Gentec tools bring value to producers

Most groups that produce breeding values, genomically-enhanced or not, assume they work in practice but this isn’t always true. Results depend on the reference population being used. For example, purebred associations use databases of mostly purebred animals—but those reference populations are used mostly to produce commercial crossbred replacement or feeder cattle. Those databases don’t contain many crossbred animals.

“Gentec is different in that we built our database from crossbred animals in Western Canada,” says John Basarab, Gentec’s Head of Beef Operations. “So, our MBVs are exactly for the animals that are going to be the end product.”

The MBVs are created from a training database; then independently evaluated from another database of 2,268 commercial cattle that is kept aside for that purpose. Now, Gentec has MBVs for multiple traits, such as post-weaning growth, body weight, feed intake and feed efficiency, and carcass weight, yield grade, grade fat thickness, ribeye area, marbling, and lean meat yield. In short, the MBVs validate very well.

“But you don’t just pick one trait when you’re selecting bulls and replacement heifers for breeding,” Basarab points out. “You put all the traits you want—hopefully, the most economically-important ones!—together in a multitrait selection index. Gentec has produced two of these indexes: a Feeder Profit Index and a Replacement Heifer Profit Index for selecting heifers that are fertile, live a long time in the herd, and produce a calf every year (hybrid vigour).”

But… from the producer’s point of view, if you’re using DNA technology, you also have to buy DNA testing. That’s a hair sample from each animal that gets genotyped. The cost, about $35/sample, is manageable on a small scale. If you have 1,000 head, $35,000 is a big investment.

“We’re looking at DNA pooling to bring down the cost by about 90%,” says Basarab. “That’s a low-cost way of improving the hybrid vigour of the herd. Hybrid vigour is highly related to fertility, longevity, health resilience, and a lower carbon footprint—all highly desirable.”

So how does that work? At the lab, 50 hair samples are pooled into one big sample, which gets tested. The one genotype reveals the breed composition of the pool and its average hybrid vigour. A low score shows that only a few breeds are being used, hybrid vigour is low, and the producer would do well to introduce a new breed. At this level, producers can dip their toe into genotyping at a low cost and find out some interesting characteristics of their herd. For example, if two sires were in the mating group, you can know if one has been busier than the other, and then start matching group-level characteristics with pregnancy rate, calving rate or age at first calving.

“We think all three tools are going to be extremely useful for producers,” concludes Basarab. “Already, we have large-scale producers interested in the DNA pooling, and we have a project approved by RDAR. In fact, it was those large-scale producers who pressured us to research this area because the investment was too much. So, instead of $35,000… how does a few thousand sound?”

John Basarab, Gentec’s Head of Beef Operations, will be presenting on these tools at AgSmart Olds on August 10-11. Register for the conference here.

 

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF): Why Everyone interested in beef genetics and technology should attend

By Kajal Devani
Director of Science and Technology
Canadian Angus Association

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) symposium is an annual convention that brings together beef researchers, technology providers, extension specialist, graduate students of beef genetics, and primary beef producers. Typically held in June, the convention rotates across US states, and has also been held in Calgary, Canada. In fact, BIF 2023 is scheduled to be held in Calgary just prior to the 2023 Calgary Stampede. The convention is a great way to advance the Federation’s mandate to connect science and industry to improve beef cattle genetics.

One of BIF’s objectives has been to standardize all performance records across beef breeds nationally and internationally. The BIF-recommended guidelines for performance recording provide beef breed associations, industry partners, and beef producers with a framework of economically-relevant traits to measure, and standardized methods and scoring guidelines for the traits. The Federation has responded as market and environmental changes pose opportunities and challenges to beef production industries. The annual BIF convention has become a place to discuss these, and explore possible solutions towards improvement in beef production with representation from multiple sectors of the industry as well as scientific researchers and technology providers.

Previous BIF conventions addressed topics ranging from fertility (estrus synchronization, timed-AI, sexed semen, genetic correlations of scrotal circumference to other traits) to consumer demands (beef production as a consumer-driven business; who is our consumer; what do they want today and 20 years from now; the genetics of meat science; and what can we do to improve the palatability of beef). The annual BIF convention has become a place to learn from the experiences of other livestock species and from beef production practices of other countries. For example, Dr. Mark Trotter from Central Queensland University shared Australia’s experience of adopting GPS-equipped tags to monitor location, movement, and health of Australian beef cattle in 2019. This technology (editor – coming to the UAlberta Roy Berg Kinsella Ranch soon) was novel at the time, and it was exciting to see in practice its possibilities and advantages.

This year, the 53rd BIF Symposium and Convention was held physically in Des Moines, Iowa, and made available virtually to those who were not able to travel due to global COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. It has been a year of increased awareness and appreciation for genetic tools and technology as the world charges forward with polarizing views on mRNA vaccines, alternative beef sources, and gene-edited livestock and aquaculture species. BIF convention participants follow advancements in gene editing in cattle closely. Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam has continually reported her lab’s progress in this field at BIF. The first two traits gene edited by Dr. Van Eenennaam’s lab were horns and sex, both edited to increase animal health and welfare and decrease the industry’s environmental footprint. Participants at BIF convention 2021 discussed at length possible ways to address that 46% of US consumers surveyed said that they would not eat meat from a gene-edited animal. Another trait that has significant impact on the industry’s environmental footprint, and on producer profitability, is fertility. This year, BIF convention participants heard from Dr. Francisco Peñagaricano’s lab on genes and biological pathways that contribute towards male fertility. Beef production is complex, and genetics play a significant role in the success of beef production from conception to the consumer experience. Genetic improvement is often a good solution for production challenges as genetic improvement can be long-lasting and cost-effective.

Central to the BIF mandate to promote genetic improvement in BIF, the convention typically includes lengthy discussions on genetic evaluations, advances in methodology and trait definition, and challenges for which we may or may not find a solution. This was particularly valuable when beef industries started incorporating genomics technology into genetic evaluations, and again when the methodology for this was refined from a multistep method to a single-step genetic evaluation. For several years, multiple scientific groups presented background information on genomics technology and updated BIF convention participants on the advances being made in these fields. This gave extension specialists, breed association technical staff (such as me), and producers the opportunity to ask questions and to provide feedback and direction to the scientists dedicated to developing tools for the industry. This is an ongoing discussion as genomics technology is advancing so fast. At the BIF convention, we can learn from the early adopters who share their experiences.

I have had the incredible opportunity to attend the annual BIF convention since 2010. As the Director of Science and Technology for the Canadian Angus Association, I have appreciated the opportunity to keep abreast of new tools for the beef industry, to learn about genetic evaluations and genetic selection tools and application, and to have an extensive network of scientists, extension specialists, and primary beef producers who have dedicated themselves to genetic improvement in beef cattle to learn from.

Event report: Animal Science Genetics and Genomics Network (ASGGN) Discussion Forum

by Ghader Manafiazar; assistant professor at Dalhousie University

The Animal Science Genetics and Genomics Network (ASGGN) Discussion Forum was held online on June 2, 2021. It offers a forum and environment in which scientists from all over the world can share information and data relating to breeding to mitigate methane (CH4) emissions from grazing livestock. The theme of the discussion this year was potential proxies of ruminants’ methane emissions. I was invited to speak about our work on the fecal methanogen species and methane production and forage intake from grazing beef heifers. It was encouraging to have a discussion with others working in the field and share new results and approaches, for example, the pros and cons of using fecal samples to estimate methane production.

It was really useful to participate. I learned about several potential proxies, such as microbiome profiles, that might be used to predict methane production in ruminants. It appears that the microbiome is comparable to other proxies. I also learned that volatile fatty acids could be used to rank sheep based on their CH4 yield. It was interesting to see the results of ongoing research on measuring rumen volumes in sheep by CT scanning, with the potential of selecting animals for lower methane production. Still, research using proxies to predict methane emission in animals is preliminary so a systematic review is needed of the available publications from which to make practical recommendations.

It was also great to see some Gentec friends among the speakers, including Dr. Rainer Roehe from Scotland’s Rural College, Dr. Suzanne Rowe from New Zealand AgResearch, and Dr. Filippo Miglior from the UoGuelph. Dr. Miligor talked about Canadian efforts to decrease methane emissions in dairy cattle. This project was a great collaborativeeffort between the UoGuelph, Gentec, and many international partners. This effort to improve the profitability and sustainability of the dairy industry is continuing with another Genome Canada-supported project led by Christine Baes at Guelph.

The Discussion Forum has a single focus: methane emissions. I recommend it for researchers working in methane mitigation. I may not be able to implement my learning at the farm level soon since research in this area is ongoing but, given today’s environmental concerns, I see there are new applications and adoption in the next decade. I am looking forward to being involved in my new position at Dalhousie including continued collaboration with the Gentec team.

Who is Kira Macmillan? Gentec’s new extension specialist

Born and raised in Edmonton, AB, I got my BSc in Animal Health Sciences and my MSc in Ruminant Nutrition from the UAlberta. Since 2016, I worked as a research technician for Dr. Marcos Colazo, first at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and then at UAlberta. We conducted research projects on dairy and beef commercial farms, focusing on reproduction and health (see publications here). Our most recent project compared the economic performance of an automated activity monitor to a timed-AI protocol in dairy heifers on a commercial farm. My own research interests revolve around improving on-farm efficiency, in particular, adopting technologies and best management practices to increase reproductive performance.

I have also been contracting for Alberta Milk since 2015, starting out in research extension writing (DRECA research summaries). I was involved in extension event-planning (DRECA workshops), developing resources for producers and supporting administration of the proAction consumer assurance program in Alberta. In 2020, UAlberta asked me to help coordinate the first virtual Western Canadian Dairy Seminar that took place in March 2021. In short, I like to keep busy. In my spare (!) time, I love to travel (when it was allowed), and have been to 16 countries on 5 continents. At home, you can find me at the dog park or drinking craft beer.

As of April 1, 2021, I have a new role at Gentec as a communications and extension specialist. I have already jumped onto a couple of exciting projects and am looking forward to focusing on research extension. The first project is a collaboration between UAlberta and an industry group led by Beefbooster to create an app that will use machine learning to generate scenarios, predictions and recommendations for beef producers. My second project is coordinating Gentec’s presence at AgSmart Olds on Aug. 10-11, where we aim to connect with producers and introduce some of our new genomic selection indices for commercial cattle. I believe that one of the most important steps in the research process is communicating results and the value to the end users, producers. So, it’s essential that we keep producers in mind during research projects, and certainly after projects are completed to make sure those solutions or technology or products create a more efficient, profitable and sustainable industry.

I am thrilled to join the Gentec team, to get to know the beef industry better and to start engaging with producers in Alberta. I hope to help bridge the gap between research and producers to ensure they drive the direction of research and realize the full value of what research has to offer for their farms.

Anybody who wants to start talking, please contact me.

John Basarab: new Head of Beef Operations at Gentec

John Basarab chatted with Gentec about his new position as Head of Beef Operations. The highlights of that conversation are below.

Gentec: What’s the background to your move to Gentec/UAlberta after 30+ years with the Alberta government?

Basarab: Well, the story goes back several years. With Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, I built a successful research program in beef production, management, genetics and genomics. During a lot of that time, I was an adjunct professor at UAlberta as well, and involved in the Alberta Bovine Genome Program, led by Steve Moore. When feed efficiency became a big thing in Alberta and Australia in the early 2000s, my program became the phenotyping arm for feed efficiency, growth and carcass traits for the Program, which morphed into Gentec. (More recently, female fertility and longevity, and impacts on methane emissions have been added to the phenotypes for genetic/genomic analyses.)

Then, last year, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry changed its focus away from performing research towards funding research. Some programs, like mine, were transferred to UAlberta where I was appointed to a senior role to help strengthen research and discovery at the Faculty to help deliver tangible benefits for farmers. That’s how I—and some resources and phenotyping tech support—ended up at the University. It’s a good marriage.

Gentec: So, do you work for UAlberta or Gentec?

Basarab: Like the other lead Gentec scientists, I’m hired by the University. Others are hired by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada or other academic institutions. Gentec is a group of like-minded people collaborating on projects in animal genomics, phenomics and business. It relies on that likemindedness to advance its strategic plan, which is highly related to the beef industry’s strategic plan. That’s how we were able to put together a large tech transfer project for the beef industry (see EnVigour HX ™) and get it funded. In any year, Gentec carries projects worth over $25 million.

Gentec: So, you could have gone anywhere. Why Gentec?

Basarab. Gentec is a mechanism like few others for coordinating research and technology transfer activities. It’s almost like picking an all-star team. Gentec’s model is to say: we need good beef genomics and knowledge translation people. Where can we find them, and how do we get them to collaborate? The answer is: get them to buy into group values and objectives, and engage them on a project to fulfil industry needs.

Gentec: Did the funding from Alberta Innovates and Results-Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) come with your move or was it coincidental?

Basarab: The project model is a good one but hard to sustain because we have to chase funds to retain basic staff, and generate some revenue. We’re good at generating ideas and winning grants. Then the IP gets developed and licensed out. Then we’re back to square one. Gentec’s new strategic plan reflects a change in direction, encouraging us to generate enough revenue to move forward, to deliver tools to producers that improve their bottom line and that are easier to use. So, these two tranches of funding coincided with my arrival—but I do bring the industry focus they’re looking for. RDAR, especially, is looking for solutions to industry challenges.

Gentec: Your title is Head of Beef Operations. What does that mean? What is your role?

Basarab: Well, the main thing is to implement the strategic plan, especially as it relates to the beef industry. So that means identify research, communication and extension activities that focus on industry challenges. Then go after funding. We’re doing a lot of that already. Several projects have been approved or are in the final round of competition.

We’ll capitalize on our deep relationships with the beef industry to solve industry challenges, and not just through genomics. We’ll look at emerging, data-driven technologies, like the smart farm, and develop software and analytics so that real-time data collection informs real-time decisions to benefit producers.

We’ll deepen our relationships with organizations like the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC), Canadian Beef Breeds Council, and the Canadian Beef Improvement Network to keep the research moving forward along industry lines. A key guidance document is the BCRC 2018-2023 Strategic Plan, which focuses on enhanced feed and forage production, improving feed efficiency, decreasing impacts on animal health, improving consumer confidence in beef and environmental sustainability. Several of these areas, like improving feed and production efficiency, optimizing carcass cut-out value and reducing the carbon footprint of beef production lend themselves well to genetic and genomic selection.

And, of course, we can never stop thinking about the research. All the above will come together to provide a rich learning environment and 360-degree industry awareness that attracts grad students who have a strong interest in agriculture and want to stay in Alberta and Canada. And I’m sure that the new research chair (Dr. Gleise da Silva) will collaborate with Gentec, UAlberta and AAFC researchers, tech transfer staff and industry.

Gentec: What excites you about the next steps for Gentec?

Basarab: We have this great genomic-phenomic dataset—unique to Canada in beef cattle—that now allows us to generate all sorts of genomics tools for the beef industry. Those tools will work because the database has been created from cattle in Western Canada. These are homegrown genotypes and phenotypes from our own backyard. I’m so excited about bring these solutions to our beef industry.

CAPI Big Solutions Forum: Creating Prosperity from Chaos

At the Big Solutions Forum on May 20, 2021, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute brought together government and industry experts to discuss “how to build a resilient, sustainable and prosperous argi-food system for Canada”. The Forum was held to synthesize results from the year-old research program Creating Prosperity from Chaos, which originally referred to disruptions in global trade, sustainability and food security but was re-focused when the COVID 19 pandemic began.

Based on their research results, CAPI concluded the “Canadian agri-food system has great potential and capacity to contribute to sustainable food production, global food security and climate solutions while improving its competitive advantage”. Their results identified four key actions:

  • Systems approach – improve coordination between all stakeholders in the agri-food system to generate strategies to maximize sustainability;
  • Strategic thinking – better leverage Canada’s comparative advantages and assets to drive the agri-food system forward;
  • Public-private partnerships – expand collaborative partnerships to address barriers to the agri-food system and promote a resilient and adaptable system;
  • Aspirational leadership – to promote proactive strategies to create a successful agri-food system in the future.

In the first panel, Chris Forbes (DM AAFC), Simon Kennedy (DM Innovation, Science and Economic Development), Christine Hogan (DM Environment and Climate Change), Dr. Harpreet Kiochhar (DM Health Canada), and John Hannaford (DM International Trade) addressed how the federal government views the challenges and opportunities for Canada’s agri-food system. In the aftermath of the COVID 19 pandemic, Canada’s agri-food system showed itself to be resilient with minimal disruptions to the food supply chain. The economic pressure created by the pandemic also highlighted issues and opportunities. The big issues identified included environmental sustainability, inclusion, and the need to focus on a “One Health” approach in research and regulation. Opportunities that arose were the sky-rocketing rates of digital adoption and the innovation and collaboration across the sector. Canada has a competitive advantage in terms of environment policies, carbon use and food security, which creates a strong foundation moving forward.

In the second panel, Bill Greuel (Protein Industries Canada), Bettina Hamelin (Ontario Genomics), Chris Terris (Telus Agriculture Canada), Gaétan Desroches (Sollio Cooperative Group), and Katelyn Duncan (Backswath Management) discussed private industries role in the moving Canada’s agri-food system forward. The system is ripe for digitization, technology adoption and creating value-added solutions to improve efficiency, sustainability and economic viability. With all the crises the world faces (COVID 19, climate change and anti-microbial resistance, and others) collaboration has never been more important. Private industry needs to adopt more of a “coopetition” outlook, working together to create an outcome where competition can thrive. In science, the lines between disciplines and sectors are blurring more with the One Health approach. This allows for technology to converge to create value added opportunities.

Across all sectors and value chains, the CAPI Forum was a call to action for collaboration and systems thinking to drive the competitiveness and sustainability of Canada’s agri0food system.

Gene Editing: what should the public know

By Ellen Goddard

Perhaps you have heard of gene editing (genome editing) in the news? Particularly the best-known approach, which is CRISPR-Cas9?

In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of the technology. Wikipedia defines gene editing as a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. Many of the practical applications have aimed to delete genes that lead to disease in plants, animals or humans. One example is the ability to gene-edit pigs to be completely resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), the most economically-important disease of pigs in North America, Europe and Asia, costing producers in North America more than $600 million annually. (Correspondence: Gene-edited pigs are protected from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, 2016, Nature Biotechnology, Vol 34, No 1, pp 20-22).

CRISPR technology differs from earlier biotechnology applications, like genetic modification. Scientists speak to the fact that it is much more specific, and traits can be completely heritable by progeny from the edited animal. On the other hand, there are public concerns about how the decision to use the technology may be made – related to whether the technology is perceived to be interfering with nature. Scientists from a number of countries have called for a moratorium on gene-editing babies (Communication: Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing, Nature, 567, 165-168 (2019)).

At the heart of the issue at the moment is the role of the public in developing gene editing policies (Morgan Meyer (2020) The Fabric of the Public in Debates About Gene Editing, Environmental Communication, 14:7, 872-876, DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2020.1811477). People often assume that science alone should drive policy but this may discount public concerns and form resistance to the use of the technology. There is a growing recognition that public concerns about the use of certain technologies are valid in determining policy, and that not all public concerns can be dealt with purely by educating the public about the potential benefits of the technology. Like many other earlier technologies, CRISPR does come with the risk of some unintended consequences (Gene-edited hornless cattle: Flaws in the genome overlooked). But every development, including the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, comes with risks of unintended consequences. The main difference may be in how those unintended consequences are presented (or not presented) to the public. It is hard to put unintended consequences in context to make appropriate individual risk assessments if the use of the technology is not obvious (in some countries, gene-edited plant products are not required to be labelled although GMO plants are) and the potential unintended consequences are not made public and transparent.

To investigate Canadian public acceptance of the use of different technologies, national online surveys were conducted in 2019 and 2021. Previous research shows that the public strongly approves of the development of pigs (and other livestock) that can be bred to be more disease-resilient. This recent research showed exactly the same thing. What differed this time was follow-up questions asking respondents to identify the preferred technology to breed disease-resilient pigs. The options were conventional breeding (with its longer development time), using genomic information in selectively breeding pigs (which could be significantly faster than conventional breeding) and gene editing (the fastest method to change the disease susceptibility of farm and national pig populations). Although all methods were seen as positive, there were definite distinctions across technologies (Goddard, unpublished results). For example, consumers’ willingness to pay for pork from gene-edited pigs was 7% less than from conventionally-bred pigs. The use of genomics in selective breeding was only discounted by consumers by 3% over conventional breeding. These results may be because consumers are less familiar with the different technologies but equally may be driven by ethical considerations. One interesting result is that the more knowledgeable and satisfied respondents were with the way pigs are taken care of in Canadian agriculture, the more they supported increasing disease resilience by any means.

Given the changes associated with new and diverse technologies in agriculture to solve problems associated with disease, drought and other aspects of climate change, it may be beneficial to consider open and transparent disclosure of the technologies used and their associated potential consequences. On this basis the public can increase familiarity and potentially reduce deeply held risk perceptions about the use of new technologies in food.

CRSB Panel Discussion: Using consumer research to understand sustainability drivers and motivations

At the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s semi-annual meeting, panelists Amie Peck (Canadian Cattlemen’s Association), Michael Young (Canada Beef), John Jamieson (Canadian Centre for Food Integrity), and Clay Holmes (InterCity Packers Meat and Seafood) provided some answers on what goes on in consumers’ heads when they think about beef.

As the food shortages in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic showed, Canadians turned to their kitchen in droves for feel-good meals. Website clicks on recipes and food prep skyrocketed. While people certainly indulged their sweet tooth, they also cleaned the shelves of beef products. The beef trend, at least, looks like it’s here to stay. How can we capitalize on that?

Overall, Canadians trust the food system, and have a high positive impression of the beef industry. Beef is considered a high-quality product, and most Canadians are still eating at least “some”. Gen Z and millennials are more interested in how food is produced than previous generations, and willing to make purchasing changes based on how they perceive food items are produced. Millennials have a less positive view of the beef industry than previous generations, and feel more social pressure to avoid beef and/or choose what they believe are sustainable protein options. They tend to be skeptical but can be convinced by good information. This creates an opportunity to connect, dispel ideas around negative media content, and provide information to help them make nutritious choices.

Sustainability is a newer and growing point of discussion for the beef industry—but still not as important as cost, quality and safety. We are still in the early-adopter phase, with those consumers who want sustainable options willing to pay for it. After all, the cost of buying into sustainable certifications shouldn’t fall solely on the producers’ shoulders. Importantly, however, many consumers still don’t know that sustainable beef even is an option. And producers aren’t aware of the incentives to embark on this course. We need to communicate the beef message better to each group, and define what sustainability means instead of allowing the plant-based protein sector to drive the story. (As an aside, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef won an award for its website on this very topic.) Consumers aren’t looking for perfection, but they do want to see effort and ongoing improvement. This is an opportunity to build more positive perceptions around feedlots, explain what they are and what their role is in the beef value chain.

Producers have the biggest role to play. These are the people consumers want to hear from. These are the people who can say they care about their animals and the environment, and that they are working to limit environmental impacts. We need to put a face on who ranchers are and what their values are.

These messages aren’t being heard well enough. Working on public trust needs to become part of the daily routine of producers to maintain that precious social licence. Some have hit social media incredibly successfully. Unfortunately, these are the pioneers not the norm.

CBIN: If you build it, they will come

“A hog barn is a hog barn, wherever it is located. The animals are kept indoors in very stable conditions. That makes it easier to produce offspring for very precise consumer markets,” says Dave Sibbald, Interim Chair of the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN). “We’re looking to develop that same predictability and scale it throughout the beef industry so we can better match consumer expectations and make the industry stronger at the same time.”

Unless they work in or around the beef industry, it may not be crystal clear to Canadian consumers that the beef sector doesn’t function like the pork or chicken industries. 80% of Canadian beef is raised on the range, using grasslands from coast to coast that aren’t suitable to produce any other food. This has led to a wide genetic diversity needed to derive the best animal for each environment and management approach, and to specialize in certain products (for example, grass-fed, commodity beef, hamburger).

“The point is,” continues Sibbald, “that different genetics maximize value from different landscapes. It’s not that we lag pork and chicken in applying genetics but that we need to apply genetics more specifically. I believe genetics are the most untapped component of the value chain. If consumers want superior T-bones, we can deliver that—but we have to apply those genetics at the beginning of the value chain.”

Selling the idea to traditional, independent-minded producers (many of whom are multi-generation ranchers, still on their original homesteads) that they should modernize their approach and talk to other parts of the value chain to help them understand what motivates consumers isn’t easy. Genetics is a complex science, not easy to communicate well, and not cheap to implement. Uptake has been slow. CBIN is expected to make the difference, as we describe here.

The result will be a better-tasting, higher-quality product in which the consumer plays a big role. Because, as Sibbald says so eloquently: why produce it if it doesn’t have a market? Indeed, demand evolves constantly. It’s up to producers to meet it. For example, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, secondary cuts were ground into hamburger. Now, they are sought-after.

“Beef is an exciting, diverse product,” says Sibbald. “So, let’s do more of the good—that is, produce more of what we know today’s consumers want, and deliver a tasty, nutritional eating experience.”

The beef industry has fed Canada for generations. We produce 1.5 million tonnes of beef every year. In 2019, we exported 410,000 tonnes of it, or 41% of production valued at $3.1 billion. Those high numbers, which represent jobs and wealth for our country, are only possible because we have a reputation for high-quality beef.

“CBIN is not about maintaining market share,” explains Sibbald. “It’s about growing it. The global market is highly competitive, so we need new initiatives to confirm our leadership and support the great beef message we already have. No other country has anything like CBIN—even though their beef industries are just as fragmented as ours. We have an opportunity to establish our uniqueness in the domestic and global markets.”

Traceability: From then to now

In March 2021, AgSights (here) set out its approach to traceability in a newsletter article with Gentec. Its software tools allow producers to collect and integrate animal data all the way through to the retail pack. Indeed, consumers can even provide feedback on their experience with the product. This last part is really important as it allows consumers to connect the meal experience back to the genetics. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow commented on how DNA is the component that connects all these results to genetic improvement. He recalls how he set out this potential as the shape of things to come at one of his first presentations to the beef industry (at a Beef Value Chain Roundtable in Ottawa) after moving to the University of Alberta in 2007. He used examples from the pork sector, where access to data from across the value chain provided opportunities to improve cost of production (efficient lean growth), the shelf-life of pork in the retail case, as well as the eating experience. All of these using genomics.

“One of my favourite stories is about protecting hard-earned brand values… in this case from KuroButa pork in Japan,” he says. “The pig equivalent of Wagyu beef if you like.” The story can still be found on the web, with the headline: Japan pig fraud prompts DNA test.

Genomics has moved forward tremendously since then, with the sequencing of livestock genomes and the application of genomic selection in most species. Gentec has been at the centre of these efforts in Canada, including the Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard), which generated sequence for more than 350 Canadian bulls. As mentioned in the AgSights article, AgSights was one of the partners in those efforts. However, we are still waiting to see the connectivity Plastow envisioned when he realized at that meeting in 2007 that every animal would be tagged through the Canadian Cattle identification Agency. More recently, Gentec commissioned reports on the potential for the beef sector but progress in beef has been relatively slow compared to dairy and swine.

“I’ve been saying pretty-much the same thing since 2007—until recently,” Plastow recalls. “Perhaps real change is on the way with efforts by AgSights, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, TrustBIXS, and the new CBIN initiative taking up the challenge of applying new digital technologies with genomics.”

These efforts are now being taken forward by the beef industry as reported in the article by Sandy Russell of the Canadian Beef Improvement Network. With the 2020 appointment of John Basarab as Head of Beef Operations at Gentec, we look forward to working closely with CBIN to join the dots and help commercial beef producers see the value of genomics for their operations to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the industry.