20% less treatments for illnesses over time, and, at weaning, were 47 lb. heavier than the unmassaged calves.

“It’s interesting that recent studies in Brazil on zebu beef cattle are finding the same results,” says Désirée. “Studies in laboratory animals attribute the greater growth performance in massaged animals to the greaterexploratory behaviour observed in those animals compared to control groups, perhaps because their brain develops differently, so they start eating solids earlier.”

A second study on the Neilson’s ranch compared different weaning methods: abrupt separation, nose-flap,and fenceline weaning. The fenceline approach was best for improving growth and reducing illness post-weaning. The nose-flap method raised some welfare concerns due to the high incidence of animals with skin lesions in both nostrils that last up to 14-days after removing the devices.

All that is fine for calves but the Neilsons also wanted to improve the reproductive efficiency of their herd. So came the third study , which resulted in much calmer heifers after acclimation to handlingand a 2-3% higher pregnancy rate compared to the control group. A validation study a year later produced a 10.8% better pregnancy rate in acclimated heifers compared to the non-acclimated control group.

“Now the acclimation procedure is permanent on this farm,” confirms Désirée. “Lance and Karyn found value in it. They were worried it would take too much time out of their day so I checked. With just the two of them, it took 15 minutes a day to acclimate 100 animals. I believe it’s doable for most producers in Western Canada!”

Désirée’s next step is to assess whether the benefits of tactile stimulation in newborn calves comes from the treatment “massage”, not from the genetics (sire). She’s planning to apply for project funding in collaboration with Gentec to find out exactly that.

“Cattle don’t do well in new situations,” she says. “If we can reduce their fear from day one through best practices and make it worthwhile for the producer, it’s got to be a win-win.”

Hypor announces new research partnership with Gentec at the Banff Pork Seminar

Well over 700 people attended the Banff Pork Seminar (BPS) from all over Canada and internationally. Canada’s top pig producers, industry specialists and decision makers represented nearly 80% of the attendees, and nearly a quarter were pig producers. Overall, presentations and discussions could impact many of Canada’s 1.2 million sows and, since 8 of the top 16 USA Mega Producers (Pork Powerhouse) were present, influencing >2.0 million sows in total.

Key players from all sectors of the industry, including production, veterinary, feed, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and provincial pork organizations were in attendance. This audience represents a goldmine for academics to share their research and to hear what questions they need answering for the future success of the industry.

During the conference, Hypor announced a new research partnership with Gentec supported by an Alliance grant from NSERC (Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada). This 4-year project will identify the underlying genetic and phenotypic relationships between different traits in order to achieve more balanced selection to improve sow lifetime productivity, production profitability and sustainability. Greg Simpson, General Manager at Hypor North America, stated “This is an incredible opportunity to work collaboratively with world class researchers to further knowledge on sow longevity.”  See article here .

The project is based on Gentec’s core principal of “Research into Reality”. “From this project, we will be able to provide recommendations for the management of gilts, sows and their progeny to deliver improved performance at the commercial producer level.”

BPS continues put on an excellent program hosting world-class speakers and a blend of plenary speakers and practical breakout sessions. Banks Baker from PIC spoke on the role that genetic improvement plays in a sustainable food system. He noted how genetic improvements address problems and reduce impacts before they occur, that raising the right animal is critical to the sustainability of protein production (i.e., healthy, robust pigs are more profitable, and reduce environmental impact). PIC believes that technology advances such as gene editing are a part of future animal health, delivering value and supporting improvement across the full value chain.

Dr. David Rosero in the “Technology” breakout stated that, “Swine production systems are rapidly adopting smart farming technologies to address the increasing pressure of higher production costs and the limited access to qualified labour”. At Gentec, we see that imaging technologies will allow us to collect difficult-to-measure phenotypic traits that also play an important role in implementing genomics.




Life after Gentec: What is Cameron Olson doing now?

These days, former Gentecer Cameron Olson is a Production Consultant on the Feeds and Feeding team at Feedlot Health Management Services.

“We help feedlot clients from Alberta to Ontario, from Idaho to the Texas panhandle and Mexico with their diet formulations,” he says. “We do commodity analysis and we offer animal health, management, and performance consulting.”

Cameron is based in Okotoks, working with southern Alberta producers in “Feedlot Alley” but other team members work with feedlots in Saskatchewan and… southern Ontario. Beef cattle in chardonnay country? Really?

“Southern Ontario is the second-largest cattle-feeding area in Canada after Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan” confirms Cameron. “But it’s a completely different environment than Alberta. Typically, the cattle are in barns with access to the outside because the ground moisture level is different. In Western Canada, no barns. And in Ontario, corn is a primary ingredient in the ration instead of barley. So we’re dealing with different management techniques depending on where the cattle are, what commodities are available, and so on.”

Cameron didn’t just walk into this perfect job after his PhD. Well, he did… but the story is a bit longer. The relationship with Feedlot Health started in 2015 with an internship while he was home between his BSc and his Master’s at Texas A&M. He was looking around for a summer job. The connection was totally serendipitous. For that internship, Cameron was on the Feeds and Feeding team, collecting samples at feedlots and collecting dry matter data from the drying ovens. In 2017, after his Master’s, he did another internship. This time, he was responsible for the on-site administration of a feeding trial in southern Alberta. The third iteration of the relationship came as a result of being selected as a Canadian Cattle Young Leader in 2019 while he was doing his PhD.

“My old boss at Feedlot Health, Matt May, was my mentor,” explains Cameron. “We worked together through the Young Leader program and, a year into that relationship, he offered me a part-time position on the Feeds and Feeding team with the goal of onboarding me in a full-time job. So it was a company I was familiar with, and a position I was familiar with that was offered to me because I was at the right place at the right time with the right kind of knowledge.”

That’s because Feedlot Health is expanding. Telus Agriculture, which bought Feedlot Health and Herdtrax (a long-time Gentec collaborator), plans to roll out services for the cow/calf sector in 2023. And that ties into Cameron’s PhD work on cow reproductive efficiency, dry matter intake and RFI in developing heifers and mature cows.

“Gentec is one of the very few organizations that does what it does,” he says. “It has concentrated a lot of knowledge in a tight organization that has like-minded partners. For students looking to enter the livestock industry in Canada and for a robust place to study, partnering with Gentec will allow them to gain real-world knowledge of how the industry functions here. For producers, the concentrated knowledge and research support becomes tangible results that benefit the producer directly.”

But Cameron acknowledges that persuading producers to pay for services that he knows can help but that don’t necessarily provide a product is a challenge.

“We can help them manage their herds more effectively and with more insight,” he says. “The Feedlot Health model promotes research and understanding so we hope to do the larger-scale research that we’ve done in the feedlot sector in the cow-calf sector as well to demonstrate that.”

At the Grill with William Torres: The Grill’s top five resolutions

I love this time of year! Christmas and New Year is when I believe mostly everyone to be in their best spirits. It doesn’t matter how bad the seeding or harvest season weather were. You forget about that “one” cow that almost killed you during calving. Right now, we are mostly glad for our families and all the things we have.

With the new year come resolutions. Some of us will start thinking about what, and how we can do things better. If you’re looking for guidance or wondering what others are looking to do in the new year, here is a list of the top resolutions for Alberta ranchers.

EVALUATE THE FUTURE. New year’s mean new beginnings, opinions and outlooks. Use the start of 2023 to evaluate the future of the ranch. How long do you want to keep running it? How involved do any children want to be? Does a succession plan need to be designed? Taking time to answer these questions can help you prepare for the immediate and distant future. We discussed sustainability already. This is where actions will dictate what future your ranch can have.

TRY SOMETHING NEW. During AgSmart 2022, we visited with Tim Wray. He and his family are continually adopting new technologies that reduce labour, avoid depreciation, and simplify management. Trying to find an edge, the Wrays have participated in a number of trials experimenting with genetic tools, pasture health, cover crops, residual feed intake, and artificial intelligence. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box. It is our duty to squeeze every opportunity to increase profits out of a low-margin business.

BECOME AN ADVOCATE. Make 2023 the year to use social media platforms and other means to become an advocate, and tell the real stories behind agriculture. Other ways to become an advocate can include joining a 4-H group or speaking to consumers about agriculture. Stop letting someone else tell your story! Consumers want to know how you do what you do; you should be proud to tell them.

KEEP LIVESTOCK PENS JUST A LITTLE CLEANER. We get it, life on the farm can get pretty crazy and hectic. Sometimes, you might not have a place to store the manure. Maybe conditions aren’t right for hauling. Take better advantage of the days that ARE good for it, and reap the benefits. When cattle pens are cleaner, there are fewer instances of illness and disease. Less medication and vet bills equals more money in your pocket. Healthy, clean animals are a key component to that. Take the time to ensure they’re raised in the best conditions possible, and both improved rate of gain and the farm process will go much smoother.

INCORPORATE TECHNOLOGY. It’s definitely time to work smarter, not harder. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to adopt or re-evaluate your herd data-tracking system. Most veterinary practices offer some sort of data collection but not all are designed to manage your herd’s potential. Maybe it’s time you contributed into a new app development? Smartphone apps rely on real data to validate their technology. The “arm-chair rancher” is one being developed here in Alberta. Look into contributing data.

Regardless of what your personal resolutions are, I wish you all a very Happy New Year. See you all for more stories in 2023. We’ll keep the grill sizzling with information.




Gleise da Silva, 2022 CCA Young Leader and Gentec collaborator

The BCRC-Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems at UAlberta is a full-time tenure-track appointment in Beef Production Systems, with 25% teaching, 50% research, and 25% service in leadership and extension. The initial vision for the Chair, as outlined by BCRC Chair Matt Bowman, was to capitalize on UAlberta’s leadership in both beef genomics [Gentec] and rangeland research [Rangeland Research Institute]. The Chair will complement and connect those programs to improve the whole cow-calf production system.

Gleise da Silva—the inaugural Chair—is using some of her research time on a collaboration with Gentec (specifically, CEO Graham Plastow) funded by Alberta Beef Producers to determine whether heifers with different residual feed intake can be more weather-resilient.

She has also been busy meeting, talking with Alberta’s cow/calf producers, and familiarizing herself with the most pressing issues faced by industry. Gleise’s own aim (in addition to the Chair’s) is to advance Canada’s position as a world leader in sustainable beef production.

Gleise has formed a wide breadth of industry relationships, many through the assistance of her colleagues at UAlberta and Gentec who have made a special effort to introduce her to producers. These include the Alberta Beef Industry Conference (June 2022); UAlberta’s own Kinsella Field Day (July 2022); the Canadian Beef Industry Conference (August 2022); and Farmfair International (see below).

Some of her leadership/extension time is going towards developing leadership and networking skills, and learning how the Canadian beef industry can advance our global leadership position in beef sustainability by applying/adapting what other countries are doing in terms of sustainability and food security to make the sector more competitive and profitable. This she can accomplish through the BCRC mentorship program, which she recently completed, and now through the Canadian Cattle Young Leaders program, which she just started.

“I’ve been paired with a mentor,” she says. (Anne Wasko, a highly respected cattle market analyst and past chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.) “We’ll start developing a road map of what I want to learn and be involved with, and she will help me achieve my goals.”

In addition to the above local events, Gleise has attended Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock in Dublin, Ireland in October 2022 with two young leaders from the Canadian Cattle Association. See her summary of the event here.

“During the interactive plenary session led by youth, several topics were discussed around the food system opportunities through sustainable livestock. My topic was how to find opportunities for youth to be involved in livestock, how to attract them to agriculture. Furthermore, as a group, we discussed the challenges to agriculture on every continent in terms of food security, production and sustainability. We visited Teagasc Grange Animal and Grassland research centre, where various methods of reducing livestock methane emissions were being evaluated. It was an excellent opportunity to think about food production on a global scale and understand perspectives, challenges and goals from different countries. This is how networking will help us achieve real solutions.”

At Farmfair International in Edmonton in November, she and Gentec associate Clinton Brons met and mingled with an assortment of individuals with a vested interest in the beef industry. One highlight she mentioned was the international reception where she and Clinton sat with members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. Together, they delivered compelling messages (no turkey, just beef 😊) on the role Canada can play in delivering delicious, nutritious and sustainable food to the world, as well as on the importance of the beef industry within their ridings… both at our table and from the podium. Special thanks to Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk and Garth Rowswell of the Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville and the Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright ridings for their reciprocated interest in the important beef industry work being done at UAlberta and Gentec.

“I’ve had these wonderful opportunities in just a few months,” she says. “Opportunities for good conversations that open your mind to think differently; opportunities to meet interesting people and share experiences and learn from each other. I’ll be working with some of the Young Leaders and people I’ve met throughout my career.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: As BCRC-Hays Chair, Gleise was invited to be a panel member at the UAlberta Chancellor’s Forum on Food for the Future, focusing on climate, cost and creating food security. Read more about that event here.







Food for the Future: Cost, Climate, and Creating Security

On November 9, UAlberta hosted the 2022 edition: the Chancellor’s Forum on Food for the Future, where climate change, cost, and security were discussed in detail. The event brought together Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest Research Institute dedicated to cellular agriculture; Alison Sunstrum, founder and CEO of CNSRV-X; and three faculty members from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences: soil scientist William Shotyk, agricultural economist Ellen Goddard, and beef nutritionist Gleise da Silva. Goddard, Silva and Sunstrom are or have been regular Gentec collaborators.

Senator Paula Simons asked the experts “How do you think the events of the last two years have changed our perspective on the future of food and food security?”

From the beginning of COVID, everything was a shock to everybody. Most people had never imagined going to the grocery store, and not finding food. However, people are now more open-minded and tolerant of technology in food because they realize that food items aren’t going to appear on grocery store shelves in exactly the same format for the rest of their lives. So they are willing to try items they might have been a little bit more opposed to before. “I think trust in the people who create the products, trust in the people who are going to sell products, and trust in the government to regulate the products is very important.”

Alison and Gleise added that we still need to produce more; we know the population is growing; and we are losing space for agriculture. So we need to be more efficient and use less water and land, and try to implement technology agriculture to make sure everyone is fed. For instance, the investment of billions of dollars from hundreds of companies around the world show that growing food from cells is really important for our food system. Part of the plan going forward is: how can we grow more food in different ways? Growing meat from cells is one of those ways. According to Alison, the challenge of the future of food requires more than government funding to solve the problem; it will have to include everything from philanthropy to venture capital. However, academic funding is being squeezed all the time.

In response to what do we have to do to ensure we have healthy soil and water for our agricultural future, William mentioned that soil is the basis for 95% of our agricultural production but it is also important for forestry. Organic matter and soil help stabilize a global climate system.

“We have every possible mineral resource and fossil fuels and agricultural land and water resources. So we don’t have to think as much as other people do.”

The next question was “What are we going to be eating 50 years from now and what won’t we be eating?”

“I think for Christmas dinner, we’re probably going to eat the same food. I’m just not sure how or where it’s going to be created,” Ellen said. “But we will still want something that looks like turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. But it will come from different origins.” Dr. Goddard also discussed the importance of consumer perceptions in food, and gave her insights on what we will have access to food-wise in 30 years.

William replied, “I grow quite a lot of my own food in my tiny backyard. When I look around Edmonton, I see a lot of space not being used, and I just think about how much food could be grown in the city.”

Gleise mentioned that we may have more food options but the most important thing is to eradicate hunger by increasing food distribution. According to Alison “What we eat in 50 years is completely dependent on the choices we make now. If we continue on the path that we have been on, I don’t know what our choices will be. Probably fewer options, more local food because of a lack of choice, and less access to animal products. However, if we make the right investment into diversifying our food system and creating more resilience, we should bounce back from changes in the supply chain, and have a wide diversity of food.

Our abundant natural resources in Canada and genomics offer a way to develop more resilient crops and livestock to help with the challenges facing us and discussed at the forum.

To watch a recording of the Chancellor’s Forum, click here

Niloofar Pejman
Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec