CBIN: Promising value for the beef industry

The idea behind CBIN—the Canadian Beef Improvement Network—has been percolating for decades. In November 2020, it progressed from an initiative to a concrete entity, under the leadership of David Sibbald (Interim Chair) and Sandy Russell, Director of Business Development.

Today, CBIN has a well-defined purpose—to improve the genetics of Canada’s national beef herd by collaborating across the beef production system to unlock the value of genetic data—and a growing number of partners across the entire beef value chain to get the job done.

For Russell, who grew up on a cow-calf operation in Saskatchewan and has 20 years of experience in agriculture, CBIN is a no-brainer.

“As an agricultural economist, I realized that the lack of coordinated information and our inability to capitalize on what we had was leaving dollars on the table. We have a strong industry but we’re continually under pressure to generate value. Genetics addresses that pressure from the monetary side and the environmental side.”

But it’s been a long haul due partly to the hesitancy around whether genetics really does create value. Producers are busy people, and sceptical about innovation without seeing the proof. And they don’t want to spend their days poring over paperwork, either. Standard opinion says that, if there truly were value to be had, a CBIN lookalike would have been done years ago. Russell’s answer: it wasn’t done because it’s a huge, difficult undertaking, and requires collaboration across the industry. No single organization can deliver CBIN.

In the last year, with backing from the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, Russell and Sibbald started knocking on doors—and found significant industry engagement. Seeing the value in the innovation that lies ahead, the Charolais, Hereford, Angus and Simmental breed associations committed to collaborate and share resources to making CBIN happen.

“The assumption was that they were in competition… not willing to collaborate,” explains Russell. “We should all be proud that everybody came together for the best interest of the Canadian beef industry to achieve a lofty goal. To see that daily, especially at the seedstock level, is wonderful.”

As sometimes happens, once momentum starts to build, it develops its own multiplying energy. Russell was hired full-time in November. Since then, she and Sibbald have been going flat out to keep up, and move into the operational stage. That means bringing the leadership together, agreeing on a governance structure, unifying existing genetics data and figuring out how to collect it in uniform ways in future, and, most of all, improving genetic literacy to help inform decisions at the producer level.

Staying focused on the vision and what CBIN can achieve is helping to overcome the natural hesitancy, as is the determination of the breed associations and the leadership to deliver value from genetics to the industry—and the extension work that Gentec has been doing these last 10 years.

“The science that Gentec does and the resources it brings will be critical to advance CBIN’s initiatives,” says Russell. “When CBIN thrives, so does Gentec—and vice versa. Gentec does the innovative thinking. CBIN is the link for those innovative research and technologies to reach the cow-calf level and across the entire beef production chain.”

In April, CBIN is announcing the Executive Committee members who will lead the charge on the governance structure. Then, announcements about key partnerships.

We’re a long way from the finish line, there is still a lot of work to do” says Russell. “Keep your eye on CBIN’s accomplishments because big things are coming soon that will get the industry’s attention!”

How do Canadians view livestock products, 2016 vs 2020

Consumption of livestock products, particularly from cattle, is becoming more and more controversial. Issues such as the contribution of cattle to GHG emissions and/or climate change, the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and competition from plant and cellular-based substitutes are all influencing consumption. From two national Canadian surveys, we examined whether things are changing and how fast.

Between 2016 and 2020 (August/September, so well into the pandemic), there was a significant increase in the perceptions of Canadians about the contribution of farming for meat and dairy production to climate change. Not that they thought it was the biggest contributor—but that more people thought it was a significant contributor. Given that, people were more committed to giving up meat (increase from 41% of respondents in 2016 to 45% in 2020) than dairy (stayed flat at 34% of the population) to reduce their own contribution to climate change. However, when asked specifically whether they had reduced their dairy consumption over the last two years, only 25% replied yes in 2016 versus 32% in 2020 – a big jump. When those who had reduced their dairy consumption explained why they had done so, health was the most important reason in both years, although fewer people selected health as the reason in 2020. Concerns about the use of antibiotics in livestock production decreased between 2016 (third most important reason) and 2020 (seventh most important reason) as did concerns about the use of hormones. There was a significant change between 2016 and 2020 about concerns about the environmental footprint of dairy production, which rose from the fifth most important reason for reducing dairy consumption to the second most important reason. There was no change in the contribution of substitutes (plant or cellular) to reducing dairy consumption: it remained the fifth most important reason.

From the results, from a pre-pandemic period to a pandemic period four years later, concerns about the link between food consumption and environmental footprint are stronger. Although there is no denying the public health concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria; those do not seem to be affecting dairy consumption as significantly as they did four years ago. It is difficult to ascertain why without further study, but it is important to note that people (in pandemic period) are dealing with so many major challenges to their lives that they may have a reduced focus on some issues that were previously important. Understanding and being able to reduce the environmental footprint from beef and dairy, sectors that are cattle-driven, is important and growing in importance with or because of the pandemic. That too requires further study.

 

AgSights: Helping clients to build their brands through traceability

AgSights was one of the earliest companies in Ontario to collect phenotypic data on beef cattle, starting in 1993, thanks to a provincially-funded program to support the beef industry. When that funding stopped, the enormous database was a valuable starting point to develop solutions focused on traceability.

AgSights’ original farm management software has been upgraded and renamed Go360|bioTrack. Originally, it focused heavily on genetics; today the emphasis of Go360|bioTrack is on helping producers evolve their business and management style to take advantage of ALL the data they collect. It features a chute-side application to capture data in real  time that fits into existing tagging methods and an interface in a grid format that allows for instant, easy comparisons and effective decision-making.

AgSights’ bioLinks solution, on the other hand, is designed for small-to-medium-sized processing plants. “We bought a food inventory tracking and sales program that Alberta Agriculture (as it was known then) developed,” says Betty-Jo Almond, AgSights’ General Manager. “We added a production piece that connected the source farm and RFID of animals to follow each animal and meat cut using a bar code to the individual consumer. So today, we can connect the data across the whole value chain. We also offer weekly genetic evaluations through Go360|bioTrack. As we continue to evolve, it would be great to incorporate data from both softwares into the evaluation process.”

Also using RFID tags/technology, bioLinks follows animals from the farm to the processing plant—and then each cut from inventory to individual purchases. And that part is the clincher. By directly reaching the ear of the consumer and supporting feedback through a QR code, producers and processors can learn about the consumer experience when eating the product.

“Consumers like to give feedback,” explains Betty-Jo. “It’s empowering. Just look at the way product is promoted and labelled in your grocery store. They want to know more about the food they’re eating. We just haven’t enabled this to benefit consumers or the livestock industry.”

bioLinks provides the opportunity to build the story of the product and brand it. In a chain grocery store, for example, since each meat cut gets its own unique ID, it is possible to bring up a quick webpage of key marketing information on the consumer’s mobile device. This might include: what farm the animal was raised on (and therefore, whether it is locally-sourced); whether the animal was sustainably produced without hormones; whether it was corn-fed or grass-fed. Should there ever be a recall on the product, the traceability is bullet-proof—both backwards to the carcass and the farm and forwards to the consumer’s fridge—and that minimizes any potential impact. Producers and processors can evolve their businesses to satisfy consumer demands, and consumers get the source information they’ve been asking for. Win-win!

“Cory Van Groningen from VG Meats is one of our Board members. He uses bioLinks. And another, Mike Buis, is a supplier” says Betty-Jo. “So we have first-hand feedback on the endless potential when you start connecting the data from farm to fork. VG Meats is a great example. They want to buy more animals within a range of 5-13 mm backfat, and they test for tenderness because that’s how their consumers select meat for their dinner table. Not enough cross-linkages like that are happening across the industry.”

But, before data can be applied… we need the research! That’s where Gentec comes in. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow has been a member of the AgSights board since 2013, and AgSights was a partner on Gentec’s Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard) funded by a Genome Canada project and its Genome Alberta-funded successor project on feed efficiency (led by John Basarab, now at Gentec).

“Different technologies can play a role, depending on the question being asked,” says Plastow. “However, DNA is the ‘passport’ providing the basis to add information, such as that provided by AgSights. Collecting data throughout the chain allows us to identify tools to help improve product attributes. The QR code allows the consumer to ask those questions, indicate what is important to each of them—and get the answers”

The best that I can be

It was while studying Animal Science as an undergraduate that the concept of ‘how characteristics are inherited across generations’ struck Dan Hailemariam’s curiosity. He pursued that curiosity in a Master’s program in Applied Genetics at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. However, it was at the University of Bonn, Germany, where he completed his PhD on cattle molecular genetics that his ideas about his career and research coalesced.

“I see myself as always researching to understand more about animal science,” he says. “My goal is to help solve the challenges of modern dairy cattle production, specifically, improving feed efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

A post-doc position at UAlberta, screening biomarkers for dairy cow diseases under Dr. Burim Ametaj, brought Dan to Edmonton. When that project ended, he sought out Gentec as a centre with a good reputation in carrying out genetics research. In fact, he credits Gentec with helping him understand and define himself. He tells it this way:

“At one of my first group meetings, Graham [Plastow, Gentec CEO] talked about Gentec’s core values: trust, excellence, learning and leadership. He said, ‘if you’re not learning, come and see me.’ I thought, this is where I want to be. These are the values I share. I’m ambitious and I believe in hard work. Here, I can be the best of myself. His words changed my life, the way I think, and the way I do. I make sure I learn every day.”

Currently, Dan is a Research Associate working on a project out of UoGuelph with Gentec-associated researcher Christine Baes to develop genomic tools to enable implementation of selection to increase dairy cow resilience. The project is a 4-year international collaboration. As part of UAlberta’s dairy group, Dan is involved in expanding the reference population for feed efficiency and methane emissions, and developing methods to utilize milk spectra data.

Dan’s own research focuses on identifying biomarkers of feed efficiency, and understanding the metabolic adaptations of feed-efficient lactating dairy cows. He uses a systems biology approach that integrates multi-omics data (genomics, metabolomics and proteomics) to understand the physiology of feed efficiency. This approach also helps identify reliable, cost effective and easily-detectable biomarkers of feed efficiency, which could lead to tools that facilitate the selection for feed-efficient cows, and help dairy farmers save on feed costs and reduce the carbon footprint of dairy production.

One interesting result that has been published is “Comparative analyses of enteric methane emissions, dry matter intake and milk somatic cell count in different feed efficiency categories of dairy cows” in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science. In that research, the team showed that the most efficient cows consume 12.9% less feed and emit 15.5% less methane compared to the least efficient cows for the same level of milk production. The most efficient cows also had lower milk somatic cell count, indicating desirable correlation between subclinical mastitis and feed efficiency in dairy cows.

“At Gentec, every day is exciting,” concludes Dan. “I like my work because the more I engage, read, write, design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data, the better I am becoming, and the more I find myself. I feel good about it. I’m optimistic that I will be part of an accomplishment that develops tools to improve feed efficiency and reduce GHG emissions from dairy cattle.”

Consistent genetic selection for RFI brings economic and environmental results!

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” -Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

This quote from “The Rock” especially resonates in the area of genetic selection in beef cattle. But goals are one thing. Putting in place a plan to meet those goals, and sticking to this plan, is what yields results.

To this end, researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and UAlberta conducted a breeding and selection program for residual feed intake (RFI) in the crossbred cattle herd at UAlberta’s Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch. The 1st years of selection were supported by grants from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, and the Beef Cattle Research Council. To start, the main crossbred herd was split in two based upon cattle age, and calving date the previous year, to yield equal herds. Then one herd was subjected to a traditional selection scheme, which was growth from birth to one year of age for both replacement heifers and bulls, including a cut-off for birthweights. This was the “Control” herd. For the other herd, replacement breeder selection was based on a selection index that included EPDs for maternal weaning weight, and genomically-enhanced breeding values for RFI (but still including the cut-offs for birth weights). This herd was named the “Efficient” herd.

Even after project funding ended, researchers maintained these Control and Efficient herds, and continued selection for RFI in the Efficient herd though their replacement bulls. They also continued testing all potential replacement breeding animals for RFI through funding from other projects. Replacement heifers in the Efficient herd have slowly decreased their RFI values, and in winter 2019-2020, Efficient heifers consumed 4.8% less feed than the Control heifers during their RFI test. This is an improvement of 0.7%/year for RFI, which is in line with the 0.5%-0.8%/year improvement rate as reported at the end of the formal projects.

To put this in an economic context, we can compare the difference in feed costs for these heifers:

For example, a crossbred heifer at Kinsella consumes on average 8.71 kg DM (dry matter)/day. The difference in intake between the Efficient vs Control heifers is 0.42 kg DM/d or 4.8%. Therefore, feed savings would be $0.15/kg DM x 365 days x 0.42 kg DM/day = ~$23/heifer/year.

Would any cattle producer like to save $23/head/year in feed costs? Of course, they would! Multiply that by 100 head of cattle, the savings could reach $2,300. And the savings increase as more feed efficient cattle are fed.

Now, what about environmental benefits? Well, a heifer of the same size and genetic background as the above Efficient heifers at Kinsella emits ~179 g CH4/day as measured by Manafiazar et al (2020). The same study found that heifers with a difference in DMI of 8% also had a difference in CH4 emissions of 2.5%/day. Therefore, a difference in DMI of 4.8% as a result of selecting for RFI as described above would be associated with a difference in daily CH4 emission of 1.5%. This equates to 2.69 g CH4/day, or 0.98 kg/year. The global warming potential of methane is its grams emitted multiplied by a factor of 28, which, in our example, equals a difference of 27.4 kg CO2e/year. Thus, enteric CH4 emissions from an Efficient heifer would be predicted to be 27.4 kg CO2e/year lower than from a Control heifer. Multiply that by 100 heifers and now you have a difference of 2,740 kg, or 2.74 tonnes. So what?

To put this in context, we will compare these emissions to GHG emissions from an average car, which emits ~404 g of CO2/mile. The reduction in enteric methane emissions brought about by selection for RFI in these 100 cattle is equivalent to a car driving 6,782 miles. Whoa! Can we do that? Yes, we can. 🙂

Experts discuss food affordability and access

Issues around food affordability and access are clearly related to the pandemic we have been struggling with since March. However, most speakers at the webinar on Food Affordability and Access hosted by The Globe and Mailwith support from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity identified that they are not new. (Speakers were Bob Lowe, President of the Canadian Cattleman’s Association; Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada; Joshna Maharaj, chef, activist and author of a new book, Take Back the Tray; and Ellen Goddard, Gentec-associated researcher.)

The issues may be heightened, and they are affecting more people but many researchers and NGOs have been raising issues that need addressing in our food system for years. For example, the fact that Canada has a food security problem is not new, nor are the massive inequities in food security across different communities and groups – but the increase in scale of the problem associated with illness and unemployment from measures to reduce spread of the virus was unprecedented.

Overnight, the shutdown in food service, which had accounted for approximately 30% of an average household’s food budget, caused huge dislocations in how food was processed. Regulations on food preparation for food service are very different than those for retail sales to consumers in terms of packaging size and labeling, as two examples. To ensure that food products could flow to consumers through grocery stores quickly, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency relaxed some regulations on non-traditional packaging and labeling. The spread of illness within food-processing facilities caused shutdowns which, in the case of livestock, caused farm-level prices to fall and retail prices to increase, a phenomenon the public found difficult to understand and policy makers were not initially prepared for. Regulations put in place to keep employees and customers safe increased costs throughout the system. Consumers, at home for work and school, started to interact with food in different ways, including lots more cooking, storage of basic ingredients (shortages of flour) and, for many people, interest in buying direct from farmers. Whether this was driven by concerns about safety or reducing risks from long supply chains and shortages in traditional grocery is unknown.

The suddenness with which our lives changed certainly ‘inconvenienced’ some people but for the already food-insecure and the newly-unemployed, it was a massive shock. Unexpected empty shelves at the grocery store were a major surprise for the majority of Canadians who had never faced such a phenomenon. Canada’s interdependence with international markets for imports and exports became dramatically obvious. Questions as to whether we should be as dependent on foreign markets were raised by many. The use of technology throughout the food supply system, which a year earlier had seemed quite threatening to jobs, generated different attitudes when it seemed like automation and robots might be able to reduce costs associated with employees either getting ill or needing to be protected from illness and increase safety for purchasers. We all started washing our groceries when we got them home from the store by click-and-collect or by online delivery (both showing massive increases over pre-pandemic times).

As of October 2020, food prices are higher than they were in October 2019, with increases much higher than overall goods in the economy. See table for a selected set of price changes.

 

Consumer Price Index: % Change from October 2019 to October 2020

all items food meat dairy products fresh fruit fresh vegetables
0.66 2.27 1.73 3.23 4.58 9.51
Statistics Canada: Consumer Price Index, monthly, not seasonally adjusted

As the second phase of the pandemic in Canada surges and employment remains fragile for some, these higher food prices make life very difficult. Combining the data with data on job creation (or losses, if negative) highlights a scary picture (data charted by Prof Mikal Skuterud, University of Waterloo, skuterud@uwaterloo.ca).

Clearly the economy is fragile, and food accessibility and access is going to remain a high concern for the foreseeable future.

Although our food system did not break during the first surge of the pandemic in the spring, almost every aspect of the food system is now receiving a second look. The farming/ranching sector is concerned about a myriad of issues – from labour welfare and availability (affected by illness and restrictions on international movement of seasonal workers) to the ways in which it can be supported when disaster strikes, particularly livestock sectors with thin margins and animals that need care and feeding, and reoriented supply chains requiring changes to when and how products are marketed. From a variety of perspectives, public policy needs to consider the entire food system. We should be past focusing on conventional commercial agriculture, our food system also includes unique, local, short supply chain food systems that are critical to Canadians, and require support of a different design.

That said, Canada is in the lucky position of producing many foods efficiently and cost effectively, and we have a responsibility to export that food to the rest of the world. In an environment where logistics have been overturned by massive reductions in air traffic and difficulties with land transport for first-line workers at risk of contracting disease, significant public policy issues continue to require resolution.

Fundamentally, food security is a public policy issue that requires serious consideration in Canada. It cannot be resolved by assuming charities will take care of it, nor can charities do so in circumstances like the pandemic. Food security in Canada needs its own dedicated policies and solutions to issues as varied as access to affordable fresh food year round in the North, local food support systems and innovative food distribution systems when disaster strikes. Nutrition is a key component of health and quality of life. Canada does have the capacity to produce healthy foods for more than our own population. However we need effective food policy to address pervasive issues highlighted by the pandemic.

Feed additives or genomics? Can cows be made to produce less GHGs?

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide, and the planet’s 1 billion cows burp their fair share of it. On the other hand, beef cows are valuable members of their ecosystems. In Canada, they spend their whole lives roaming outdoors consuming grass, crop residues and conserved hay and forages. They also provide ecosystems services, such as preventing the encroachment of invasive species on our endangered Prairie grasslands. In short, beef cows are here to stay, so we need to find a way to reduce their methane production.

At least four approaches to reducing methane and GHG emissions have been considered: feed additives, genetic/genomic selection, breeding and operational management, and adjustment of the rumen microbiome. Let’s see how the first two stack up. The Economic Times summarized the different feed additives nicely in this article.

“The DSM product works,” says John Basarab, a beef scientist with the University of Alberta and Gentec-associated researcher. “That product has a scientific basis, and is supported by studies all over the world, including by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers Karen Beauchemin and Tim McAllister.”

Lemongrass may also work (researchers at University of California Davis have an ongoing trial), possibly due to its small amounts of essential oils. However, we don’t know for sure if feeding edible oil to cattle reduces their methane emissions, but we do know that feeding more than 5% oil in the diet can lower feed intake and performance. So no panacea!

“A better candidate is seaweed,” says Basarab. “Specifically, a red seaweed from the Asparagopsis family that’s getting amazing amounts of mitigation in trials in New Zealand. They’re getting 40-98% reductions in feedlot cattle, not just in the lab.”

Of course, the study needs to be repeated to see if others can get similar results. And we still need to find out if seaweed affects meat quality, animal welfare, etc.

But here’s the real kicker with additives… The trick is to get them into cattle in a consistent and regulated dose. How do you do that when animals are way out on pasture, and can pick and choose what they eat (or don’t eat)? Some cows love the pelleted additive-containing feed and gobble it all up, leaving none for the others. So additives work best in feedlot situations where it’s easier to control feed ingredients and intake. But remember, Canadian cows are outside year-round, and feeder cattle only spend 3-5 months of their lives in feedlots, so the potential for reducing GHGs is limited. Other factors to consider are additive regulation, availability, producing to scale, cost and transportation. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency must approve any new feed ingredients, and the DSM additive has yet to be approved. Lemongrass is a tropical grass and not likely a methane-mitigating candidate for the Canadian beef industry. Seaweed can be harvested off the west and east coasts or grown though aquaponic systems—although scale up, cost and transportation will be sizable challenges. Again, no panacea!

All this sounds promising at best. What about genetics?

Improving feed efficiency through genomics will reduce GHG emissions from beef production primarily because feed-efficient cattle need less feed for the same level of production. This kind of progress is cumulative, but slow, and unlikely to match the immediate mitigation potential that feed additives, alternative management, and breeding strategies have.

“We’ve also done projects that resulted in molecular breeding values for methane emission,” says Basarab. “But again, genetic progress is expected to be slow!”

Why so slow? The dairy and pork sectors are vertically integrated, allowing them to reap the benefits of genomics (production efficiency and profitability) relatively fast. In contrast, the beef sector is fragmented, with some parts of the value chain competing against each other, and limited sharing of data for mutual benefit. Basarab estimates that reducing beef cattle’s methane emissions by 10% through genetic/genomic selection would take 20-25 years at the present rate of adoption—or 10% in half the same time if the industry integrates and adopts technologies like genomics.

“The bottom line,” he says, “is that, if we want the beef industry to lower its carbon footprint, we need a combination of strategies: operational management to reduce days to slaughter and increase carcass weight; breeding management to increase hybrid vigour; feeding management and nutrition to improve production and feed efficiency; and genetic selection and the adoption of genomic technologies to improve hard-to-measure traits and speed the rate of genetic improvement. One single way isn’t best.”

All Industry, All the Way

Jenny Patterson, a Gentec research associate, has built an enviable portfolio of industry support with pig companies in Alberta, Ontario and the US. As with all worthwhile things, this level of success didn’t come fast.

Jenny completed her MSc in Animal Science at UAlberta in 2001, specializing in Gilt Management and Reproduction. She then spent a couple of years at the Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatoon as a research assistant, where she was involved in running her first commercial trial in gilt management. She returned to the UAlberta as a research coordinator at the Swine Research and Technology Centre, for the Swine Reproduction and Development Program led by Drs George Foxcroft and Michael Dyck, where she became increasingly involved in large commercial research trials. Their research work focused on implementing management practices to better capture the true genetic potential of contemporary dam and sire lines by improving gilt management to maximize sow lifetime productivity, improving the impact of AI boars in the production system and improving efficiencies at the production level.

Her most recent work was as part of a coordinated National Pork Board research strategy at Holden Farms in 2014 to understand how birth-weight phenotype is a key factor in limiting sow lifetime productivity—and therefore important in the overall efficiency of replacement gilt management.

“As the project winds down, I was able to take some of the lessons learned and apply them to the industry,” she says. “Now, I’m partially supported by Sunterra Farms and Sunhaven Farms in Alberta, Hanor Company and PIC in the USA. Each group has slightly different goals: from gilt management to data collection and analysis to find areas for improvement.”

“I play a key leadership role in Gentec’s pork production efficiency initiative,” says Jenny. “The genetics are really good but translating them into industry is a challenge. We can do that by improving gilt management strategies—and resolving or reducing the gap between genetic potential and actual productivity.”

Among other tools, she uses data visualization to help make sense of the piles of data stored in production databases. What Jenny sends back to the industry client is a set of reports and recommendations to implement, and then manage and track the improvements.

“I enjoy the opportunity to use large production databases and going through that data to identify areas for improvement,” she says. “I firmly believe in making data-driven decisions.”

The industry partners provide excellent opportunities to foster important collaborative relationships—some of which started 15-20 years ago. Their international reach has seen projects land in Jenny’s lap from all over the Americas, and cover a wide range of farm types. Indeed, the next round of projects will see many of the same partners collaborating again.

It was as part of a National Pork Board study that Jenny got to know Gentec. Once the key birth weight phenotypes were determined, the team at Gentec completed association analyses between SNPs and the component phenotypic traits that determine litter size and litter quality (ovulation rate, early embryonic survival, placental development and uterine capacity) to identify genomic regions/genes and their potential biological functions and genetic improvement.

Jenny emphasizes that she is not a geneticist. Yet Gentec has opened plenty of doors to industry and academia.

“It was an honour to join the Gentec team in 2018,” she says. “As well as technology transfer directly to producers, another important part of my work is delivering research results at professional conferences, invited industry and technical meetings locally and internationally. Gentec has sown opportunities for me to help develop new projects; and I’m very excited to learn new skills and to use my expertise in new ways.”

Looking for a career path? Think agriculture!

Any well-motivated student with a good attitude can have a career in agriculture if they want it. So why do so many positions go unfilled?

“Mostly because there’s a disconnect,” says Frank Robinson, Professor of Poultry Production and Physiology at UAlberta. “Most animal science and animal health students are urban. Most of them don’t have a way to start getting experience with large animals so they can go on to get more experience. We have to break this cycle!”

So that’s exactly what he’s doing.

3-Day Animal Science Mini Internship Program

As of spring 2020, 364 students have participated in a three-day mini internship on poultry, dairy, pork, beef, equine and other farms during the fall and spring reading weeks. (The unusual notion was that “reading” week should actually have an academic component, not just be about skiing or beaches.) The last cohort comprised 118 students. Pretty good for a program that started only four years ago with 16 students.

And it’s low input, too. Students in the faculty of ALES can apply for $50, a statement of interest and an intake interview. Robinson trawls his network of producers, companies and sector associations. The faculty provides a travel/lodging allowance, if appropriate, and boots and coveralls that the students return at the end of their internship. (Robinson says his office smells like Canadian Tire.) And the hosts set up hands-on training that can range from calving, vaccinating chickens and often, plenty of mucking out (poop!).

 

The feedback is pretty positive. An overwhelming majority of the students report that they clarified and tested their career interests and felt more confident about their job prospects thanks to their new connections, and they learned how to apply their training/education in the real world. In fact, two students have done five (!!) internships, and over half the applicants are on their second one or more. The hosts also report enjoying the experience, wishing they had had similar support early in their careers.

Hosts also reported feeling more connected to the students. This is important since Robinson says that the most noticeable skill industry wants in a new recruit is communications: someone who can hold a conversation, not zone out on their phone the moment they have a second of down-time; someone who can be sociable, take direction, be part of a team and have fun doing it. So not necessarily the person who can pull a calf most efficiently, but the one who sees something that needs doing—and does it without being asked.

“Some farmers have hired students for the summer based on their experience with the program,” says Robinson. “That means success.”

Understanding that its recruits are mostly urban, the Faculty of ALES offers other opportunities for students to get their feet wet (literally).

AN SC101 – Principles of Animal Agriculture

Robinson has been teaching or co-teaching this course for over 40 terms. It’s an introduction to the structure of the livestock, poultry, and game ranching industries that covers the principles of animal management, breeding, feeding and current issues in animal agriculture.

“It’s the first farm-animal class, so we try to get their hands and feet dirty,” he says.

The students tour beef, poultry and dairy operations. They also do a project that involves farmers/farming, which could be as creative as building their own virtual farm with a $10 million start-up budget. At the end of the course, they pitch their farm, 3D models and budgets at a big evening event in an auditorium in front of a panel of judges. In a previous event, a real auctioneer sold the farms at the end of the evening, one of which went for $40 million. A tidy profit.

Back in 2018, Gentec CEO Graham Plastow volunteered as a panel member. “The enthusiasm of the students is infectious, and the judges have been known to get quite competitive about bidding for their favourites. That spilled over to the real fundraising auction where I bid on one of the Heritage chickens, which turned out be be money well spent as my hen was a very good layer.” (Sponsors can pick up eggs on a regular basis but they’re not necessarily from the spondored hen.)

Canadian Council on Animal CARE (CCAC) modules

While the 101 course and the internship give students a pretty good view of the producers’ perspective, if they’re going to study farm animals in a research environment, they need a different approach. UAlberta follows CCAC guidelines to deliver a three-hour session covering dairy cattle, swine and poultry (one session per species), taught by Robinson and other faculty and staff. On completion, the students are certified in handling that species, and can work with it in research. In the last two years, 240 students have been certified.

“City kids who haven’t been on a farm aren’t ‘fluent’ in agriculture or its techniques,” says Robinson. “Unless you grew up with mud on your boots, you don’t know how to halter a calf, move a pig or pick up a chicken. Students need these practical skills to get hired.”

Genomics: On the farm and off it

Tom Lynch-Staunton has a great job. He’s Regional VP for Alberta for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He just started in August 2020. He manages the Alberta region conservation efforts, liaises with government, donors and landowners—and makes a point of getting out into the field. In fact, while he spoke to Gentec, he was driving to Bunchberry Meadows to meet a Natural Area Manager to learn about how the property has become a great resource for Edmontonians to experience a beautiful natural habitat.

But a career is (usually) a series of incremental steps. Tom’s started as a rancher on the family-owned Antelope Butte Ranch, where he became acquainted with genetic improvement from the producer’s perspective.

Our family was already using genetic improvement and crossbreeding to exploit hybrid vigour because we knew we could improve productivity, fertility, production efficiency, hardiness, survivability and overall health of the cattle,” he explains. “When genomics came along, it became much easier to select the best animals we wanted, and the best suited to our environment on the ranch. As the accuracy increases, we’ll be able to fit the right animals to plants, climate, soil and the landscape to increase profitability while maintaining or improving the health of the natural ecosystem. We’re still at the tip of the iceberg.”

Once at Gentec as Director of Industry Relations, Tom discovered the science behind what he was applying on the ranch; notably, the research process and the collaborations needed to move innovation into the industry.

Gentec is working on the issues that will be valuable to producers in the future—like reducing greenhouse gas emissions per animal, understanding the genomics of what makes a soil healthy, or ways to improve soil using that technology, improving livestock health, and using genomics at a landscape level to determine the best forages for each ranch. These issues are where Tom sees the biggest gains. Not to be forgotten are the background IT-type issues on how, for example to capture and interpret data quickly and easily to make decisions. And the data-sharing issues at an industry scale, which require becoming more integrated (like pork and dairy) so all parts of the value chain can share in the benefits.

“My time with Gentec was pivotal in my career,” he says. “It gave me a new perspective on how fortunate we are an industry to have such good livestock and plant research taking place in Canadian universities.” (See the YouTube video of “Rancher Tom” made while he was at Gentec.)

One of the things he particularly appreciated was a very effective spirit of collaboration. Tom has carried this model of “team successes” to every other job.

After Gentec, Tom held a dual rule with Canadian Cattlemen’s Association as Public and Stakeholder Engagement Manager and Alberta Beef Producers as Government Relations and Policy Manager. One of his responsibilities was collaborating with NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to help conserve Alberta’s endangered native grasslands through cattle ranching.

“When an NGO talks positively about how ranchers can benefit conservation and stewardship, this helps change some of the negative perceptions of the beef industry,” he says, noting that the family ranch business has shares in the Waldron Grazing Co-op that partnered with the Nature Conservancy in one of the largest grassland conservation agreements in Canada.

During that time, Tom was a member of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which recognizes the symbiotic relationships required for taking care of the environment and the economic viability of ranching. Then the opportunity arose at the Nature Conservancy, which strongly aligned with his view of the future.

As he points out, “It all started on the ranch, helped by Graham Plastow (Gentec CEO) and Gentec. My career path really highlights that if you know agriculture, you can also work in conservation and plenty of other fields.”