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.”

Gene Editing: A glimpse into the future of agriculture

“It’s an absolute revolution!” insists Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology at The Roslin Institute, Scotland, of gene editing. “Scientifically, the potential is huge. It allows us to increase the genetic variations from which producers can select animals with traits they want to promote.”

Whitelaw and his team recently announced the potential to insert a variant of the RELA gene from warthogs and bush pigs into domestic pigs, which could make the latter resistant to African swine fever, a nasty and often deadly disease. Genus/PIC (at the behest of Graham Plastow, now Gentec CEO) funded the preliminary work to find the genetic variation many years ago but the project stalled for lack of technology to develop it. It has only now borne fruit because gene editing came along as the enabler. Other recent gene edits in pigs include the generation of GDF8 (myostatin) mutants to increase muscle, and resilience to diseases such as PRRS and foot and mouth disease.

This is gene editing as Whitelaw intended—with major application in resilience to disease, which is a major burden in livestock. Other applications he foresees include reproductive efficiency (increasing the number of females who bear multiple offspring, for example, rather than increasing the number of offspring per gestation) and gender selection, which is particularly important in the dairy industry where male offspring have little value, and which has been difficult to achieve beyond the sexing of semen. Farther down the line, it may be possible to introduce heat or drought tolerance from indigenous animals into mainstream animals, therefore expanding the footprint of livestock around the world. Used in this way, gene editing will help satiate the growing human population’s desire for animal protein.

But will producers want to use it?

“Producers are chasing it!” says Whitelaw. “What industry partners have to do is demonstrate applicability. The University of Missouri showed that you could edit variation into gene CD163 and create PRRS resistance in pigs. (Ed: Gentec reported this in our December newsletter. See source article here). Now, the task is to take that project, make sure the trait has no deleterious effects on other traits and show its true utility.”

And the Number One question since, if consumers don’t buy the product, it’s all moot—will they understand the difference between gene editing and genetic modification? The latter has had a rough ride over the years. Introducing transgenics didn’t go down well. Special-interest groups focused on nebulous health and environmental effects.

Gene editing, on the other hand, produces simple base variations that can happen naturally. Using Whitelaw’s RELA project as an example, the variation of that gene in warthogs and bush pigs may well appear in domestic pigs naturally—but evolution moves at glacial speed. Given the increasing global population, humans can’t wait that long. One person in seven is malnourished today. By the time we reach 9 billion, that figure is expected be one in three if we don’t increase production of agricultural protein. Genome editing can slash the standard 20+ generations of breeding required to introgress a gene allele back to just one; and eliminate evolution’s lop-sided variety in favour of specific alleles that increase food value.

For consumers to buy in to gene editing, two things have to happen in parallel: a full discussion with regulatory authorities to put in place an appropriate regulatory pathway to take the technology to market; and another full discussion—this time with the public—to convey that this is a good, safe technology.

“Gene editing does exactly what it says on the can,” says Whitelaw. “Every offspring carries mutations that neither the dam nor the sire has. Some are good, others not. Evolution selects the good ones. We’re doing exactly the same thing, except that we know the change is beneficial. Individual animals will be more robust, less sick and therefore have a better quality of life. That has to be a good thing at every level.”

One challenge, many answers, three approaches

On August 19, an article titled, “Is the way cattle are grazed the key to saving America’s prairies?” made headlines in The Guardian. It describes how cattle are being turned out onto the Zumwalt prairie, the largest surviving native bunchgrass prairie in North America, to find out how grazing can be managed to benefit this ecosystem.

The very next day, folio released an article called, “Animal grazing reducing biodiversity around the world: study.” It summarizes a study showing that livestock grazing reduces the number and diversity of animals that depend on plants.

At first blush, it seems these studies are heading in opposite directions.

“Not necessarily,” says Cameron Carlyle, Associate Professor at UAlberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. “It depends partly on the research question and the approach. Both articles are examining native grassland but the first article focuses on conservation through easements and a particular grazing management system, while the second has a narrower question, only taking into account grazed vs. non-grazed land. If grazing prevents conversion to cultivation, for example, then habitat and biodiversity are likely being conserved even if grazing does reduce biodiversity compared to an ungrazed state.”

Instead, Carlyle is proposing a systems approach to enhancing grassland biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“Our idea,” he continues, “is to align cattle genetics and behaviour with desired landscape outcomes. Cattle behaviour affects landscapes as they decide where to search for food and which plants to eat. There’s some evidence of genetic controls on these decisions, for example, whether individual cows like to feed at top or bottom of a hill. If we can identify the genetic markers for those choices, we can have a better distribution of animals on the landscape or modify their effects on the landscape through the of types of plants they like to eat.”

Carlyle and multidisciplinary team including Livestock Gentec researchers propose to examine the genetic factors determining why cattle select particular habitats and plants, the vegetation traits that drive those choices (such as chemical content and nutrition) and the subsequent effects on microbial processes and ecosystem services. Their theory is that, as well as affecting the cows’ choices in what they eat, secondary plant compounds may also have a profound influence on their microbial symbioses with microbes, and hence digestion outcomes, which can affect production (nutrient uptake and weight gain) and environmental metrics (feed waste and methane emissions, etc.).

“If the condition of the grasslands improves in a way that also improves the producers’ bottom line, he says, “they stand a better chance of being protected than of being converted into cropland or subdivisions.”

VBP+: The beef you want is the beef you get

In 2018, McDonald’s became the first company in Canada to offer beef from certified sustainable sources. Harvey’s and others followed suit. But what does “sustainable” mean in this context? And who does the certifying?

“Well, McDonald’s has committed to source beef from operations certified to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s (CRSB) standard through the Canadian Beef Sustainability Framework,” says Shannon Argent, Business Manager at Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+). “So its suppliers need to demonstrate best practices on indicators such as soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare and workers’ rights. As for the certification… VBP+ takes care of that.”

VBP+ provides training and resources for producers to use to add value to their operations, and the certification, after an audit, to prove they have met the required standards. Certification must be renewed annually. There are 60 indicators, all assessed against 36 of the CRSB’s indicators and other equivalencies, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s on-farm Food Safety Recognition Program and the National Farmed Animal Care Assessment Framework (VBP+ is pursuing accreditation for the latter).

“We are the link between the producers’ education to deliver what consumers want and the proof that it is being done,” says Argent. “In getting accredited by multiple organizations, we can achieve multiple outcomes (certifications) for producers with one visit.”

Certification is voluntary. If a processor wants to make certified-sustainable beef available to its customers, it may encourage producers through financial incentives. And while an extra dollar in their pockets is great, many producers are keen to be part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions, food safety, antimicrobial resistance and animal care issues anyway. Education ups their game, and certification provides the proof of what they’re doing.

Each provincial commodity organization has a designated coordinator to provide webinars and workshops, and the national program provides an online training platform that is being updated to ensure content keeps up with the changing times. The coordinators educate hundreds of producers every year on what’s new in the field, how to implement best practices on their operation and how to document an audit. As such, education is the necessary first step to certification. A steady proportion of them advance to the full certification stage. Today, more than 60% of Canada’s beef production comes from VBP+-trained operations, and 20% of production comes from audited operations.

Proving sustainability through certification is one thing; demonstrating it to the public is another. As part of the education, producers are encouraged to contribute to debunking disinformation by opening their operations through social media to show the positive results of best practices.

Like every other sector, COVID-19 has slowed down the rate of certifications. To that end, VBP+ is considering remote audit technologies that can perform audits in locations where it’s not financially feasible to send an auditor. These technologies would be evaluated against an on-farm audit to make sure the outcomes are the same. If successful, they may provide a great opportunity to keep costs down in a low-margin market.

Genetics is another technology that plays a role in certification, as producers must demonstrate their innovations to improve quality and produce more beef using less resources. Testing using a tool like Delta Genomics’s EnVigour HX™ can be used to prove innovative practices. EnVigour HX™ is the first made-in-Canada genomics tool for crossbred beef cattle, combining parentage verification, genomic breed composition, and a simple Vigour Score (assessment of hybrid vigour) to assist in replacement selection.

“We often hear that beef production and its advantages and, conversely, how beef reaches customers are poorly understood,” says Argent. “We hope that, by providing these services and contributing to the broader message, VBP+ can help to bridge the gap.”

Closing the information gap in the pig genome

The pig industry around the world has made huge improvements in desirable traits thanks to the knowledge afforded by the sequencing of the pig genome, the first draft of which was published in 2012. Yet, in spite of these improvements, which include facilitating genomics-enabled breeding that has increased the rate of genetic gain in some programs by up to 35%, about 10% of the pig genome was missing.

“The IGF2 gene, which has an impact on muscling that I and others reported 17 years ago, was missing,” says Alan Archibald, Personal Chair of Mammalian Molecular Genetics, The Roslin Institute. “So was the CD163 gene, which encodes a molecule essential for infection by PRRSV. In one of our projects, we edited that gene and rendered pigs completely resistant to the virus. So, a number of key genes of interest to people in the breeding sector were absent from the genome sequence or only partially represented.”

While 10% may not seem very much to the outside eye—and clearly some remarkable discoveries were made without it—some projects lacked information (annotations) to make the very best decisions, for example, for gene-editing. And although the long-range information available was good, unresolved redundancies, short-range order and orientation errors, and associated misassembled genes could lead to information loss.

The paper presents two annotated highly-contiguous chromosome-level genome assemblies created with new long-read technologies and a whole-genome shotgun strategy. Both assemblies are of substantially higher (>90-fold) continuity and accuracy than the previous genome sequence. Together with the annotation of another 11 short-read assemblies, the new sequence provides a much needed base for genomic research in pigs.

For example, Aniek C. Bouwman et al.at Wageningen University in the Netherlands reported at the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production that the new genome improved the accuracy of inferring genomic sequence from marker genotypes and thus improving genomic predictions.

Is this now the complete pig genome?

“No,” says Archibald. “Small bits are still missing but this is a substantial improvement. It’s 400-700 times more continuous. In genomes made up of strings of bases (letters), the technology we used could only read 900-1,000 bases at a time: short bursts of information. Assembling the’ jigsaw puzzle’ was a challenge. For the new genome, we read 1,0000-20,000 bases/letters at a time, so the pieces of the puzzle just got much bigger.”

Nonetheless, 120 gaps still remain in the sequence. Archibald believes some of the missing parts may be important in terms of how the chromosomes function, but not in terms of information content. In other words, not interesting, unique or useful to the geneticist, and highly repetitive so difficult to sequence; like assembling an all-blue sky in the aforementioned puzzle.


Gentec CEO Graham Plastow is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Group for a project related to BovReg(another Gentec collaboration) in Europe, called GENE-SWitCH. Archibald contributed to designing the GENE-SWitCH project proposal, and is a member of the project team.

“The pig genome sequence is not a GENE-SWitCH outcome,” says Plastow. “But it’s highly relevant as the primary aims of GENE-SWitCH include adding value to the pig and chicken genomes through enhanced functional annotation, i.e. noting/identifying which parts of the genome have key functions such as encoding proteins or regulating when and where each gene is expressed.”


“Pork is the most popular of all meats and, with a growing global population, we need to improve the sustainability of food production. The improved knowledge of pigs’ genetic make-up will help farmers breed healthier and more productive animals,” says Archibald. “The sequence has been available for two years, so consumers might unknowingly have seen a benefit already. Improvements in and of themselves are modest but if you apply them across thousands of animals, the benefits add up.”

Beef production in the pandemic: From producer to plate

COVID-19 has been complicated in many ways by uncertainty. Unlike many disease outbreaks, it is not about food safety or consumer confidence with food products – but rather about the effects of social distancing strategies and their impact on food production, distribution and consumer lifestyle factors.

As the pandemic unfolded, meat-processing sectors in Canada and the USA experienced rolling plant closures and slowdowns as industry invested over $50 million to ensure the safety of plant workers and protect against COVID-19. However, measures to address distancing requirements reduced production efficiencies and added costs to every aspect of operations. The reliance on human proximity in meat-processing sectors proved to be the weakest link in the supply chain, coupled with employee interaction away from the processing facilities.

Reduced slaughter volume created supply challenges in the retail sector and an estimated backlog of 125,000 head as of the end of May causing North American cattle prices to plummet as the log-jam grew. The lack of processing capacity and competitive bidding due to temporary closures or reduced output caused livestock in all sectors to back up on both sides of the border in the face of unprecedented demand.

Cow calf producers and backgrounders are able to keep their animals on grass or silage longer, and feedlot operators are able to switch to holding diets based on higher roughage and lower energy rations to slow the growth rate of animals. The type of animal, the weights and age all factor into the quality, value and market destination of the beef in the box. All these measures represent a significant increase in costs and resources for producers to slow down a system designed to deliver market-ready cattle 52 weeks a year.

The shutdown of restaurants combined with consumer buying trends to stockpile food added to the problem resulting in out-of-stock situations in food stores. This added fuel to the perception of a pending food shortage in Canada. Demand increase for beef across the board soared 100% at the highest point, with a huge run on ground beef. Processors could not provide the trimmings needed to keep up to ground-beef demand, resulting in higher-value cuts being utilized, which pushed prices higher and further reduced inventory for other beef cuts also in high demand. Imports of beef increased 14%, YTD May 30 vs. same time last year while exports went down 13% YTD April 30 vs. same time last year.

The pandemic continues to have an enormous and worldwide impact on agriculture and agri-food industries, although it is too soon to know the long-term impact of COVID-19 and how the changes made will affect future meat-processing systems. Canada is better equipped to handle the next pandemic or a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall.

“I hope the meat-processing industry will consider innovation, automation and robotic technologies to reduce the dependency of human contact to reduce the risk and increase productivity,” says Michael Young, President of Canada Beef. “The Canadian beef industry has a very bright future, post COVID-19. We have a high-quality product that’s in high demand in Canada and around the world.”

From cattle to COVID-19: An unlikely journey

By Mikolaj Raszek, PhD

The lead-up

After finishing my PhD in Biochemistry, I took a break from science to think about what I wanted to do with my life and my degree. Eventually, I figured out that I wanted to start a business that provided access to DNA testing to those in need or who were curious to learn about their potential predispositions. Having made that decision, I needed an opportunity to surround myself in the study of DNA and genomics, to firm up my background and get some hands-on experience. This is exactly what happened at Livestock Gentec, one of my very favourite career opportunities. I still have fond memories of my colleagues there and the quality of the research.

By the time I arrived, I knew a bit about human genomics and the technologies used to delve into genetic data—but nothing about cattle. Lab work was no problem. I was surrounded by so many talented people that learning was easy. We studied gene expression differences of healthy cattle versus those impacted by bovine respiratory diseases. As a process of validation, we worked with RT-qPCR using cattle RNA with one of the best in-line instruments at the time: this type of assay that is now used to identify SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in human samples. Calibrating the instruments is no easy feat so, now that these assays are run in millions around the world to test for SARS-CoV-2, I can tell you that some highly sophisticated efforts are being made to identify infected people.

But getting up to speed on the general background on cattle genetic research…? That took many hours and many journal articles. I pitched to Graham Plastow, Gentec CEO, that I should write a review of my information blitz, which led to an interesting niche topic for Leluo Guan and me: use of genomic technologies to study infectious agents in cattle. I loved that project precisely because it gave me the opportunity to learn from my bosses how to think outside the box when researching information. This was also my first foray into the serious study of viruses and their genetics, which quite fascinated me. I even proposed a project to study the cattle virome, but this was not even an emerging field at the time.

Eventually, Merogenomics was born, a company dedicated to building a catalogue of medically-relevant DNA sequencing services for clinics interested in setting up in this niche territory, and end-users who need such services. It has been a labour of love, fired by passion.

The redirect

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the company to a standstill. From the start, I suspected that we were witnessing an event not to be dismissed. My interest in viral genetics, born at Livestock Gentec, was reignited, and I have been deep in SARS-CoV-2 scientific literature.

To continue Merogenomics’s mission to help those in need, I’ve published blog posts on SARS-CoV-2. The first was on the origins of the virus itself and what science had to say about it, as this was hot topic from the start, only grabbing more media attention as the pandemic ballooned and people sought answers. In the second article, I switched from the genome of the virus to our own genetic predisposition. The third article was dedicated to current research into drugs, and the fourth on building immunity and vaccination. (This pattern matched that of the Gentec review. Apparently, those lessons stuck hard!)

The way forward

All this seemingly unconnected knowledge came together in February 2020 when I became a member of a multi disciplinary and multi-organization team dedicated to developing a new detection system for SARS-CoV-2 for rapid population screening. The team comprises many PhDs but most of them don’t have a molecular sciences background, opening the door for me be a valuable source of knowledge. Once again, I am in totally over my head—and I love it. Once again, I’ve had to learn at a blistering pace. I meet many business people, researchers and even physicians working directly with hospitalized patients in some of the most afflicted areas of the world.

Never did I imagine that learning about cattle viruses would one day lend itself to trying to fight a human pandemic.