At The Grill feature by William Torres. Data Management: EPDs… are they as easy as 123?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) focuses the ABCs of your EPDs, how to maximize your cattle selection without focusing on too much data to make decisions, and how to help your bottom line.

Have you ever looked at a bull sale catalogue and thought you might need a PhD to figure out what they’re trying to sell you? I mean… how much data is too much data??

At the end of the day, the people trying to sell these animals want to make the most amount of money and offer you all the most relevant information. But if you’re trying to purchase an animal, you want the opposite: the best genetics for the least amount of money.

So what it really comes down to is doing your homework and understanding your needs (much like purchasing a new car). The part most of us struggle with is EPDs and the other information that we’re not sure we really understand. So let’s recap… what is an EPD?

According to the Beef Cattle Research Council, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are estimates of an animal’s genetic merit as a parent. In plain English, this how to predict the specific performance of a bull’s progeny compared to the performance of another bull’s progeny. The keywords here are PREDICT and COMPARE. EPDs for one animal are meaningless unless you compare them to the EPD of another animal.

So, if Sire A has a birth weight EPD of 4.0 and Sire B has a birth weight EPD of -2.0, then calves from Sire B might average 6 pounds lighter at birth than calves from Sire A, assuming the bulls are randomly mated in the same herd (most EPDs are designed to compare sires within a same breed). That is, until multi-breed EPDs come into the picture, like Feed Efficiency for example.

Now that we’re clear as mud, we should be able to buy the best, right? But what is the best? Let’s go back to buying a car. When I used to test bulls for feed efficiency, the question was always, “How do I sell these for the most money?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. In any given feed efficiency test, there will be winners and losers. Think of it like an eating contest; if you and I compete against each other, only one of us can win. But the bottom line is, you need to sell ALL those bulls.

Selling is an art form. Whether you’re selling cars or bulls, you need to know the needs of the purchaser. Not everyone has the budget to buy a$100,000 bull (or car), But everyone who walked into the lot (or bull sale), is there to buy something. What are they looking for? Here are some examples:

Horsepower = Birth weight, weaning weight
Fuel efficiency = Average daily gain, conversion, feed efficiency
Longevity = sustainability

On the buyer side of the house, you need to consider your specific production goal. For example, if you sell your calves at weaning, you need to prioritize the EPDs differently than producers who retain ownership through the feedlot. A start-up cow-calf operation will most likely have different budgets and needs than a well-established outfit. Regardless of your needs, don’t be afraid to ask the seller what things really mean. Or contact John Basarab, Director of Beef Operations here at Gentec for help.

Ted Bilyea tells it like it is: Waste not, want not!

“At the global level, unless there’s a major technology change in how we produce food where we don’t need land, we’re going to have a food security problem fairly soon,” predicts Ted Bilyea, Former Executive VP of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. “It’s beginning to unfold in front of us.”

Ted breaks the issue down into the three A’s.

Thirty years ago, about 12% of the world food was supplied by trade. That figure is now close to 25%. That’s pretty fragile. In Canada, we don’t have “availability” problems because 70% of what we consume is grown here, and we still export 50% of production. Our availability issue is that we’re the largest importer of U.S. processed-food in the world.

“Many of the US companies that had processing plants in Canada closed them up after NAFTA,” says Ted. “They no longer needed Canadian processing to sell here, and they already had marketing and distribution set up.

Push come to shove, we might not get everything here that we want to eat but we won’t starve to death either.

“That’s when s**t happens,” says Ted. “Covid… closed border with the US… supply chain issues. Especially in the North. Solutions will involve better energy use so they can grow food themselves.”

And we need to do something about food waste. There are two sides to this: what happens before and after food items hit the store. On the before side, issues of rotting, storage, transport, etc. in the developing world can be taken care of with technology transfer, capital investment and political will. Far more troubling everywhere is the threat of disease. For example, China lost half of its hogs due to disease (mostly African swine fever) since 2018. That’s a quarter of all the hogs in the world. Just one single case of BSE (mad cow disease) in Alberta in December 2021 led China, Korea and the Philippines to ban imports of Canadian beef. An outbreak of avian flu in the US in 2015 led to the culling of 75 million poultry, and cost US$879 million to eradicate from production. These are not one-offs.

“On the consumer side, we should stop thinking of the contents of the green box as waste,” says Ted. “It’s an input to somebody else’s business in terms of upcycling. Even meat—because fats become biodiesel. So let’s be careful what we define as waste. It’s all energy in another form. If we’re doing things right, there’s no such thing as waste.”

But there’s a far more insidious issue on the horizon. Globally, we’re coming to the end of the era of abundance, convenience and perfection, food-wise. We’ve taken food for granted for too long. The shift is underway to an era where that may still be true occasionally, locally, depending on the product and location but we’re beginning to look at a future where scarcity is the more likely outcome.

“Productivity is the best indicator of where we’re going,” says Ted. “Supply vs demand is dropping. We don’t have the global security stocks we used to have. Why? Climate change, declining R&D investment in agriculture (Alberta’s RDAR is an exception that proves the rule) and the use of non-renewable groundwater.”

*click picture to enlarge

Eleven percent of the total agriculture trade globally depends on groundwater. In the US, 64% of groundwater is used for irrigation. Fifty percent of that comes from the Ogallala aquifer. The replenishment rate of these aquifers is way down or even zero. Think California. The Ogallala aquifer will take 6,000 years to replenish. When those global aquifers run dry—and they willl!—that 11% of trade will also dry up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Some companies will move into Canada because they value our competitive advantages. Water is one of them. Another is the prairie grasslands.

“One of the first things I learned at Canada Packers is that you can’t move the feed to the animals,” says Ted. “Most of the world is still trying to defend against that because they want to grow their own animals so they import massive amounts of corn and barley. With the emissions footprint, it makes no sense. It never did. You need tariff barriers and subsidies when you’re not competitive. Canada’s western competitive advantage is built in. We have the grass and the feed. And companies like McDonalds and Loblaws pay a premium for the sustainable beef we grow with it.”

This is, of course, where Gentec steps in and shines. Gentec’s tools for researchers (EnVigour HX™, and the new Feeder and Replacement Heifer Profit Indexes) and projects that demonstrate the value of grazing cattle on grasslands will help producers and Western Canada maintain that competitive advantage.

People on low or fixed income have survived this period of abundance because food was cheap. Those days are gone. Major countries are running into issues of availability. Increases in yields are slowing dramatically. We’ve brought massive amounts of land into production. That game is over. Now we’re losing land out of production due to climate change.

“If you had to pick a place to live and farm, Western Canada is a great place,” says Ted. “I see a huge demand for meat. I just wish we had more grass on which to raise more cattle with the least GHGs of anybody in the world!”

The appealing lifestyle is all over social media. The poop isn’t!

Who’s the liar now?

We don’t often get an opportunity to compare apples to apples in terms of social media content vs reality, especially when it comes to agriculture. Producers reading the Wall Street Journal’s “Instagram Stars Make Farm Life Look Delightful – Minus the Manure” might shake their heads in disbelief. Consumers who haven’t had a chance to ever visit a farm might be left with completely the wrong idea. Contrast that with the “How Do We Make Connections” session presented at the Canadian Industry Beef Conference (CBIC 2021). Let’s just say that the two could not have been farther apart in content or theme… starting with the featured personalities.

The Wall Street Journal article starts with the “reigning Mrs. Utah and Julliard-trained ballerina” who emphasizes posts portraying a “farmcore” aesthetic (apparently, it’s a thing) of dancing in the barn in cowboy boots, carefully-organized baskets of eggs with “bonus points” if some blue ones find their way into the mix. Children, readers are warned, can “make a beautiful space not so beautiful”. Tank tops are not Prairie-child wear; and Paw Patrol sweatshirts wreck an otherwise picture-perfect scene.

The second featured farm-influencer, Parisienne Farmgirl, named for her love of Paris and all things French. Like the other influencers presented, Ms. Paris agrees that farmcore comes with an ick factor that is best left out of the photos: the pancetta is gorgeous when coated generously with herbs… What’s behind that photo? “It’s me raising that pig and the smell that goes with it” Then there’s the “amount of manure my cow makes… it’s alarming.” Neither makes it to Instagram.

On the other hand, the CBIC presentation featuring highlights of connecting two social media influencers with two real Canadian beef producers on their farms. Apryl Munro of @thiskindalife was a guest of Gordon Dibble of Dibbhurst Farms near Ingersoll, Ontario. Dibble owns a 4th generation family farm consisting of a 1,200-head feedlot operation and 650 acres of cropland used to feed the operation.

A little closer to home for Gentec, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches (and new addition to the Gentec Management Advisory Board) welcomed Dina Ottoni Battistessa of Like Dibbhurst Farms, CL Ranches is a 4th generation family ranch, operating as a cow/calf, backgrounding and custom-farming operation. Dina arrived with her father and two children.

Combined, the video clips of the farm tours and the conference session provided an interesting and, at times, surprising take on how perceptions differed from reality. The guests mentioned numerous times how information in online documentaries and from friends differed so significantly from what they were seeing and hearing on the ranch. They were particularly surprised at attention and effort put into ensuring the health and welfare of the animals; the quality of the food provided to them; and the commitment of the producers to sustainable production. The latter was evidenced on both operations through their focus on clean water, soil health and nutrients, and—on Gordon’s operation—barns outfitted with geothermal heating capability, LED lighting for minimal energy usage, and natural ventilation.

And the poop—so conveniently left out of the Wall Street Journal article—comes back into the picture. Even the children were able to piece the cycle together where the grass is cycled through the cow: some goes into making beef, some comes out the other end and is used by the soil, as nature intended, to create more healthy grass to perpetuate the cycle. The producers also explained how bulk manure is collected and spread across the land to ensure a natural, sustainable farming environment.

Apryl was surprised at Gordon being younger than her; Dina, that one of the ranchers was female; and both by the fact that the food was produced in a family (not factory) setting in modern, clean, and productive systems, not Old MacDonald’s rickety, spider’s-webby Farm, and that the producers had an emotional attachment to their animals and provided them with the best care possible thus ensuring the health of their cows and the resulting food. Clearly, there is work yet to be done in informing the public.

All that said, the Wall Street Journal and the CBIC profiles did agree that, whether they experience a “farmcore” or actual “farm-life” lifestyle, these “kids see things that most kids will never see or understand”. In a lighter moment, for example, one of Dina’s children asked Cherie if the bulls were there to protect the cows. Cherie responded that they were not, and that the cows were meaner than the bulls anyway.  The camera then panned to the fireplace crackling in the corner of the room as the scene faded to black… Hopefully, Mom explained the true function of the bulls on the drive back to Calgary.

Cherie summed up the divergence between the presentations best. In terms of getting accurate information out to a wider audience, you want to highlight the best aspects of ranch life and beef production but you must also be willing to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly … and to defend the “necessary ugly”. You have to be prepared to be honest. Additionally, many producers and producer organizations just talk about opening their farms to visitors. Cherie feels she gets the most out of her time by volunteering for organizations (such as the Calgary Stampede) where she has access to a million people to whom she could never show her farm, thus allowing her the chance to talk about beef and the science behind it.

Where is the beef….future?

by William Torres, former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards


Bloomberg reported on December 17, 2021, that Tyson, the largest US meat company has invested in a startup (Future Meat Technologies) to make cell-grown chicken and beef. This news makes me wonder where the future of our industry is headed.

From a business perspective, Tyson is looking at its long-term strategies and diversifying its portfolio. However, what message is the company sending to producers in North America?

Well, just like the automotive industry considered the implications of fuel alternatives for vehicles, packers need to consider how they’re going to meet the global demands for protein. If traditional protein can’t be sourced in some parts of the world, maybe a “hybrid” model can fill that gap.

I’ve only consumed beef alternatives probably three times in my life, only to be as disappointed (as I expected). Growing up in a household of carnivores, our definition of beef alternative was pork or chicken. What worries me is that if “we”, the traditional industry, don’t stay engaged, companies like Tyson, Memphis Meats, Future Meat, Beyond Meat, Field Roast, etc., will run their course without knowing what it takes to make cell-based alternatives a palatable choice. We don’t know if scientists have any knowledge of or background in cattle genetics, and how cross-breeding can turn a good steak into a great steak. I mean, do they understand marbling and tenderness? And how some producers work for generations selecting the right genetics to achieve that desirable carcass that packers and consumers are looking for?

Our great industry will never disappear because, let’s face it, no-one raves about how awesome a lab-grown meat-LIKE patty is; and meat consumption worldwide continues to increase along with the global population. Unless these companies can also grow bone in the lab, consumers will never have the same bone-in-rib eye experience.

So what’s the answer? Maybe we should help these companies understand that the right selection of genetics is the foundation of their future. After all, if it’s “cell-grown”, they must source those cells from real animals—animals that will continue to be selected, bred, raised, and slaughtered. In a video promoting lab meat, the host asks, “Are animals really necessary to consume protein?” Well, Yes. These proteins need starter cells that must be sourced somehow.

I mentioned staying engaged. Here are some of the opportunities I see:

• Think about whether your operation wants to be the source of these cells;
• Guide the next generation to study genetics from an alternative market view;
• Start a cell bank;
• Lobby for our right to have a say;
• Become an ambassador and help educate the public;
• Become a certified sustainable operation;
• Tell our story;
• Etc., etc.

The public consumes many alternatives to other animal products, such as soy milk, almond milk, sunflower seed butter, almond butter, soy butter, and dairy-free cheese but the original items are still around.

Cattle are an essential part of our ecosystem. How we participate in the future of our industry is in our hands. We can either fuss about it and ignore it or we can guide, advise and be at the table. As GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle”.

Fixing the labour crunch in agriculture

As agriculture evolves into a high-tech business, automation and machinery do a lot of the heavy lifting, giving producers and employees the ability to “operate” data and robotics to improve profitability. That means changing the perception of farm work for incoming employees, and competing with other sectors who also want them for their technical skills.

On December 9, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar on the need to attract talent and skilled labour in the agri-food sector. Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points. The panelists were:

  • Martin Scanlon, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, University of Manitoba
  • Ryan Riese, National Director, Agriculture, Royal Bank of Canada
  • Jennifer Wright, Acting Executive Director, Operations, Programs and Partnerships, Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC)


What key changes in innovation has the workforce brought to agriculture?

RIESE. Human ingenuity is responsible for innovation so it’s the workforce that drives innovation in the sector. When I ask clients, “What keeps you up at night?”, I get a lot about accessing labour. Not even advanced skills but appropriate skills. Sometimes, it’s just showing up reliably. So we need to drive curiosity, bring in the people who want to consider ag as a career, and the skills the industry requires. But those people need to be committed, have a good work ethic, be flexible. Ag is not a 9-to-5 job. Also they have to be ready to learn, listen and be taught.

SCANLON. Post-secondary education expects graduates to communicate clearly, think well and engage with each other professionally. They’ve been trained in crucial teamwork. Those industry needs won’t go away. But technology shapes how we deliver programs because it’s pervasive. If we look at Olds College, it has a 2-year program, Techgronomy. At UManitoba, we are taking a new approach so we don’t compete. All grads, regardless of discipline, should appreciate technology, what it can and can’t do. So all programs and courses have technology embedded in them. We partner with tech companies so that grads understand how to implement tech at the farm or other level.

WRIGHT. CAHRC does a lot of labour market research focusing on the workforce of today and in the future. Producers are experiencing labour shortages now. Our forecast says the shortage will double in next 10 years. Looking at ways to increase efficiencies and be more productive will help. That said, we also see that tech is adopted quickly but not changing the number of people required. Instead, it’s impacting the skills required. So where computer skills might have been necessary for entry-level jobs, now it’s for all jobs. We’re also hearing from producers that soft skills, teamwork, etc. are becoming more important because they are hiring people who didn’t grow up on farms. They need to teach the technology but without core background skills they won’t be successful at teaching the hands-on skills. So there’s a balance between soft skills and how they affect all elements of the workforce.


How well do you think public perception of working in ag aligns with reality? There’s the idyllic image of a barn with a red door and a calf peering through, munching hay. That’s changed but the public is not realizing the opportunities ag can offer.

SCANLON. We’re not doing a good job of reaching out to urban youth, and showing them the broad array of careers in ag. There’s an image issue that we have to work with at the school level. Students have to be interested in science and then see where they can do computer programming, agrology, etc. We started a program to steer undecided science grads towards food processing and agronomy. With the Faculty of Science ,we’re offering 4-6 courses that these grads can take to get insight on what an ag or food processing career is. It’s the kind of leg-up that gets them in the door for an interview. They can say: “I have gaps but here’s my science. With additional training, I’ll be useful employee”.

WRIGHT. I have first-hand experience of this. My 15-year old son wants to farm. We live in downtown Ottawa. When he shares his desires with teachers, the feedback is that he’s taking the easy way out, wanting to be a lazy farmer. I’ve had a chance to talk to those teachers but that’s not a one off. So we have a lot of work to do reaching out to urban schools, elementary and secondary, and then build on drawing undecided science grads into ag. We’ve just started two initiatives for students. One is developing business cases that require ag and non-ag students to work together, which helps build awareness of how an IT degree can be used, for example. In many cases, they’re not aware because of incorrect or old perceptions of the industry. And we’re running a wage subsidy program to connect non-ag students to ag.

RIESE. People get farther from the farm with each generation so the more opportunities they have to understand, the better. Perceptions are mostly incorrect. Industry needs to keep promoting and encouraging people to join the sector who did not grow up on the farm, and not make it a prerequisite.

Also, I want to point out that working in ag doesn’t necessarily mean you’re starting a farm or becoming an owner/operator. Those barriers are very high. That’s another conversation. But there are lots of support roles on farms as farms get bigger and more complex. They require subject matter expertise on different areas of the business. So there are lots of opportunities to join the sector without being an actual producer. We have to highlight that, too.

We see researchers going into various fields but not ag R&D. They want to build the next spaceship, but not the next farm robot. Is this an image we want to continue promoting?

SCANLON. Once people get engaged, whether they have the background or not, they are powerful advocates. We need to keep getting the message across. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have this program: what equipment do we need for the mission to Mars? They brought in the best engineers, scientists and innovators, then added ag and food. There’s nothing old hat about ag. It’s the bedrock of society so we have to attract talent to keep it going.

RIESE. Research is the starting point but it takes many years to come to life. How great is it to wake up knowing you’re going to feed society? It’s a great story to be told. You don’t have to work for Amazon, Google, etc. There’s an incredible opportunity in ag for those looking to embark in the tech world.

WRIGHT. A lot of the tech being implemented on farms comes from outside Canada, so too does the technical help. Canadians can fill that gap.


Agri-food activities are conducted outside urban areas but that’s not where people live. How do we engage people to move to rural areas?

WRIGHT. I’m hearing that there’s more movement out of urban centres but it’s not translating into an increase in the labour pool because people are working remotely. They’re not connecting with the local labour force but they are increasing the need for services. So communities can ensure support for newcomers in terms of housing and services.

RIESE. We need government policy that helps bring the right people in. I hope immigration policy and ag policy are working together to kickstart the process. A lot of towns need people to work in ag.

SCANLON. It certainly is an issue. For example, Portage is an hour west of Winnipeg. It has 13,000 residents. Local companies run four buses a day from Winnipeg to ensure they have people with the right skills to ensure the continuity of their operations. Those issues aren’t going away. Then there’s the issue of bringing broadband to rural communities.


Automation could address labour shortages but how can you reduce labour without reducing productivity?

RIESE. Any time animal husbandry is involved, we still need physical beings to look after them. We have an obligation to the animals to ensure they are well looked-after, so we need people in that regard. Automatic feeders will help reduce that physical labour but we also need people to break down data and learning. So the roles will be different. That’s the message we want to carry.

SCANLON. Every sector is looking for people… health, IT, transportation. Are we not facing an endemic issue that won’t be solved with an ad campaign? Should we plan for ag with less people involved?

RIESE. That could be Plan B. Our goal is to attract people. If we can’t find people, it will hurt our sector or not allow us to capture opportunities. That’s unfortunate as a country. We need policy and promotion from all levels of government. Not many places in the world are better than Canada to meet the growing demand for food and protein.

SCANLON. The Barton Report identified ag as a key sector of the Canadian economy that could drive growth. That’s because we have unique endowed benefits of land mass, water, environment and climate. It would be criminal if we don’t get the talent to maximize these opportunities!

Read more about the shortage of labour in agriculture:



Kill the culls! Sex selection saves lives

Sex is big business.

Florid intro sentences aside, in agriculture, sex is a large—and largely under-reported—animal welfare issue that straddles economics as well. The numbers really aren’t good. In the UK, 95,000 male calves are culled every year. In Australia, 600,000. In Germany, 200,000. We couldn’t find numbers for Canada because the topic isn’t well researched but the few studies done record paltry neonatal care compared to females, long travel with irregular feeding times and, often, on-farm euthanasia. That’s just the dairy industry.

In Canada alone, 22.5 million male chicks are culled every year to produce our eggs. In France, that’s 50 million every year. Is pork any better? Not much. As piglets mature, they release chemicals that release a foul smell when the meat is cooked so any male pigs used for meat are killed before that happens.

But what if females could produce litters or offspring of only the desirable sex? And by the way, not only females. Sometimes, males are required, too, especially in the lab environment where this question was first raised. Enter Peter Ellis at the University of Kent, and collaborators Charlotte Douglas and James Turner at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK.

“My research focused on testes so we needed male mice,” says Peter. “I had to give the females of the litters to researchers who specifically wanted them—or cull them. That makes you aware of sex. So our goal to ensure that as few animals get culled just for being the wrong sex.”

That idea isn’t new. Sperm sorting is already used in the dairy industry but it’s not infallible and can damage the sperm. In pigs, the technique isn’t fast enough to be viable. So, basically, we can do better.

Embryo selection using CRISPR gene editing is a leaps-and-bounds improvement. For starters, it’s one-hundred-percent effective. Guaranteed. It’s also ethically more humane to cull embryos that have no nervous system and aren’t capable of suffering than live baby animals. And bonus, the resulting litters are a little larger—in mice. See here for the technical details.

Peter is quick to remind us that this research is still in the early stages. We know it works in mice. It’s bound to work in other animals but that’s yet to be tested. And at the farm level, it’s years away. In the Canadian beef industry, those coming into closest contact with the technique would be breeders.

“Once the line has been generated, it’s simply a matter of breeding,” confirms Peter. “You don’t have to gene-edit every generation, the genes required can be maintained stably in the sire and dam lines. The male carries a gene on his Y chromosome, and the female has a guide RNA that activates it. Cross them, and you get the required offspring in the next generation.”

One reason embryo selection is years away in agriculture is the public concern over genetic modification technology in the food chain.

“The UK is considering relaxing the rules around gene editing in ag,” says Peter. “That could provide important benefits, but also comes with some risks about reducing care and welfare. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done a lot of work around this. What level of biotech the public wants and why it’s acceptable are big questions. What we’ve done is provide a proof-of-principle to inform that debate… to take it out of the hypothetical and abstract into the real world.”

The Nuffield Report is clear that the public is suspicious of ag technology that lines producer’s pockets but more likely to be on board with it to improve animal welfare. However, the debate still has to explore acceptability behind using technology for breeding but where the end product is “normal”.

“We’re not engineering cows to produce more milk or grow faster. These animals will be the same as ones from conventional breeding practices,” says Peter. “Since milk doesn’t contain cells from the cow, that too will be normal. My sense is that public debate on gene editing will shift when people realize the welfare benefits that are possible. In the short term, that’s what our research will accomplish.”

In Canada, where GM salmon and apples are already on store shelves, public debate might reveal different answers than in the UK. Gentec researcher Ellen Goddard and her team are the national go-to experts on public acceptance and willingness-to-pay for technology-enhanced foods.

“I’d be very happy if Gentec decided to sponsor public surveying at a more granular level in Canada,” says Peter, who is a former collaborator of Gentec CEO Graham Plastow from his Ucambridge days.

Another reason for the long time horizon for embryo selection in ag is quite simply the need for more research. The research in mice represents 6-7 years of work, of which the first three alone were to develop cell lines. So the main next step—in parallel with the public debate—is developing cell lines to make sure that the parts that make the sex selection system in mice also work in other animals.

By then, we should have a better idea of whether the public, wherever they are, really wants to make a difference to animal suffering.

For more reading on this subject, try the official press release or the Francis Crick Institute website.









Animal Health Canada: A bold initiative to improve Canada’s resiliency to contagious animal diseases

“Our current approach to risk management around animal health is too fragmented and too under-invested in prevention. The economic consequences of contagion are so enormous that we can’t tolerate the status quo. We have to bring public and private interests together to prepare for and prevent disaster. Just around the corner, diseases are lurking that could slam our beef and pork exports and devastate the rural economy. The whole system requires a new frame of thinking.”

With those cautionary words, Rory McAlpine set the stage for how Animal Health Canada (AHC) would be different. Rory emphasizes that he has retired, and speaks from his position as a champion for the initial concept of AHC and his earlier work with the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council, which is the secretariat supporting the creation of AHC. Two examples illustrate his thoughts.

African swine fever (ASF) killed half of pigs in China either directly or through herd culls. It has not appeared in Canada but would take just one wild boar in a remote part of the country to bring $5 billion in pork exports to a standstill—overnight! You can bet that Canada isn’t ignoring this. An ASF Executive Management Board (on which Rory sat) is building a Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan.

“But they’re doing this off the side of their desks,” points out Rory. “If we had AHC, we’d be better prepared in terms of biosecurity standards, surveillance, traceability, border measures, and maybe even a vaccine. Even with AHC, it would be especially challenging if both wildlife and farm animals were implicated because disease management in wildlife is mostly a provincial matter.”

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is one such feared example. It’s like mad cow disease but in deer, caribou, elk, etc., which are a food source in Indigenous communities and rural Canada. Some evidence exists that it could transmit to humans. There is no nationally-focused prevention-based strategy to handle it. See the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report on CWD for a better idea of the imminent threat to Canadian agriculture. CWD represents an especially thorny challenge because risk management is all-encompassing, involving wildlife management, farm management, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, veterinarians several farm sectors and indigenous communities.

“The prion protein doesn’t care about borders,” says Rory. “It doesn’t care about mandates set in legislation about who’s responsible. COVID demonstrates the need for integrated governance when managing infectious diseases. Our current approach is too based on bureaucratic convenience and siloed action plans across industry. If more actors were prepared to share their authority and resources with a group like AHC, we could better manage these risks. CFIA certainly can’t do it alone.”

Although some stakeholders are fretting about the urgency related to ASF, AHC is not operational yet. The journey has been politically challenging, with several levels of government and multiple species groups all accustomed to autonomy. The final step to occur by 2022 is a legal public-private partnership with funding.

To get this far, potential models to adopt or adapt were examined. Animal Health Australia was considered a good fit: a public-private partnership that has been funded and given legal authority to manage animal health risks and the associated financial risk. That organization has a complicated formula to manage financial risk that considers variables like whether human health is implicated and whether the source of infection is foreign.

“We can learn from Australia and others,” states Rory. “If ASF strikes tomorrow, decisions have to be made immediately about zoning, liquidating herds and financial compensation. A response fraught with lobbying and hand-wringing is not ideal, and could compound the duration and severity of the crisis.”

This type of readiness provides opportunities to drive the development of genomics tools, whether related to tracing the origin of animals (“DNA fingerprinting”) or as part of developing less susceptible populations that reduce the impact of disease. Whether we use the “Swiss cheese model” or “rings of protection”, different approaches help build resilience into a system where redundancy has been eliminated as part of just-in-time efficiencies.

But isn’t animal health just one third of the equation? Shouldn’t we be talking about One Health?

“One Health is the ultimate prize,” Rory concedes. “An integrated One Health approach to managing public health and animal health in the face of zoonotic disease risks has to start with better coordination in each camp. We have world-leading scientific capacity, digital technologies and financial resources… now we need our decision-making structures to catch up. The lives of people and animals depend on it.”

For more background on Canada’s need for Animal Health Canada, see Rory’s article in the “transition binder” the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute would give to the new minister for Agriculture, after the 2021 federal election.

“In that article, I use the example that it took SARS to stimulate the need to create the Public Health Agency of Canada, albeit lacking good integration with provincial public health authorities, as we see in the COVID response” says Rory. “And it took the tainted blood tragedy to fix our national blood safety system via Canadian Blood Services. We can learn from these examples in the space of animal health.”

But I’ve been using antibiotics for my animals all my life!


We know we should be more careful about appropriate antibiotic use for people, domestic and farm animals to avoid increasing antimicrobial resistance. But how exactly should we be more careful? And how come the solution isn’t the same for everybody? Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard tackled some of the thorny questions around behaviour change at a UCalgary One Health webinar on November 17.

One Health has a very complex definition but we tend to think of it as relating to zoonotic diseases, especially diseases from wildlife. The principal drivers for the emergence of zoonoses are human activities such as agriculture, travel, trade and land use.

So almost everybody is affected by the definition but an office worker in downtown Toronto may not feel the same connection as someone who works directly with animals, be they farmed, domestic or wild. That very context colours our approach to potential solutions.

Farmers, for example, are directly involved. If you’re a farmer, you’re probably convinced that you’re behaving in the best way possible to protect your animals, the environment and the health of your family. You’ve learned and studied as much as you can from your neighbours, extension agents and vets. So if somebody shows up on your doorstep saying that you need to change your habits around antibiotics completely—and you’ve always used antibiotics successfully to protect your animals—that idea is not going to go down well. That may be because you don’t fully understand the connection between antibiotics and the development of antimicrobial resistance. Or because you don’t see that the actions you take on your one farm also affect the soil, waterways and wildlife far beyond it.

So complexity is one of the fundamental things that discourages behaviour change.

Another is that, at the end of the day, we are dealing with people, individuals and society’s approach to the use and care of animals. We all have views about animals: they are created in our youth, through cultural ties, schooling, etc.—and they almost never change. If we’re raised to believe that animals need protection and care, that applies to all animals. If we find out that they are being mistreated or subjected to actions that we interpret as mistreatment, we are likely to respond very strongly.

For example, culling animals is one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of disease, whether to protect domestic or farm animals, wildlife or humans. As scientists, this is obvious. That’s what the data say. But if half of society has strong, fundamental, ethical beliefs about not mistreating animals and the authorities are going to cull a large number of wildlife, you can bet the reaction will be angry and hostile. This is a perfectly rational response from people who believe protecting animals is ethical. And they think they’re doing the right thing.

An example of this is the badger cull in the UK. Badgers are a protected species, so the public can’t get its head around the idea of culling them because they are bringing tuberculosis onto livestock farms. Badgers need protecting, period. That said, the public supports vaccinating the badgers (this is doable). On the other hand, farmers are desperate for protection from this disease. They want the culls. Once again, the data show that, in areas of the UK where culling has taken place, the rate of cattle infection from tuberculosis is lower. So farmers say, “See? Culling works.” Then the decision falls into political hands, and citizens feel undermined because their position, contribution and voice aren’t valued.

An example closer to home is chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids. Deer are far removed from most people’s lives these days, so you’d think the public would have no interest in culling decisions. The Alberta government tried that—and there was a huge pushback. People simply didn’t like the idea of killing huge numbers of deer and elk. Setting the cull aside for a moment, CWD hasn’t been shown to affect livestock or humans but we don’t know if that will change or what the long-term implications are. Farmers say they like the idea of deer and wildlife on their property. They worry that if CWD is transmissible, they would have to act to stop the deer/human/animal interaction. They like that their farms are private property, not accessible to others. It makes them feel they can control some aspects of their environment. So we have to understand what motivates people to change their behaviour when an issue of animal health may affect the public.

From our surveys, we know that everybody opposes taking NO action; but hunters, outfitters and the public differ hugely on the type of action to take. If you make your livelihood on something that will be restricted, you will feel more strongly than the said office worker in Toronto. So individual behaviour influences the success of any One Health strategy. If we don’t come up with multifaceted solutions, we will fail because, particularly in the context of animals, people have strong feelings that drive whether they accept or reject solutions.

That’s why it’s so important to do behavioural modelling to test strategies that may be successful. We need to understand what drives people’s behaviour, pick the strategies that encourage change, and tailor them to groups and individuals on the front lines. This will be essential if we’re going to apply One Health in a way that benefits the world to come.






Sean McGrath: 5th generation rancher, believer in genomics

In our September 2021 newsletter, we profiled Cherie Copithorne-Barnes and CL Ranches. In this edition, we expand on our brief introduction to Sean McGrath and Round Rock Ranching to discover a few more of the fascinating details about the Round Rock. Spoiler alert: it’s about as “Ponderosa” as it gets.

Round Rock Ranches traces its lineage back to 1906 when David Ganton filed the homestead application on the Battleford Trail. Here, 6 km north of the northern tip of the Battleford River between the Grizzly Bear and Benner Coulee junctions, young David planted the family flag. Since then, the branding iron has been passed to David’s son Charles, Charles’ daughter Mary, and then to her son Fred (Sean’s father). Today, Fred (who just turned 84) and his wife Anne, still help on the ranch with Sean and his wife Tanya handling the management as they improve the land and cattle to transfer responsibility to their three children who are growing up fast!

Today, the ranch consists of an Angus-based cowherd of 250+ head raised on 3,200 acres of land of which 85% is still native rangeland. The operation of the ranch is based on a few simple principles. The first is that “Mother Nature can do amazing things if you let her”. In practical terms, it means management working with nature and protecting the land so it can continue to operate for the upcoming 6th generation as it has done for the first five. This strategy allows native grasses to thrive while promoting healthy wildlife habitats, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

The second principle is to maintain an outward focus. This has meant always trying to see Round Rock through the eyes of others, primarily their customers, be it a feedlot purchasing feeder cattle, a neighbour purchasing F1 replacement heifers or the consumer eating grass-fed beef.

The third is to create the “Best Beef in a Better World”, which flows out of working with, not against, the nature of the land, and starting with the end in mind. Logically, this leads to selecting cattle that best integrate with the land’s natural attributes and has resulted in the development of the ranch’s own Ranchmaker Herd. The Angus-based herd is bred to improve and optimize the balance between the maternal traits that drive fertility and profitability while delivering balanced growth and carcass characteristics that cattle buyers and consumers demand.

The ranch philosophy places a high degree of importance on hybrid vigour. In Sean’s words, “The research has repeatedly shown the advantages of heterosis (hybrid vigour) in terms of improved producer profitability,” continuing that, “Compared to a straightbred cow, the F1 cow averages the equivalent of weaning 1 extra calf (on average) in her lifetime through enhanced fertility, improved disease resistance, stronger maternal ability, and greater calver resilience and growth.” These are principles that John Basarab developed into EnVigour HX™ and Gentec continues to apply to developing value for commercial producers. See above links.

Typical of the practicality exhibited by ranchers (and the above focus on the customer), Sean does qualify that his own herd is largely straight-bred Angus, admitting that they do lose some of the associated benefits of hybrid vigour. In his view, however, this loss is more than offset by the greater flexibility provided by producing F1 replacements desired by their customers.

The evolution of Round Rock Ranch and the principles outlined above have led the ranch to become involved with and recognized by many industry and environmental initiatives. Among these, the ranch participates in many research initiatives relating to environmental health as well as beef production (including Gentec initiatives); Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS); has achieved Landscape Health Verification through the Cows and Fish REAL Beef Program; complies with Verified Beef Production Protocols; has an Environmental Farm Plan associated with the ALUS program; and was awarded the 2014 Canadian Cattlemen’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA).

After E-Day: The challenges and opportunities of Canada’s federal government regarding agriculture

Canada must have a plan to protect and invest in our agri-food systems so that it can be economically beneficial and sustainable in the long term. For that to happen, the right policies must be put in place, backed by strategic thinking, a systems approach, and supported by strong public-private partnerships and aspirational leadership. The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute brought together its 4 Distinguished Fellows (of whom Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard is one) in a webinar, which we summarize for you below.

The idea behind CAPI’s Distinguished Fellows program is for these key thought leaders to collaborate over the coming year on issues important to agriculture (trade, one health, water and climate change) that lead to innovative policy thinking.

SUBHEAD As you look to build the framework for One Health and what that means in Canada, how is COVID a One-Health issue, and how does it relate to anti-microbial resistance (AM) and African swine fever?

Ellen Goddard: The important thing that happened in the past 18 months is science. Not just vaccines but many topics that spill over so, globally, we’re ahead of where we were before COVID. The spillover will start to emerge after the extreme phases.

Overall, I’d like to see a higher profile for the potential of these diseases. Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada (AAFC) has a core role to play in facilitating the national response to these diseases and to zoonoses. We understand these pathways exist but their study is compartmentalized, and we’re not consistent in our approaches when they interact between people and animals. At that point, it isn’t even clear which ministry is in charge. Could be the Ministry of the Environment or Natural Resources for wildlife, or AAFC or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for livestock. And the Public Health Agency of Canada often doesn’t participate.

Canada has been lucky with AMR compared to European countries that are dramatically reducing their use of antimicrobials in livestock production because the development of AMR bacteria is affecting human health. We need to knock that on the head soon. All these challenges need to be facilitated through a federal ministry that interacts with other ministries and leads the provinces in terms of these actions.

SUBHEAD Climate and health were well-featured in the campaign, as was the debate and impact of carbon tax, exemptions for farmers, etc. What do you think governments are getting right and wrong?

Susan Wood-Bohm. That this government is continuing not restructuring gives us the opportunity to evaluate past performance and see what’s in front of us. The key document I focus on is the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It shows that this government intends to link the post-COVID economic recovery to climate change, and what we can do to serve climate change goals and economic goals. The document is sound. The difficulty is that it isn’t fleshed out. Some programs have rolled out but we only tend to hear about them if they pertain to climate change, not agriculture. Part of that problem is that government doesn’t speak the language of agriculture, which is very important to the economy, so I’d say learn that language and understand that agriculture is a viable and economic force in this country, and a natural force to deal with climate change.


The Framework document has an annex that shows the government’s intention to reduce emissions from agriculture and look at what agriculture can to do help us address climate change goals. But again, it’s a framework document. It hasn’t been fleshed out. There haven’t been real actions. So going forward, we’re looking for real action—with producer organizations and producers. We need to hear their voices.

SUBHEAD. We didn’t hear anything about water during the campaign. We can expect droughts on the Prairies and too much rain in Eastern Canada. Water plays a role in attracting food processing to Canada. How do you see the dialogue around water policy playing out over the next four years? Will issues on the horizon focus attention on water?

Nicolas Mesly. Water will be THE issue of the 21st century. Canada has 17% of the world’s fresh water. When we export agricultural products—and we’re the fifth largest exporter in the world—we’re also exporting water. One issue to analyze is how provincial rules complement each other or interfere, and how that affects producers. Another issue is how fracking affects the water table and producers. We’ll also be looking at whether water is a commodity and should be subject to tariffs when it is exported. If we are in a resilient agri-food system, we will need water policies and management, and to conserve water. I look forward to working with CAPI on these issues.

SUBHEAD. Commentators noted that no attention was paid to foreign affairs and trade on the campaign trail—while Afghanistan was on fire. Canada is also left out of a new security partnership. The changing international landscape will reshape our foreign affairs strategy. How does agri-food fit in?

Ted Bilyea. The other panelists outlined a strategic position for Canada. We have an abundance of raw materials, particularly food, energy and minerals. The world can be as brilliant as it wants but it can’t live without these basics. My concern is that we have a potentially winning hand but we don’t know how to play our cards very well. That’s what I’ll be focusing on this year.

Canada has a reputation for high animal health that allows us to enter any market. In some cases, it’s worth $1/kg. Similarly, our crops are low-residue so can also go to high premium markets. Now we are moving into a world where climate change, water play a role. Countries have to meet the commitments they are making. And we see already that will cut production, significantly. Look at the EU. The same is happening in China. Most people haven’t spotted that we’re shipping fewer soybeans than expected, partly because the swine industry has some issues but there’s also not enough electricity to run plants because of carbon commitments. We’re in a new world where we don’t recognize the hand we have. As Nicolas was saying, countries are forced to divert water from agriculture to cities and even to preserve biodiversity, some close to home. That and the fact that you can only have certain animal density before you’re guaranteed a disease and you’re going to have more coming. All of those suggest we should be thinking more strategically about how we play with trade policy. The possibilities are significant where we could gain leverage and use it for good—not just to make money — to have a more sustainable, peaceful world.

SUBHEAD. If you were Trudeau writing a mandate letter to the new Minister for AAFC, What would you say is Job #1?

Ellen Goddard. We can’t stop people, animals or food from moving around the planet. If we don’t address these issues seriously, we can’t guarantee the quality of Canadian products. A lot of disease issues are flowing under people’s agendas, so I’d say develop a one-health policy that will guarantee the quality of Canadian food exports.

Susan Wood-Bohm. In 2017, the government released the Barton Report on the potential for agriculture to lead an economic recovery for Canada. It’s interesting that we’re now in a position where we have a significant economic recovery to address. The report suggested we could lead the recovery by responding to the needs of the global market, and that includes COVID, by addressing increasing protein demands and developing partners. That seems awfully relevant today. So, I hope the letter says: we have this report, it’s a good one. Get on with delivering it and look after issues like access to capital for producers.

Nicolas Mesly. AAFC is asking producers to increase organic matter in soil as a strategy to mitigate climate change. It’s driven by corn and soya pumping out the organic matter. Another thing has been the $40 billion of Trump money to buy farmers’ votes that’s being invested in US farms. We don’t have the same envelope or programs to protect our revenue. American producers are doing well. Our system works when prices are low. The forest is hiding the trees. China is pulling prices up so we have to think competitively. We need to play our cards right. It’s an opportunity but we have to discuss all the issues with the public and farmers.

Ted Bilyea. We need to up our game from cards to chess, so less whackamole. It’s that important. I agree with the speakers. I’d like to see AAFC place more emphasis on the strategic importance of agriculture on our health, economy, climate and so many other important files. It will have to lead on some of those files as well as just doing. And we need a shift in shared responsibility between federal and provincial governments from firefighting to more action and foresight and joint strategic planning. We might start with reactivating the outlook conference where we share knowledge with industry. CAPI will be good for that. It might be an avenue to take the outlook conference out of government and bring it to neutral ground.

As for competitiveness and innovation, it was left out of the campaign but it’s critical. The developed world has seen significant decline in R&D in agriculture. Government R&D has declined in that sphere and, in Canada, business investment in R&D has declined as well. But in developing nations, Brazil, China, the business portion has increased. So, we are seeing others take on the more interesting R&D portfolios, partly because we’re not good at commercializing. Canada was built on firsts: William Davies built Canadian Packers, imported the first genetics and we became world leaders in genetics for pigs and cattle. We need R&D productivity to race ahead but we won’t get there until government and business collaborate on R&D research.


Watch/listen to the entire webinar here.