One step in understanding Canada’s iconic wood bison

There are plains bison and wood bison. Can you tell the difference?

Delta Genomics is developing a test that will tell whether bison are wood, plains or hybrid. The difference is important to conservation and production efforts.

Wood bison are part of Canada’s iconic charismatic megafauna, along with polar bears, caribou, moose and others. With only about 10,000 of them remaining (based on visual inspection of wild herds), the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed the species as having Special Concern. Plains bison, on the other hand, are quite plentiful. If you can’t tell the difference in these images, you’re not alone. So how do we know which to preserve?

“The CanSeq150 project is a science gift to Canada for our country’s 150th birthday last year,” says Delta Genomics CEO, Michelle Miller. “Basically, Canada’s Genomics Enterprise is sequencing 150 new genomes of animal or plant species that have significant scientific, cultural, societal or economic impact to Canada.”

CanSeq150’s goal is for the new genomes to serve as a foundation for biological research projects throughout the country. This initiative brought the beaver genome to Canada’s 150th birthday party, and has since sequenced the Canadian predator-prey duo, the snowshoe hare and lynx in 2017. The project still has an active call out for suggested species.

“We wanted to get the wood bison sequences for a few reasons,” says Michelle. “As part of an on-going project between Delta and the Canadian Bison Association, we are working to better understand the genetics of bison.”

Back in the 1920s, 6,000 plains bison were introduced into Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta, home to some of the last free-roaming wood bison herds. Yes, the bison interbred. No, there’s no good test to determine if an animal is wood, plains or hybrid. There’s even some debate as to whether they are genetically different. This is one of the questions Delta Genomics is hoping to answer. And for that, it needs lots of bison to sequence. The CanSeq150 project arrived at the perfect time.

The Canadian Bison Association has a two-pronged, synergistic mandate: conservation and production. The project with Delta involves developing the first genomics tools for the industry, which is something it doesn’t have access to yet. Genomics will benefit bison producers and conservationists by improving our ability to differentiate between wood and plains bison. There are three issues to address/answer:

  1. SNP parentage. The only parentage test using SNPs is US-based, which means mailing in samples to the States and paying in US dollars. Many producers don’t bother.
  2. Genetic difference. Is it possible to differentiate the percentage of wood and plains bison in an individual animal?
  3. How much cattle DNA is in an individual animal. Most bison have very little but current measurement methods aren’t very accurate.

“So we’d know how many pure wood bison there really are, from the conservation point of view,” says Michelle. “And on the production side, the knowledge will help producers in the same way that beef breeders maintain parental lines of Angus, Simmental, etc. Bison breeders are the same way. So producers need to know that, as well.”

But back to our original question. At Gentec, we’re not the type to leave you dangling. Here are the answers you’re looking for.

Demonstration Days are here again

2017 was a year of exciting firsts for Gentec and Delta Genomics.

In February, we launched the first genomics application for the commercial cow-calf sector discovered and commercialized within Alberta. The collaboration between the Grey Wooded Forage Association (GWFA) and Gentec as part of the Cow-Forage Gentec Tour demonstration event was our first involvement with a forage association, making the GWFA the first to deliver this information to its members. Last August’s event was one of our most highly rated demonstration events, with particular positive comments on the forage component for cow-calf producers and on the impact of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (and Gentec collaborator) John Basarab’s presentation on genomics tools for commercial cow-calf producers.

Building on this success, Gentec and the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association (FFGA) in Southern Alberta are hosting two Forage to Beef Field-Demonstration Days in 2018: July 10 at the Waldron Ranch Grazing Cooperative (near Longview, AB), and July 11 co-located between Difficulty Ranch and at Whiskey Ridge Cattle Company (both near Didsbury, AB).

As in 2017, the overarching theme is sustainable beef production and the interaction of cows, forages and genomics in the optimal development and management of the cow-herd.

At the Waldron Ranch Grazing Cooperative on July 10, Mike Roberts, Ranch Manager, will compare plots that have never been grazed, continually grazed, and intermittently grazed. Here, presenters will discuss forage species, performance indicators, the production and environmental benefits (with yearling cattle on-site), the impacts of managing hybrid vigour within the cow herd as well as progress in developing genomic indexes for the commercial producer. There will also be a demonstration of how drones can be used in ranch management.

The second event, hosted jointly by Morrie and Debbie Goetjen (Whiskey Ridge Cattle Co.) and Sean and Holly LaBrie (Difficulty Ranch) will reflect the ecological and production techniques based on their local environmental conditions. They will showcase forage topics such as the cell, swath and bale-grazing techniques they use on-ranch, display their cow herd and discuss their beef production philosophy. The hybrid vigour and drone demonstrations from the previous day will be presented.

Both days will also see two prominent UofA Gentec collaborators presenting on the practical progress being made in forage production. Edward Bork, Director of UofA’s Rangeland Research Institute and Mattheis Chair in Rangeland Ecology and Management will use the forage plots on-hand to discuss the importance and methods of maintaining the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of rangelands at the producer level.

Barry Irving has been coaxed out of a retirement lasting approximately 21 days) will talk about how management and research on both the forage and beef side has impacted production practices over the course of his career. Barry is the former manager of UofA’s Agricultural Research Stations that includes the Mattheis and Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranches. Each station is home to distinct forage environments and active cattle herds.

More information and registration information available at and

Local Boy Does Good…

This month’s featured video pays tribute to Gentec personality Dr. John Crowley as he advances another level in his rapidly evolving career. Some of our readers will know that as of July 1, John will be joining AbacusBio in its head office in Dunedin, New Zealand, for three months before settling into its international office in Edinburgh, Scotland.

John came to Gentec in 2011 from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, where he had been working as part of the genetic evaluation team.

Coming from a dairy and beef background and going on to be classically trained PhD in Quantitative Genetics, John was able to focus on the fact that the goal was always to help the science help the producer manage their operation and achieve production efficiencies. While always working as part of the Gentec / University of Alberta academic team, this drew John back to work with industry, initially as an Industry R&D Associate with Beefbooster from 2012 to 2014 (supported by Alberta Innovates), and in a similar position with the Canadian Beef Breeds Council immediately after that.

The video, filmed at Gentec’s 2018 One Genome One Health conference, provides an update on the Genome Alberta and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry project on “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle.” It shows John doing what he says he enjoys most about his roles in “helping to bridge the gaps between the academic role in discovery and innovation with that of facilitating the uptake and application of these new technologies by producers and industry … the interface of progress.”

In this presentation, John talks about the efforts to bring to the producer genomics tools and selection indexes that focus on traits of economic importance: feed efficiency and carcass traits such as carcass weight, marbling grade and lean yield.

One area where Gentec does “particularly well” (John’s words!) is in partnering with user groups who can benefit from the technology being developed. Here, that means working with Troy Drake of Cow Calf Health Management Solutions and 13 Alberta-based producers to provide genetic evaluations for commercial producers, increase the genetic merit of the cow herd by increasing the accuracy of genomics prediction tools and by delivering genomics breed composition to producers. This latter ability is demonstrating particular value as it allows commercial (crossbred) producers to optimize the value of hybrid vigour within their herd while taking advantage of breed complementarity (the fact that the different breeds have different strengths).

Valuable advances to be sure—but the science does not stop here … The next frontier involves gEPDs and selection indexes for maternal traits.

We wish John success in the next step in his career with one of Gentec’s partner organizations.

Bye-bye, brown apples…

As of November 2017, select stores in the US are selling an apple variety called Arctic® Golden. It’s the same as the Golden we’ve known and eaten for decades, only this one doesn’t go brown—at all, ever—after it’s bitten into, sliced or even bruised. (Browning from rot is a different process entirely.)

All because of one enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO). In a normal apple that’s been cut or bitten into, PPO reacts with the oxygen in the air, leaving a brown stain. The same thing happens to avocados, bananas, pears, etc. Until now, we’ve been coating fruit in lemon juice to stop them browning. Lemons are full of ascorbic acid, which reacts with oxygen before the PPO can. But it’s only temporary. Once the ascorbic acid is used up, the PPO takes over and the fruit starts to go brown.

“So we turned off the PPO gene to stop the browning process altogether,” says Neal Carter, President, Okanagan Specialty Fruits. “Using RNA interference, which is a naturally occurring pathway often used in agricultural biotechnology, we introduced apple genes that produce less PPO into apple leaf tissue. Then we grew that tissue into plantlets, and grafted them onto rootstock to grow just like conventional apple trees.”

Sounds easy but, between perfecting the science and obtaining FDA, USDA, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada approvals, 20 years whizzed by. In that time, however, the company has demonstrated that Arctic® trees behave just like any other apple tree under the same conditions, and that the fruit are just as nutritious as regular apples.

Watch a time-lapse video comparing the browning of Arctic® Golden to regular apples.

What everybody is waiting for now is… consumer reaction. Will they like them? Will they buy them? And perhaps, more to the point—as the first such apple to hit supermarket shelves—will Arctic® apples get mired in a similar controversy as, say, Golden Rice?

It’s a fair question. Golden rice was genetically designed to remedy Vitamin A deficiencies in parts of the world where rice is a prominent part of people’s diet. In spite of that lofty goal and winning a 2015 Patents for Humanity Award, it is viewed either as a panacea or a poison (no grey area here!), and distribution remains severely limited.

Arctic® apples, on the other hand, were designed with consumers in mind. Company research shows that taste testers rank these apples higher in texture, crispness and visual appeal; 92 percent of apple lovers would buy them; and 67 percent of consumers prefer preservative-free apple slices—which, of course, these are.

“Per capita apple consumption in the US has declined or remained stagnant for more than 20 years,” points out Carter. “Just as ‘baby’ carrots helped double US carrot consumption and are now the majority of US carrot sales, we believe that Arctic® apples can help more people eat more apples.”

Could it be that Arctic® apples have found the “sweet spot” between a good-looking, healthy, tasty snack that people crave and… junk food? Quite possibly.

At first blush, these apples appear to be winners all around. Carter got into genetics because, as an apple grower, he was appalled at the waste from bruising during harvesting and packing. That can now be greatly reduced. Not to mention the 19 percent of apples wasted at the supermarket from bruising, so profit to be gained there, too. And consumers are less likely to throw away perfect-looking apple slices, even if they have been in the fridge a while.

“Humans have been selecting for traits in food plants and animals to meet their needs for thousands of years,” says Neal. “Today, we do it more precisely using technology. The nutritional content of the Arctic® apple is the same as that of a regular apple. What does change is that, with a growing global population, we can derive more benefit from what we produce by wasting less. That’s a good thing.”

While the 2017 crop of Arctic® Goldens is a drop in the bucket, the production (and therefore, availability) will increase exponentially in coming years. As well, the Arctic® Fuji received USDA approval in fall 2016, so that will come into production soon; and additional tree fruit varieties are in the pipeline. That’s a good thing, too.


*Image courtesy of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.

Agricultural Myths and Facts

So says McGill University’s Science and Society’s Director Joe Schwarcz. Actually, it’s the Quacks who are coming home to roost as a result of the erosion in the quality of scientific education and literacy among the general public. 

In his presentation at Gentec’s One Genome One Health conference, Dr. Joe (as he is known informally) used his talk on Agricultural Facts and Myths to highlight how the scientific method of hypothesis, observation, logic and conclusion is, in many instances, being overpowered by hearsay, emotion and the Quacks pushing pseudoscience. 

If the public is to be truly informed, it must be encouraged and empowered to see through the misleading tactics (camouflage? – Joe’s word) employed by the “hucksters.” Part of this requires overcoming today’s chemical phobia and realizing that “nature” and “natural” are not necessarily benign; bacteria, viruses and storms are all naturally occurring, and the majority of the most powerful toxins (as well as medications) are produced in nature—and are often one in the same. “Naturally” occurring botulinum, for example, is the most acutely lethal toxin known yet is used as both a medication and a cosmetic. It is the dose that makes the medicine.

Some of Dr. Joe’s other insights and implications discussed in the short video that make you go “Hmmm” include:

Hazard and Risk. They aren’t the same thing, but do we know the difference?

Current technology allows us to detect the presence of parts per trillion (equivalent to the ability to detect 1 second within a 32,000 year period). Does this help or hinder our ability to make good decisions?

There are more trace amounts of naturally occurring acetone and formaldehyde in an apple than the pesticide residue many people lose sleep over. Should I really eat that apple?

Natural… Organic… Conventional – Who cares?  And do they really mean what we think they do?

The near-perfect correlation between autism and organic food sales. We are probably better off being vaccinated than eating organic food. Who knew?

Well-informed decisions need to be made on the basis of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Being empowered to see through the fog that is deception is the best defence.

Thanks, Dr. Joe!

Q&As with Mike Lohuis

What was your role as Director, Environmental Strategy for Agriculture at Monsanto about?

“That role involved research regarding what impact agriculture has on the environment. I was focusing specifically on climate change. For example… What has happened, how it is affecting agriculture, and how agriculture could help mitigate climate change.”

Why would a seed company need somebody to do this?

“Agriculture is the second largest source of emissions on the planet after power generation. Even though GHG-emitting agricultural practices are individually not that significant, they become so simply because agriculture occupies such a wide surface area of our land mass. For example, fertilizers aren’t applied in huge amounts, but they contain compounds such as nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide. And methane has 25 times the warming potential.

My team and I were trying to understand the problem and solutions. We worked with a variety of academic and public groups to understand the modelling behind GHG emissions. This included getting information from Gentec on feed efficiency and its potential to mitigate this problem.It was really interesting to discover where emissions come from and which ones we can do something about.”

What attracted you to the role?

“I’ve always been interested in sustainability and modelling (I’m a closet geek!). I wanted to know how we could prepare for climate change and how we could mitigate it.

Farmers are enthusiastic about faming and being part of the solution. They do a great job of feeding the planet—but wouldn’t it be nice if they could help save it, too? The thing is, when they hear talk about climate change and mitigation strategies, they immediately think of implications for their business, such as a heavier tax burden. So if you ask them if they believe in climate change, they might say ‘No,’ not because they’re climate-change deniers but because they’re more afraid of the proposed solutions than of the problem.”

What came out of that work?

“We found that tillage and fertilizers were sources of GHGs that could be mitigated. No-till agriculture and cover crops are great examples of how to reduce emissions and the need for fertilizers, build carbon in the soil and preserve the topsoil at the same time. We had a model that predicted that you could get to carbon-neutral from a cropping standpoint. So if you did it right, you could offset all your emissions from use of fuel and fertilizer by building the carbon back into the soil. Sequestration and storage in the soil are a great counterbalance to activities on the land.”

That’s great! Does the model work everywhere?

“Well, it could be used in different climates but it’s easier in temperate zones. In tropical climates, it’s so much harder to build carbon because it breaks down under lots of rain, heat and sun. Plus, weeds grow faster and herbicides are less available, so more tillage is needed. That said, rainforests do a great job of storing carbon but in the canopy, not necessarily in the soil. In the Northern Hemisphere, we can do a lot more in terms of reducing emissions in agriculture.”

What did you learn from talking to consumers?

“At Monsanto, we were acutely aware of criticisms and what we could have done to right the story. Unfortunately, we can’t turn the clock back, and it’s hard to counter some of the bad press.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the past. We know that food is an emotional issue, and when a topic is emotional, scientific arguments don’t hold much sway. We also know that trust is paramount. How do you establish and keep trust with consumers? The number one factor associated with trust is transparency.”

How do you build trust?

“As scientists, we tend to understate the risks and overstate the benefits because we like shiny new technologies. So two things can help clarify the situation: 1) Transparency about risk versus reward and 2) Good story tellers who can effectively speak to a broad audience about the issues. What we don’t want is a situation where consumers want more information, but all they see are images of buildings, machinery and technology. The best story-tellers are farmers and producers because they’re doing the job every day. They are the genuine voice.

Some consumers are critical of agribusiness. They believe the only thing industry is interested in is making money. Of course, in the short term, that’s correct. But industry wants to make money in the long term as well. So agribusiness is constantly evaluating risks and liabilities, but shouldn’t expect to fly under the radar when it comes to new technology. We have to get out there, and talk about what we’re doing. The science can’t be left to speak for itself when emotion is at play.”

What role has the internet played in all this?

“Consumers used to get their information from credible sources like journalists, the news, experts or scientific journals. But now, everybody is an expert and can easily publish information. That doesn’t mean the information is vetted. Activists have found an effective tool in social media, and they tend to use the spaghetti principle (fling a credible-sounding meme against a wall and see if it sticks) to find out if an issue has legs.

An example is the story that circulated claiming GMO crops caused farmers to commit suicide. We thought that was ludicrous, but it stuck because farming in India has long had a problem with suicides that were often tied to bankruptcies. Yes, some farmers had invested in GMO seed, but without the financial safety net of crop insurance like in North American and Europe, they went bankrupt if crops failed. We even found that, often, the purported GMO seeds were counterfeit. It took so much effort to disprove that story, and it still lingers today like an urban myth.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 in next month’s newsletter!

Cow-Forage Gentec Tour

Many attendees expressed how enjoyable their Tour experience was, from the information sessions held on the way to the tours, the lunchtime talk by UC Davis’ Charlie Brummer, to the student posters in the pavilion.

The day was meant to educate, and that goal was achieved. Attendees ranged from producers, academics, and students, to individuals from government and non-profit organizations as well as agriculture-related exhibitors. Everybody had the opportunity to learn about methane gas emissions, overwintering, cow-calf productions, and the pivotal role genetic information plays in agricultural operations.

At the pavilion, John Basarab (see below) from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada discussed the development and application of EnVigour HX™, an Alberta-developed genetic analysis that gives producers pertinent information on their cross-bred herds, which then allows them to make more informed choices to gain a more economically efficient herd.


Legume Tour

The Legume Tour was organized by the Grey Wooded Forage Association. The multi-site tour aimed to educate producers and researchers on the interaction between forage pasture and cattle grazing. The theme of the first stop was the growth response of different cultivars of alfalfa for wintering and grazing. Dr. Vern Baron and Darren Bruhjell demonstrated the winter hardiness and regrowth of each alfalfa cultivar, and explained that each trait is usually exclusive of the other.

Next, Dr. Charlie Brunner (see below) presented on breeding for reduced dormancy while maintaining winter hardiness in alfalfa in the hope of developing an alfalfa crop that is resilient to cold and shorter day-lengths but that can attain high regrowth after grazing. Selection methods involved growing alfalfa in cold stress and selectively breeding for those that survive. Since alfalfa cultivars are made up of genetically variable individuals, exerting a stress will select for individuals with higher tolerance to that particular stress.

The second and third stops demonstrated the establishment and management of forage pasture in relations to cattle grazing. Murray Abel showcased his pasture, and pointed out that cattle prefer broad-leaved forage like dandelion and orchard grass over woodier Brome grasses. However, a mixture of grass pasture and legumes helps to maintain healthy rumen microbial populations in cattle which increase average daily gain. He also demonstrated that the mixture of sainfoin in grass pastures outperforms alfalfa mixture in grass pastures in all key nutritional parameters, and does not cause the same level of bloat that alfalfa does.

The tour also stopped at pasture sites that have been grazed in the last few months to examine their state of regrowth. An established, efficient pasture should not require any replanting or reseeding because cattle grazing helps with seed dispersal and fertilization of that land.

Improving late season forage production using breeding, genetics and genomics

Charlie Brummer’s presentation was a highlight of the day. His talk focused on work being done with forages, alfalfa in particular, using breeding and genomics to improve forage varieties and production. To drive the message home, he highlighted the dramatic difference in the tonnes of forage produced per hectare, and how dramatically that production falls as one moves North, even within the United States. This obviously has an impact on the degree of supplemental feeding producers do, on the stocking rate a particular pasture can tolerate, and ultimately on the cost of production.

Traditional breeding programs have tried to balance winter hardiness and grazing tolerance while shortening the dormancy period and maintaining or increasing the yield according to the temperature and sunlight patterns of a given geography.

Newer methods using genomic SNP technology (the same technology used to determine parentage and to select for specific traits in cattle and other livestock species) is helping to select for forages with a lower likelihood of winter injury and shorter-than-expected dormancy periods that, when combined, result in greater annual forage production. And just as in animal production, the phenotypic information is critical in building the database of what a genetic variation implies for the next generations.

Charlie concluded that breeding and genomics provide a valuable tool in increasing yields, and that the ability to affect the dormancy period (particularly at higher latitudes) can improve late-season yields. The ultimate strategy may be to combine winter and grazing varieties to optimize the benefits seen in high-yielding pastures.

The implication for ranchers is clear. BCRC research suggests that every additional day that herds can remain on pasture saves the cow/calf sector $3.6 million.

Genomics tools for beef cattle

This session, given by John Basarab, ran several times during the day. For the very last session, both sets of bleachers were filled to overflowing, forcing people to stand around the perimeter of the room.

John’s main theme was on the impact of EnVigour HXTM, a new tool measuring hybrid vigour in cross-bred cattle developed by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry staff at the Lacombe Research Station with Livestock Gentec and project partners. EnVigour HXTM gives commercial producers three pieces of information: parentage, breed composition, and a vigour score. From this, they can assign parentage back to the sire, enabling them to determine which bulls are performing well (lots of healthy calves), poorly (difficult births or those with poor conformity) or not at all. Similarly, with information on breed composition, they are better able to match their herds in terms of balancing or employing breed differences based on how they want their herds to preform across various traits.

The most compelling outcome demonstrated as a result of the research (and of EnVigour HXTM) is that, by increasing the degree of “Vigour” in their herd, producers can significantly increase the longevity of their cross-bred heifers (see figure below). The impact of this, through increased pounds of weaned calves produced and the decrease in retained heifer costs, is estimated to be more than $160 per year per cow, or $80,000 per 100 cows over 5 calvings, when comparing low-vigour and high-vigour herds.