Steve Miller: A perspective on Canada’s beef industry. Part 2

Former Gentec collaborator Steve Miller has had quite a decade in terms of the chance to view the beef industry across various functional responsibilities (and continents). We caught up with Steve at the 2023 Beef Improvement Federation meeting in Calgary and again from his office in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, where he is the Director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit. (BTW, it’s the same office he worked out of for a year as an UGuelph exchange student almost 30 years ago.) We hoped to gather some of his insights around the progress being made in beef improvement, how it is being received, and get some perspective on where things may progress. Part 1 of that story is here.

As we said in Part 1, situations are stable until they are not; tipping points can occur suddenly… as they have many times, as with genomics, EPDs, MBVs, indexes and their general application in the beef industry. Applications advanced slowly and incrementally until the cost and value propositions tipped and the opportunities exploded, first in the pure breed sector, then in the commercial cattle sector.

Global pressure is mounting to reduce the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. The Netherlands, for example, aims to reduce the number of farmed animals by 30% (over 35 million animals) by 2030 (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Jan 16th, 2023)). Meat and Livestock Australia funded a summit (September 2023) looking at the sustainability of sheep and cattle in Australia, and is starting to develop a sustainability index. Today, if you’re looking for funding, you almost certainly need to include an environmental element in the proposal.

Carbon credit programs of varying cost and quality are developing quickly and with clear price signals. Anecdotally, a sheep and beef producer in New Zealand reported that the carbon tax on his operation was $80,000 more than the previous year but still only represented 5% of the amount owed. Government “waived” 95% of the tax ($1,600,000) but announced that the payable rate would rise by 1% per year.

Here, situations may develop where all cows are not equal. Different cows may incur different tax rates that may change the desirability of differing statures, feed efficiencies or growth rates. In such situations as these, there is a clear incentive for the seedstock sector to develop and “push” the genetics as well as for the producer to demand and “pull” the genetics they need forward. As with most market environments, clarity sooner is better than clarity later. There also may be the opportunity to use the sustainability push to allow other (tbd) genetics to tag along as free riders like, as Steve pointed out, Canada experienced along with the response to BSE. “The good breeders will see this, and skate to where the puck is GOING to be”. We can see this in relation to the slick gene, discussed below.

According to the US Forest Service, cows thrive up to a temperature of 77F (25C). Above this, productivity falls in terms of weight gain (beef), milk production (dairy), and fertility (both). As extreme temperatures occur more frequently, so do cattle deaths as a result of heat / humidity combinations. Necessity (being the mother of invention) and ability (afforded by advances in technology) are combining to offer solutions.

The slick gene occurs naturally in at least 6 breeds globally, and is viewed as providing greater heat tolerance due to its association with a shorter hair coat and more active sweat glands. Incorporation of these traits has been effective, although limited, due to the time constraints inherent in selective breeding programs involving cattle.

Thompson Rivers University professor and Gentec collaborator, Dr John Church, estimates that incorporating the slick gene into cross-bred cattle expands their tolerable heat range by approximately 13F compared to cattle lacking the gene. This trait provides greater climate resilience, the ability to maintain productivity metrics while extending the temperature range in which cattle can thrive to 90F (32C), potentially saving the dairy and beef industry billions in lost productivity.

In more general terms, Steve sees two emerging and interrelated trends occurring with respect to breeding and animal agriculture. The first is for scientific expertise to be increasingly hired into breeding corporations (such as Urus Genetics, Bayer, ST Genetics,) allowing them to use their resources to dictate to a greater degree the path chosen by the livestock industries including beef

Second, corporations can put systems in place to get there (wherever “there” is) faster as a result of having the combined capability to develop, breed, multiply, and distribute in quantity those animals with the characteristics and traits they elect to develop for their customers (be they producers or consumers). This may be done through direct ownership or, as has been seen in other species, through contracted services such as those employed by the hog and poultry industries. This may be how technology is ultimately fast-tracked into the beef industry.

Building on these concepts, although admittedly a little farther out and into the realm of science fiction, is the concept of creating a walking AI / avatar bulls program. The science exists where the testes of a bull can be replaced with the testes of another bull. So, in theory, you could have Short Horn bulls with the resiliency and ability of an invasive species to survive the harsh conditions of Australia’s Northern Territories delivering Wagyu semen to Brahman cows.

Gene editing, however, may be a little closer to achieving wider adoption. While gene editing has been used for slick and polled applications in North America, it almost non-existent in Australia and Gentec has suggested caution in terms of consumer acceptability (see previous articles in The Delicious Bits). Another example is insertion of the “dominant-red” gene [identified by Gentec team] into a Black Angus bull to help alleviate heat susceptibility. Although the possibilities are tempting, Steve views many of the genetic effects, particularly those of quantitative traits, as having ‘black-box effects’, making him hesitant to consider them at this point. One thing that you can be sure of is that change is constant, closer than it appears in the rear-view mirror, and often with unanticipated consequences.





Conference Report: 2023 annual meeting of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society/Western Agricultural Economics Association

The 2023 annual meeting of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society/Western Agricultural Economics Association (CAES-WAEA) was held in Whistler, BC, on July 17. This meeting brought together professionals, researchers and enthusiasts in the field of environmental studies from all over the world from academia, government agencies, industry, and international organizations, expanding our professional network and exploring potential collaborations. The purpose of the meeting was to provide a platform for networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration to address the pressing environmental issues facing our society today.

Getu Hailu, CAES President (and Gentec collaborator), and Stephen Devadoss, WAEA President, welcomed participants and highlighted the many challenges (and opportunities) facing the agri-food sector. They pointed out that the conference program illustrated the wide-ranging and interconnected nature of the challenges, emphasizing the substantial economic research efforts being undertaken to tackle them effectively.

In theory, the carbon tax is the most efficient approach to address climate change. What do Canadian economists say?

Kathryn Harrison from the University of British Columbia presented a joint plenary session titled “The Challenge of Carbon Taxation: Economic Theory Meets Partisan Politics,” offering valuable insights into this complex issue. She mentioned that carbon taxes offer a cost-effective way to reduce carbon pollution. However, governments that propose carbon taxes invariably face political opposition from carbon-intensive industries, farmers, small businesses and voters. In some cases, such as Canada in 2008, carbon taxes were rejected outright. In others, including Australia and Alberta, carbon taxes were adopted but repealed. In still others, including France, carbon taxes have been frozen in response to public protest.

Jill E. Hobbs, University of Saskatchewan, emphasized that understanding how to measure and account accurately for environmental outcomes from agricultural production, such as greenhouse gas emissions, is essential for progress to be made. Incentivizing the adoption of beneficial management practices and optimal fertilizer use at the farm level are valuable tools for this effort.

How do genetic advancements affect Canadian agriculture and the environment? 

Tristan Skolrud, University of Saskatchewan, emphasized that, in developed countries, farming occupies a smaller share of labour than ever as a result of technology, automation and genetic advancements. It is very important to understand the possible influence of automation on land tenure, the adoption of best management practices and land use, climate mitigation and adaptation, and perhaps, most importantly, potential changes in the control over farm-level decision making. It was good to hear genetics mentioned, as Gentec works hard to show how genetic improvement can help contribute to Canadian objectives in terms of reducing the footprint of livestock agriculture. As is often said the impact (of genetics) may be incremental or small, but it is cumulative and grows with every generation.

Attendees participated in various panel discussions, workshops and presentations that covered topics related to environmental studies, including climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, environmental policy, and more. Key highlights were:

  1. Biodiversity Conservation: Talks on the protection and restoration of ecosystems, conservation biology, and sustainable management practices.
  2. Environmental Policy and Governance: Panels on policy frameworks, government regulations, and international agreements concerning environmental issues.
  3. Sustainable Development: Presentations on strategies for achieving sustainable development, balancing economic growth with environmental considerations, and fostering social equity.
  4. Energy and Resource Management: Discussions on the transition to clean and renewable energy sources, resource conservation, and sustainable energy policies.
  5. Consumer Preference for Plant-based diet and Consumer Behaviour and Novel Foods

Renowned experts in these fields shared their insights and research findings, sparking meaningful conversations and inspiring new ideas.

Whistler offered a stunning natural backdrop with its magnificent mountains and pristine alpine environment. This setting immersed attendees in nature and provided them with first-hand experiences and observations that are integral to understanding environmental issues. I left feeling better equipped to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities available through genetics and genomics.

Niloofar Pejman
Postdoctoral Fellow, Livestock Gentec

REPORT: AAFC Lacombe Research Station Field Day 2023

The AAFC Lacombe Research Station held a Field Day on July 26 as an opportunity for producers, industry, academics and the community to learn more about their many areas of livestock, crop and meat science research. The event was well attended and, with excellent organizing and weather, it was a huge success.

In the morning, attendees were taken by bus to different areas of the research station for mini sessions on projects in cattle genomics (including projects with Gentec), grazing and forage management, feed additives to reduce methane emissions, weed control, crop rotation, field pea breeding, crop disease management, and oat varietal development. Each session was led by a scientist, and covered past and current work in their areas of expertise as well as future research directions. It was wonderful to tour with such an engaged group of attendees, resulting in many questions and applied discussions.

The afternoon session was a tour of the research abattoir and meat science building, with mini sessions held with scientists and their students and a variety of topics. One of the many highlights was the federally-inspected research abattoir and the livestock phenomics program (cattle, swine, bison). This fantastic facility and staff have been involved in many Gentec projects for beef and pork. State-of-the-art technologies were on display for investigating automating carcass evaluation, meat classification, optimal cut-out locations, and carcass composition. Other projects discussed included gut microbiology, swine production, pork evaluation, food safety, reducing antibiotics in aquaculture, and reducing food waste with alternative uses of carcass offal. Another highlight was the meat sensory lab and the presentation on objective and subjective (meat sensory taster panel) methods used to evaluate meat quality, tenderness and taste.

Thank you to the organizers and participating researchers for a very well run and extremely informative Field Day! It is wonderful to see first-hand all the incredible work that is taking place at the Lacombe Research Centre

Attendees gathering before the start of the Field Day

Gentec’s Dr. Changxi Li and Dr. Carolyn Fitzsimmons discussing their work in beef genomics, influencing gene expression through nutrition, and adapting cattle to their environment.

Dr. Vern Baron discussing forage management to preserve/improve grassland carbon

Dr. Hushton Block discussing feed additives to reduce methane emissions and delivery methods on pasture

Dr. Bethany Uttaro discussing pork belly firmness and methods to separate cuts.

Dr. Manuel Juarez demonstrating an augmented reality headset for carcass evaluation

Dr. Oscar Lopez Campos discussing Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) to assess carcass composition


Steve Miller: A perspective on Canada’s beef industry. Part 1

Former Gentec collaborator Steve Miller has had quite a decade in terms of the chance to view the beef industry across various functional responsibilities (and continents). We caught up with Steve at the 2023 Beef Improvement Federation meeting in Calgary and again from his office in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, where he is the Director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit. (BTW, it’s the same office he worked out of for a year as an UGuelph exchange student almost 30 years ago.) We hoped to gather some of his insights around the progress being made in beef improvement, how it is being received, and get some perspective on where things may progress.

Steve developed a cross-continental perspective on the issues and opportunities facing the beef industry after working on selection indexes as a postdoc at AgSights (formerly Beef Improvement Ontario or BIO); as Principle Scientist with AgResearch New Zealand (think USDA or AAFC); Director of Genetic Research, American Angus Association / Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI) of Missouri, where he still “sublets” a portion of his time.

Several themes emerged from our discussion. Taken together they provide context to the complexity of arriving at workable solutions for beef improvement.

Some of that complexity is the long-time delay—in many instances a minimum of 5-years—from ideation to any commercial benefit, which can lead to frustration and a lack of credibility in the eyes of producers. Steve told the story of the owner of Nelson Farms (Iowa) who had a habit of pounding the table and pointing out that while there had been “lots of talk, there had been nothing delivered to actually make the cattle better”. To emphasize the point, Steve says, “In the beef industry, you work for Mother Nature and get paid by Father Time.” One way to minimize the impact of these delays is to create a structure that allows the beef industry to be proactive and, (paraphrasing Gretzky) skate to where the puck is GOING to be.

A second critical element is that the adoption of genetic technology is “a rope that reacts better to a pull than a push” and that, unlike for some other species, the structure of the beef industry can make this difficult to achieve. But again, there are opportunities, generally around price signals. When we spoke with Steve several years ago, he cautioned to “beware the call of the promised land” as it related to the economic potential of genomics in the commercial cattle sector. In other words, it might have huge potential to impact change but is a hard nut to crack! Part of the challenge has been a combination of factors that include inefficiencies in the supply chain; the fact that every producer knows what their cattle sells for (revenue) but few know the cost of production (cost); and that virtually all genomics for commercial beef relate to improving said cost.

The theme (and opportunity) of thinking globally and acting locally, which involves two very different perspectives, may provide the balance and allow the industry to capitalize on the push and pull of genomics adoption while incorporating the advantage of time.

As the science evolved, reference databases increased and prices of genotypes declined, work done on pure breed selection indexes became accessible to commercial producers. Steve was involved with some of this work through BIO (now AgSights) and formed the core algorithms of Leachman Cattle’s $Profit and $Feeder indexes. The technology continued to be refined and was adopted by the Canadian and American Angus associations to create the first and largest custom breed specific genomics tool (panel) for beef cattle as Angus GS. Throughout our conversation, Steve stressed that network and collaborations make the advances possible. He specifically credits Gentec’s Paul Stothard and Gentec alumni Duc Lu as playing key roles in identifying markers or animal variants specific to the Angus breed and their economic validation.

This tangentially led to a discussion on how we all end up standing on the shoulders of giants, as this scientific foundation primed Gentec’s development and launch of EnVigour HXTM, Replacement Heifer ProfitTM and Feeder ProfitTM Indexes specifically for western Canadian commercial cattle.

This in turn was enabled by reduced cost of genotyping over time further expanding genomics application, and increasingly allowed genomics to impact a producer’s “revenue line” where genetic merit scorecards help identify fertile heifers and feed-efficient feeder cattle that benefit from profitable weight gain and favourable grid-grading. If it is possible to identify animals (calves) that command a premium come sale time, producers will ek out the animals (sires and cows) capable of producing them. These price signals further act to pull these improved genetics forward.  Steve called out the Angus Link program as an example of how the market is likely to develop along with the potential to apply evidence-based pressures on reputation/relationship-based purchasing.

… And surprises can spur change. Situations are stable until they are not; tipping points can occur suddenly. As they have many times, as with genomics, EPDs, MBVs, indexes and their general application in the beef industry. Applications advanced slowly and incrementally until the cost and value propositions tipped and the opportunities exploded, first in the pure breed sector, then in the commercial cattle sector.

These topics serve as a starting point to look to where the beef industry may need to move and, given the time lags involved, may be best suited to leverage the push-side of the genomics equation, starting with the pure breed / seedstock sectors.

Stay tuned for the rest of our interview with Steve, where we will look past the horizon to try to anticipate what opportunities may await there and where the next tipping-point(s) may lie.

At the Grill with William Torres: Harnessing Cattle Genetics for Sustainable Agriculture: A Path to Environmental Stewardship

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about how livestock genetics can benefit people and the planet.

In a world grappling with climate change, resource depletion, and growing food demand, the role of agriculture in achieving sustainability has become dominant. One innovative avenue in this pursuit is the utilization of cattle genetics to bolster sustainable farming practices. Cattle, as vital livestock in global agriculture, offer an opportunity to enhance productivity and environmental conservation through strategic breeding and genetic selection.

Modern agriculture often faces the challenge of balancing increasing food production with limited land, water, and other resources. Cattle genetics provide a solution by enabling the development of breeds that exhibit improved feed efficiency, reduced methane emissions, and adaptability to various climatic conditions. Precision breeding techniques, such as marker-assisted selection and genomic selection (e.g., see Gentec tools here), allow breeders to identify and amplify desirable traits while minimizing undesirable ones. By focusing on traits like growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, and disease resistance, breeders can develop cattle that require less feed and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat or milk produced.

Cattle farming often faces scrutiny due to its contribution to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. However, advancements in genetics can help mitigate this impact. Researchers are now identifying genetic markers associated with reduced methane production in cattle. By selecting and breeding animals with these markers, farmers can lower the carbon footprint of their herds. Moreover, breeding for disease resistance and overall health can reduce the need for antibiotics and other medications, minimizing the environmental impact of pharmaceutical use in livestock production.

The quest to increase productivity has resulted in a few dominant cattle breeds, which raises concerns about the loss of genetic diversity in the livestock population. This genetic homogeneity can leave the industry vulnerable to disease outbreaks and changing environmental conditions. By embracing cattle genetics for sustainability, we can reverse this trend. By supporting and promoting the breeding of indigenous or heritage cattle breeds adapted to local environments, we can maintain a broader genetic base that enhances resilience and promotes biodiversity in the agricultural landscape.

Cattle genetics can also be a powerful tool for small-scale farmers in developing regions. These farmers often lack access to the latest agricultural technologies, hindering their ability to increase productivity sustainably. Raising genetically-improved cattle breeds that are better suited to their local conditions can uplift their livelihoods. These improved breeds can provide better milk and meat yields, increased drought tolerance, and disease resistance, helping small-scale farmers adapt to changing environmental and economic pressures.

While the potential benefits of utilizing cattle genetics for sustainability are promising, there are challenges and ethical considerations to navigate. Striking the right balance between genetic enhancement and preserving the animal’s welfare is crucial. Additionally, the accessibility of these technologies to small-scale farmers, intellectual property concerns, and potential unintended consequences need to be addressed.

In a world where the demands of a growing population intersect with the imperative to protect the planet, innovative solutions are essential. The strategic utilization of cattle genetics holds immense promise in achieving sustainable agriculture. By selecting for resource-efficient traits, reducing environmental impacts, preserving genetic diversity, and empowering small-scale farmers, we can steer the course of livestock production towards a more sustainable future. As researchers, farmers, and policymakers collaborate to harness the power of cattle genetics, we can build an agricultural landscape that nourishes both people and the planet for generations to come.



The technical breakout sessions at the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) in Calgary between July 3-6, focused on advancements in beef-production and genetic-improvement.

“Advancements in Producer Applications”

Shannon Argent focused on “VBP+: How Sustainability and Genetics Fit Together.” Continual improvement in sustainability and genetics have improved efficiency in the Canadian beef production system. All stakeholders in the beef production chain came together to strategize to monitor sustainability. VBP Canada can use on-farm data collected during audits and herd assessment to help inform policy and stakeholders on actual situations and activities at the various farm levels. Roughly 1.76 million cattle are under the management of VBP Canada-certified operations. Those operations also account for about 6.4 million acres used for beef production.

“Advancements in Genomics and Genetic Prediction”

Steve Miller, now Director of AGBU in Australia and long-time Gentec collaborator, spoke on the art of identifying and choosing who becomes the dam/sire of future generations in breeding programs. This process involves a series of decisions using information available at the time. Consideration may include purebreds and composites. There are no clearer signals on the outcome of selection except at the point of sale. The big changes in the use of genomics information are helping in the decision and selection process. This effort relies on data, without which we can do nothing. Genetic trends suggest improvement in key traits. Despite the use of novel technologies like genomic selection, the black box is still powerful, requiring a scramble for data to get ahead. The recipe is clear – more data, more accuracy, more progress – for just about any trait.

Troy Rowan (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) posed the question Gentec has been focusing on most recently, “Why Should Commercial Cattlemen be Interested in Genomics?” Gentec’s Marzieh Heidaritabar liked the phrase “heterosis pays”. Crossbreeding is used to create heterosis or hybrid vigour, as happens when different breeds are mated. The crossbred offspring are less inbred than their parents, and this can result in calves performing at a level above the average of their parents. Not only individual heterosis but also maternal heterosis (from crossbred dams) was shown to be beneficial. Rowan indicated increased performance of the crossbred cows relative to the average of straightbred females of the parental breeds was 38% for longevity, 17% for number of calves, and 25.3% for cumulative weaning weight. Crossbred cows also demonstrate improvement for feed efficiency.

John Basarab, Gentec Director of Beef Operations continued this theme in his presentation on “Non-additive Genetics”. Genomic-retained heterozygosity is an indicator of heterosis linearly related to female fertility and fitness traits. Non-additive genetic effects are due to dominance and epistasis. Dominance variance is a main source of phenotypic variation for female longevity and stayability traits. Additive and dominance models can improve genomic prediction by 20-40%. Non-additive genetic effects are useful for breeding plans to increase longevity and lifetime productivity. These effects are incorporated in Gentec’s tools when appropriate, such as its Replacement Heifer Profit Index™.

“Advancements in Emerging Technology”

Mahdi Saatchi (Iowa State University and Top Genomics) presented a demo of “RightMate: Precision Breeding by Genomic Mating”. RightMate is a genomics-based precision breeding tool designed for seedstock providers. It optimizes genetic diversity/improvement with customized breeding objectives by integrating them into Brian Kinghorn’s MateSel software using EPDs and the power of high impact genes (see also the General Session highlights).



The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) completed its 55th annual symposium in Calgary between July 3-6, focusing on precision breeding. BIF has always sought to integrate science into the beef industry, and to improve the beef industry through genetic improvement.

Tuesday’s general session focused on the main theme for the conference “Precision Breeding”. Keynote presenters included Peter Amer – Managing Director, AbacusBio Limited; Mike Lohuis – The Semex Alliance (eg Gentec ISAC); Filipo Miglior – Scientist and Innovation Executive, Lactanet Canada; Brian Kinghorn – University of New England, Australia. All of whom are Gentec associates. On Wednesday, the focus was on “Novel Phenotyping Strategies.” Speakers included Dr. Juan Pedro Steibel – Lush Chair for Animal Breeding & Genetics, Iowa State University and Mokah Shmigelsky who showed a demo from Canadian company OneCup AI.

Peter Amer’s presentation was on “Precision Breeding Opportunities in an Evolving Breeding Objective Landscape”. Looking back, significant genetic progress has been achieved for weight traits (yearling, mature cow, and weaning) in beef cattle. These genetic gains have had an impact on the beef value chain, lowering costs for labour, transport and infrastructure for the beef packer, improving efficiency and days on feed for the feedlot and improving the weaning weight for cow-calf operations. Market signals are clear for weight traits and commanding better returns to producers.  Where we are now is that efforts are ongoing to improve on key indicator traits like marbling, heifer pregnancy, stayability and feed efficiency. These efforts mean different things for different producer types like: 1. Yield maximizers focus on manipulating the environment to obtain better performance despite costs, 2. Cost minimizers are more interested in lowering the cost of production, and 3. Others may focus on outcome for visual attributes, product quality and specific disease resistance traits. What lies ahead is an effort in lowering the carbon footprint for beef cattle by breeding for a low-emissions farming system – Extensive or Intensive beef system.

Mike Lohuis presented on “Changing the Narrative Around Animal Agriculture Using Innovative Genetic Selection”. He argued that livestock producers have built a challenging narrative around animal agriculture as a source of high-quality protein, providing enjoyable food and livelihoods, contributing to the overall economy and essential for developing countries. As animal breeders, we need to change this narrative by focusing on mitigating climate change, improving animal health and welfare, and engaging in sustainable beef production with limited impact on the environment. He also introduced producing beef from dairy herds or “beef on dairy”. More than 90% of dairy herds now use beef semen as standard practice. Dairy-beef can help reduce the environmental footprint of Canada’s beef supply. Sire selection for dairy-beef is crucial to address the deficiencies of dairy genetics, such as slower growth rates, lower feed conversion, and meat colour; and this is a great opportunity for genomics tools such as those being developed at Gentec.

Filipo Miglior focused on “Genetic Selection Tools That Support Dairy Farmers of Canada Achieve Net-Zero GHG Emissions By 2050”. The talk described the collaborative effort among various players in measuring, benchmarking and monitoring GHG emissions in the dairy and beef industries with the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 55% by 2050. The research shows that predicted methane is moderately heritable, and has zero correlation with production traits. Reducing methane emissions will improve production efficiency and animal welfare, and have a positive impact on consumers, rural communities and the environment. Lactanet has incorporated methane emission traits into its genomics index since April 2023 (with Gentec contributing to this effort). Selection for methane efficiency will help reduce emissions from a herd without affecting production levels.

Brian Kinghorn spoke on “Precision Matching of Objectives and Technologies in the Implementation of Breeding Programs”. Breeders set their breeding objectives and decide where to go, while technology such as EPDs or EBVs, genomics, etc. help them achieve those objectives. New and old technologies bring opportunities. Which ones you pursue depends on your objectives. Whenever possible, all available information should be used to drive technology, thus improving precision. Heritability, genetic correlation and economics can all be taken into consideration. There is often the need to have a view of your long-term outcomes in closed breeding programs and to balance that with short-term genetic gains. There is also a need to control diversity and inbreeding outcomes by carefully managing the distribution of sires across herds and progeny. MateSel, a computer program that can help breeders and researchers better design breeding programs and mating decisions, to help balance long-term and short-term genetic gains and control the rate of inbreeding. A new feature concerns use of high calving-ease bulls. The conventional approach was “grouping” bulls to allow heifers to be mated only by such “calving-ease” bulls. With the new approach, better use is made of the calving ease EPD resources available. MateSel provides management of distribution of sires across herds (sire referencing schemes and genomic reference populations), creating multi-sire mating syndicates. “A system that brings precision in predicting the impact of your decisions can also bring power to discover a wide range of alternative directions and give more control and confidence in chosen directions.”

Juan Pedro Steibel presented on “Use of Hardware and Sensors Towards Phenomics to Deliver Complex Data and Advance Animal Breeding”. Phenomics is the acquisition of high-dimensional phenotypic data on an organism-wide scale. Phenotyping offers the opportunity to conduct genetic evaluation and improve relevant traits. Most novel traits are hard to measure, and may require special technology like sensors for data collection. Sensor-based phenomics (acquisition of high-dimensional phenotypic data) has several advantages for animal breeding: (1) accuracy of genomic prediction of novel traits such as behaviour, welfare and health-related traits, GHG emissions and feed intake traits. (2) These novel/hard to measure traits and the environmental variables can be measured in more relevant contexts matching genetics to your environment. However, JP Steibel pointed out some of the challenges including validating the phenotyping algorithms in broad contexts, linking phenotypes through animal identification (tags), and validating genomic predictions for the difficult-to-measure traits at the beginning of the process. Again as Gentec’s ISAC advised, these are areas where Gentec can contribute to Canada’s beef improvement efforts.

Mokah Shmigelsky at OneCup AI demonstrated the opportunities Steibel discussed showing how coupling artificial intelligence with computer vision through on farm cameras can help to deliver a sophisticated phenotyping system in beef farming systems.

Marzieh Heidaritabar and Everestus Akanno

Gentec Research Associates


The Beef Improvement Federation’s (BIF) aim is to drive improvements in efficiency, profitability, and the sustainability of beef production. The annual BIF convention has become an anticipated forum to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing beef production, and allow the exchange of ideas and best practices between the various sectors involved in beef production spanning research, and commercialization through to the producers and circling back.

Perhaps most closely aligned with Gentec’s mission, the July 4 session titled Advancements in Producer Applications featured a 3-part session chaired by Dr. Darrh Bullock, University of Kentucky, that included talks titled: Why Should Commercial Cattleman Be Interested in Genomics (Troy Rowan), VPB+: How Sustainability and Genomics Fit Together (Shannon Argent), and a Panel Discussion: A Business Case for Using EPDs.

Given that there is no interest like self-interest, we will focus on the panel discussion, which featured Gentec’s own Management Advisory Board member, Sean McGrath. Sean should be familiar to our newsletter readers as a poly-math cow/calf producer and owner of the Centennial Round Rock Ranch located near Vermillion, Alberta, but if you would like a refresher, click here.

Sean’s message was a summary of his approach to starting with the end in mind. He runs DNA on his entire herd, and aims to achieve 3 targets: $1,000 / head gross margin, to minimize cow herd depreciation (maximize lifetime productivity) and, given the vast geography and constrained labour on his operation, he budgets about 10 minutes per cow per year.  The prognosis for any cow exceeding its labour allowance is… dinner.

Other members of the panel were Paul Bennett of Knoll Crest Farm out of Red House, VA, and Donnell Brown of RA Brown Ranch based out of Throckmorton, TX.

Knoll Crest prides itself on being a full-service provider of genetics using EPDs to provide bulls, cows, embryos, and semen targeting the commercial producer. The Knoll Crest approach is to provide the commercial producer with a differentiated suite of traits that provide the traits commercial producers need and not what they have. Paul’s main message was that the farm uses EPDs to provide cost-effective genetics and “service, service, service”. Part of this service involves a 12-month unconditional guarantee of the performance of the bull.

Interestingly, a comment was also made regarding removing the data from the catalogues as the information overload just confuses many potential clients. So Knoll Crest removed the details and instead focus on client education and decreasing the degree of information that they need to know to make an informed decision. The data provided is comprehensive enough that 50-60% of bulls are sold sight unseen. Quality, service and simplification.

RA Brown Ranch focuses on Quarter horses in addition to registered pure breed and commercial cattle. As tends to be the case with cattlemen (including Sean and Paul), Donnell’s message regarding the use of EPDs was clear and concise: EDPs are best used for selection, marketing, and risk management.

The strategies that flow outwards from these concepts should encourage producers to select for animals that match the environment they are to be raised in. Environmental fit is critical, and, in some cases, small distances matter a lot. The next step involves knowing what you are selling (marketing), and how to select the bulls to augment the existing characteristics within your cow herd to make their offspring command the highest price from those who will buy them. And lastly, to thine own self be true. Understand the strengths and limitations of your operation and management style. Make sure that your breeding system fits your own personal inclinations. If you are an interventionist (or have an excess of labour), you may be able to thrive with a high-maintenance herd.  On the other hand, if your thought process aligns more closely with Sean’s approach, you might want to work with a different set of EPDs.





Given the challenges surrounding increases in the global population, the reduction in global poverty and the corresponding increase in animal protein consumption, the urgency to act in the face of climate change and environmental deterioration has never been greater. Thus, the Young Producer Symposium at the the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) annual symposium in Calgary between July 3-6, 2023, sought to focus on how to make the future better.

“Canadian AG-Tech: Innovation and Investment” presentation

Gentec associate Dawn Trautman of SVG Ventures noted that global drivers such as population growth, climate change, shifting demographics, consumption behaviours, etc. will continue to create demand for innovation in the agrifood sector. Therefore, investment in agtech is a critical catalyst for scaling innovation and supporting continued advancement of the Canadian agrifood industry. Areas of focus for investment include improving productivity, increasing food security, and reducing emissions and environmental impact.


One of the highlights of the first day was the Young Producer Symposium panel discussion on On-farm Innovation featuring three young-producer operations taking their products directly to market.

The panel consisted of: Charlotte Wasylik of Chatsworth Farms near Vermillion, Alberta, offering beef, lamb, eggs (chicken, duck, goose), grains and flour, as well as pet food / bones; Jordan Miller of Grandview Farms on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Their operation centres around a large cow/calf herd and the concept that every product sold is born, raised and fed in a sustainable manner with all feed produced as part of the operation; and Ben Campbell of Grazed Right Ltd located 30 minutes out of Calgary, selling beef, chicken, and eggs.

Ben summed up guiding principles common across all the panelists best: to protect the natural environment (“sustainability”, if you had to pick a word), to provide an “awesome life for our livestock”, and to reconnect people with the land, their food, and nature. Each panelist described how their venture aimed to deliver this while capitalizing on the growing movement towards marketing direct-to-consumer livestock and consumers’ desire for increased transparency, trust, and to know where their food comes from. This approach allows them to bypass traditional middlemen, such as wholesalers and retailers, and offer several benefits – not the least of which is transparency and trust in the quality, freshness, handling, and processing, which then have knock-on effects on approaches to:

Customization and education. Direct sales drive engagement and, in the case of several restaurant customers, the willingness to customize menus (think this Delicious Bits newsletter) to capture value from the entire carcass, to provide specific cuts or provide other unique products.

Branding, marketing, and differentiation. Sometimes around sustainability, efficient farming, animal welfare or unique products while other typical approaches involve farm tours or promoting weekly on-farm egg pickup or delivery (sometimes across considerable distances) to build the relationship to point of a larger beef or meat sale.

All tactics work towards developing a “support local” ethos, which helps to ensure that producers receive a fair price, and encourages local agriculture and a locally-derived food culture. The results have been encouraging, and are viewed by some as evidence of the gradual reshaping of Canadian agriculture to perhaps resemble the European “terroir” model.

In closing, here are some nuggets of wisdom that we took from these young producers as words to live by:

  • We market ingredients not products. Our customers don’t want products; they want ingredients to make the food they serve to their families.
  • We all eat with our eyes. In our business, photos (and video) are critical. They help the consumer to experience our food before they receive it; and perhaps, most encouraging for other producer-entrepreneurs considering a different approach.
  • Done properly, direct-to-consumer allows a degree of profitability to do things that commodity producers never could.

All this echoes some of the discussion back at Gentec with its industry partners. For example, AgSights provides tools that link the animal to the plate including images and QR codes to provide feedback on product experience. As you all know, DNA can provide the connection to help track and also select for the best genetics based on such data.




At the Grill with William Torres: What is precision livestock farming? And how does it work with genetics?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about talks about the benefits of precision livestock farming for animal health and the bottom line

Well, it’s a complicated answer with a simple translation. With Earth’s population rapidly building towards nine billion by 2037, every resource we produce is being stretched thin. Sustainability is no longer a simple buzzword of the environmental movement, it’s now the prime focus of progress in our world. Though precision agriculture is a concept that has been around for decades, Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) is newer. And I can summarize it in three key words: “Attention to Detail.”

PLF involves monitoring animals or using objective measurements on the animals, using signal analysis algorithms and statistical analysis. These techniques are applied in part with the goal of regaining an advantage of older, smaller-scale farming, namely detailed knowledge of individual animals. Think of it as getting back to your roots when you knew every animal on the farm.

Before large farms became the norm, most farmers had an intimate knowledge of their livestock. Moreover, a farmer could typically trace an animal’s pedigree and retain other important characteristics. Each animal was approached as an individual. In the past three decades, farms have multiplied in scale, with highly-automated processes for feeding and other tasks. Consequently, farmers are forced to work with many more animals to make their living out of livestock farming, so work with average values per group. Variety has become an impediment to increasing economies of scale.

With individual genetic and other information, one can utilize such management. Many companies offer individual animal management but it’s also applied to the pen or lot of cattle, as “group” management. Think about it, even from a feeding perspective, you couldn’t possibly have a diet for each animal but chances are, many of them can be on the same diet. If you know and understand how to manage your genetics, you can also deliver the best diet for them. Cattle are mammals, and, just like you and me, we all gain weight differently. Many of us will have the same genetic marker for appetite, fat deposition, marbling, etc. Therefore, if we are grouped together, management can be easier and more lucrative.

Precision feeding involves reducing feed and nutrient waste by only feeding the precise amount needed to reach optimum production. It’s already being used extensively in the dairy industry, and we should at least think about implementing on the beef side. The process uses quality data management and recipe management to ensure that each animal is getting exactly what they need without wasting precious resources that could be used elsewhere. Generally speaking, precision feeding reduces the inputs required on the farm, which lowers farm overhead and improves profitability.

PLF is developing rapidly, and is moving beyond health alarms towards an integrated decision-making system. It includes animal sensor and production data but also external data. PLF offers opportunities for the cattle sector through early disease detection, capturing animal-related information more objectively and consistently, predicting risks for animal health and welfare, increasing the efficiency of animal production, and objectively determining animal affective states.