The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF): Why Everyone interested in beef genetics and technology should attend

By Kajal Devani
Director of Science and Technology
Canadian Angus Association

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) symposium is an annual convention that brings together beef researchers, technology providers, extension specialist, graduate students of beef genetics, and primary beef producers. Typically held in June, the convention rotates across US states, and has also been held in Calgary, Canada. In fact, BIF 2023 is scheduled to be held in Calgary just prior to the 2023 Calgary Stampede. The convention is a great way to advance the Federation’s mandate to connect science and industry to improve beef cattle genetics.

One of BIF’s objectives has been to standardize all performance records across beef breeds nationally and internationally. The BIF-recommended guidelines for performance recording provide beef breed associations, industry partners, and beef producers with a framework of economically-relevant traits to measure, and standardized methods and scoring guidelines for the traits. The Federation has responded as market and environmental changes pose opportunities and challenges to beef production industries. The annual BIF convention has become a place to discuss these, and explore possible solutions towards improvement in beef production with representation from multiple sectors of the industry as well as scientific researchers and technology providers.

Previous BIF conventions addressed topics ranging from fertility (estrus synchronization, timed-AI, sexed semen, genetic correlations of scrotal circumference to other traits) to consumer demands (beef production as a consumer-driven business; who is our consumer; what do they want today and 20 years from now; the genetics of meat science; and what can we do to improve the palatability of beef). The annual BIF convention has become a place to learn from the experiences of other livestock species and from beef production practices of other countries. For example, Dr. Mark Trotter from Central Queensland University shared Australia’s experience of adopting GPS-equipped tags to monitor location, movement, and health of Australian beef cattle in 2019. This technology (editor – coming to the UAlberta Roy Berg Kinsella Ranch soon) was novel at the time, and it was exciting to see in practice its possibilities and advantages.

This year, the 53rd BIF Symposium and Convention was held physically in Des Moines, Iowa, and made available virtually to those who were not able to travel due to global COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. It has been a year of increased awareness and appreciation for genetic tools and technology as the world charges forward with polarizing views on mRNA vaccines, alternative beef sources, and gene-edited livestock and aquaculture species. BIF convention participants follow advancements in gene editing in cattle closely. Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam has continually reported her lab’s progress in this field at BIF. The first two traits gene edited by Dr. Van Eenennaam’s lab were horns and sex, both edited to increase animal health and welfare and decrease the industry’s environmental footprint. Participants at BIF convention 2021 discussed at length possible ways to address that 46% of US consumers surveyed said that they would not eat meat from a gene-edited animal. Another trait that has significant impact on the industry’s environmental footprint, and on producer profitability, is fertility. This year, BIF convention participants heard from Dr. Francisco Peñagaricano’s lab on genes and biological pathways that contribute towards male fertility. Beef production is complex, and genetics play a significant role in the success of beef production from conception to the consumer experience. Genetic improvement is often a good solution for production challenges as genetic improvement can be long-lasting and cost-effective.

Central to the BIF mandate to promote genetic improvement in BIF, the convention typically includes lengthy discussions on genetic evaluations, advances in methodology and trait definition, and challenges for which we may or may not find a solution. This was particularly valuable when beef industries started incorporating genomics technology into genetic evaluations, and again when the methodology for this was refined from a multistep method to a single-step genetic evaluation. For several years, multiple scientific groups presented background information on genomics technology and updated BIF convention participants on the advances being made in these fields. This gave extension specialists, breed association technical staff (such as me), and producers the opportunity to ask questions and to provide feedback and direction to the scientists dedicated to developing tools for the industry. This is an ongoing discussion as genomics technology is advancing so fast. At the BIF convention, we can learn from the early adopters who share their experiences.

I have had the incredible opportunity to attend the annual BIF convention since 2010. As the Director of Science and Technology for the Canadian Angus Association, I have appreciated the opportunity to keep abreast of new tools for the beef industry, to learn about genetic evaluations and genetic selection tools and application, and to have an extensive network of scientists, extension specialists, and primary beef producers who have dedicated themselves to genetic improvement in beef cattle to learn from.

Event report: Animal Science Genetics and Genomics Network (ASGGN) Discussion Forum

by Ghader Manafiazar; assistant professor at Dalhousie University

The Animal Science Genetics and Genomics Network (ASGGN) Discussion Forum was held online on June 2, 2021. It offers a forum and environment in which scientists from all over the world can share information and data relating to breeding to mitigate methane (CH4) emissions from grazing livestock. The theme of the discussion this year was potential proxies of ruminants’ methane emissions. I was invited to speak about our work on the fecal methanogen species and methane production and forage intake from grazing beef heifers. It was encouraging to have a discussion with others working in the field and share new results and approaches, for example, the pros and cons of using fecal samples to estimate methane production.

It was really useful to participate. I learned about several potential proxies, such as microbiome profiles, that might be used to predict methane production in ruminants. It appears that the microbiome is comparable to other proxies. I also learned that volatile fatty acids could be used to rank sheep based on their CH4 yield. It was interesting to see the results of ongoing research on measuring rumen volumes in sheep by CT scanning, with the potential of selecting animals for lower methane production. Still, research using proxies to predict methane emission in animals is preliminary so a systematic review is needed of the available publications from which to make practical recommendations.

It was also great to see some Gentec friends among the speakers, including Dr. Rainer Roehe from Scotland’s Rural College, Dr. Suzanne Rowe from New Zealand AgResearch, and Dr. Filippo Miglior from the UoGuelph. Dr. Miligor talked about Canadian efforts to decrease methane emissions in dairy cattle. This project was a great collaborativeeffort between the UoGuelph, Gentec, and many international partners. This effort to improve the profitability and sustainability of the dairy industry is continuing with another Genome Canada-supported project led by Christine Baes at Guelph.

The Discussion Forum has a single focus: methane emissions. I recommend it for researchers working in methane mitigation. I may not be able to implement my learning at the farm level soon since research in this area is ongoing but, given today’s environmental concerns, I see there are new applications and adoption in the next decade. I am looking forward to being involved in my new position at Dalhousie including continued collaboration with the Gentec team.

Who is Kira Macmillan? Gentec’s new extension specialist

Born and raised in Edmonton, AB, I got my BSc in Animal Health Sciences and my MSc in Ruminant Nutrition from the UAlberta. Since 2016, I worked as a research technician for Dr. Marcos Colazo, first at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and then at UAlberta. We conducted research projects on dairy and beef commercial farms, focusing on reproduction and health (see publications here). Our most recent project compared the economic performance of an automated activity monitor to a timed-AI protocol in dairy heifers on a commercial farm. My own research interests revolve around improving on-farm efficiency, in particular, adopting technologies and best management practices to increase reproductive performance.

I have also been contracting for Alberta Milk since 2015, starting out in research extension writing (DRECA research summaries). I was involved in extension event-planning (DRECA workshops), developing resources for producers and supporting administration of the proAction consumer assurance program in Alberta. In 2020, UAlberta asked me to help coordinate the first virtual Western Canadian Dairy Seminar that took place in March 2021. In short, I like to keep busy. In my spare (!) time, I love to travel (when it was allowed), and have been to 16 countries on 5 continents. At home, you can find me at the dog park or drinking craft beer.

As of April 1, 2021, I have a new role at Gentec as a communications and extension specialist. I have already jumped onto a couple of exciting projects and am looking forward to focusing on research extension. The first project is a collaboration between UAlberta and an industry group led by Beefbooster to create an app that will use machine learning to generate scenarios, predictions and recommendations for beef producers. My second project is coordinating Gentec’s presence at AgSmart Olds on Aug. 10-11, where we aim to connect with producers and introduce some of our new genomic selection indices for commercial cattle. I believe that one of the most important steps in the research process is communicating results and the value to the end users, producers. So, it’s essential that we keep producers in mind during research projects, and certainly after projects are completed to make sure those solutions or technology or products create a more efficient, profitable and sustainable industry.

I am thrilled to join the Gentec team, to get to know the beef industry better and to start engaging with producers in Alberta. I hope to help bridge the gap between research and producers to ensure they drive the direction of research and realize the full value of what research has to offer for their farms.

Anybody who wants to start talking, please contact me.

John Basarab: new Head of Beef Operations at Gentec

John Basarab chatted with Gentec about his new position as Head of Beef Operations. The highlights of that conversation are below.

Gentec: What’s the background to your move to Gentec/UAlberta after 30+ years with the Alberta government?

Basarab: Well, the story goes back several years. With Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, I built a successful research program in beef production, management, genetics and genomics. During a lot of that time, I was an adjunct professor at UAlberta as well, and involved in the Alberta Bovine Genome Program, led by Steve Moore. When feed efficiency became a big thing in Alberta and Australia in the early 2000s, my program became the phenotyping arm for feed efficiency, growth and carcass traits for the Program, which morphed into Gentec. (More recently, female fertility and longevity, and impacts on methane emissions have been added to the phenotypes for genetic/genomic analyses.)

Then, last year, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry changed its focus away from performing research towards funding research. Some programs, like mine, were transferred to UAlberta where I was appointed to a senior role to help strengthen research and discovery at the Faculty to help deliver tangible benefits for farmers. That’s how I—and some resources and phenotyping tech support—ended up at the University. It’s a good marriage.

Gentec: So, do you work for UAlberta or Gentec?

Basarab: Like the other lead Gentec scientists, I’m hired by the University. Others are hired by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada or other academic institutions. Gentec is a group of like-minded people collaborating on projects in animal genomics, phenomics and business. It relies on that likemindedness to advance its strategic plan, which is highly related to the beef industry’s strategic plan. That’s how we were able to put together a large tech transfer project for the beef industry (see EnVigour HX ™) and get it funded. In any year, Gentec carries projects worth over $25 million.

Gentec: So, you could have gone anywhere. Why Gentec?

Basarab. Gentec is a mechanism like few others for coordinating research and technology transfer activities. It’s almost like picking an all-star team. Gentec’s model is to say: we need good beef genomics and knowledge translation people. Where can we find them, and how do we get them to collaborate? The answer is: get them to buy into group values and objectives, and engage them on a project to fulfil industry needs.

Gentec: Did the funding from Alberta Innovates and Results-Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) come with your move or was it coincidental?

Basarab: The project model is a good one but hard to sustain because we have to chase funds to retain basic staff, and generate some revenue. We’re good at generating ideas and winning grants. Then the IP gets developed and licensed out. Then we’re back to square one. Gentec’s new strategic plan reflects a change in direction, encouraging us to generate enough revenue to move forward, to deliver tools to producers that improve their bottom line and that are easier to use. So, these two tranches of funding coincided with my arrival—but I do bring the industry focus they’re looking for. RDAR, especially, is looking for solutions to industry challenges.

Gentec: Your title is Head of Beef Operations. What does that mean? What is your role?

Basarab: Well, the main thing is to implement the strategic plan, especially as it relates to the beef industry. So that means identify research, communication and extension activities that focus on industry challenges. Then go after funding. We’re doing a lot of that already. Several projects have been approved or are in the final round of competition.

We’ll capitalize on our deep relationships with the beef industry to solve industry challenges, and not just through genomics. We’ll look at emerging, data-driven technologies, like the smart farm, and develop software and analytics so that real-time data collection informs real-time decisions to benefit producers.

We’ll deepen our relationships with organizations like the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC), Canadian Beef Breeds Council, and the Canadian Beef Improvement Network to keep the research moving forward along industry lines. A key guidance document is the BCRC 2018-2023 Strategic Plan, which focuses on enhanced feed and forage production, improving feed efficiency, decreasing impacts on animal health, improving consumer confidence in beef and environmental sustainability. Several of these areas, like improving feed and production efficiency, optimizing carcass cut-out value and reducing the carbon footprint of beef production lend themselves well to genetic and genomic selection.

And, of course, we can never stop thinking about the research. All the above will come together to provide a rich learning environment and 360-degree industry awareness that attracts grad students who have a strong interest in agriculture and want to stay in Alberta and Canada. And I’m sure that the new research chair (Dr. Gleise da Silva) will collaborate with Gentec, UAlberta and AAFC researchers, tech transfer staff and industry.

Gentec: What excites you about the next steps for Gentec?

Basarab: We have this great genomic-phenomic dataset—unique to Canada in beef cattle—that now allows us to generate all sorts of genomics tools for the beef industry. Those tools will work because the database has been created from cattle in Western Canada. These are homegrown genotypes and phenotypes from our own backyard. I’m so excited about bring these solutions to our beef industry.

Traceability: From then to now

In March 2021, AgSights (here) set out its approach to traceability in a newsletter article with Gentec. Its software tools allow producers to collect and integrate animal data all the way through to the retail pack. Indeed, consumers can even provide feedback on their experience with the product. This last part is really important as it allows consumers to connect the meal experience back to the genetics. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow commented on how DNA is the component that connects all these results to genetic improvement. He recalls how he set out this potential as the shape of things to come at one of his first presentations to the beef industry (at a Beef Value Chain Roundtable in Ottawa) after moving to the University of Alberta in 2007. He used examples from the pork sector, where access to data from across the value chain provided opportunities to improve cost of production (efficient lean growth), the shelf-life of pork in the retail case, as well as the eating experience. All of these using genomics.

“One of my favourite stories is about protecting hard-earned brand values… in this case from KuroButa pork in Japan,” he says. “The pig equivalent of Wagyu beef if you like.” The story can still be found on the web, with the headline: Japan pig fraud prompts DNA test.

Genomics has moved forward tremendously since then, with the sequencing of livestock genomes and the application of genomic selection in most species. Gentec has been at the centre of these efforts in Canada, including the Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard), which generated sequence for more than 350 Canadian bulls. As mentioned in the AgSights article, AgSights was one of the partners in those efforts. However, we are still waiting to see the connectivity Plastow envisioned when he realized at that meeting in 2007 that every animal would be tagged through the Canadian Cattle identification Agency. More recently, Gentec commissioned reports on the potential for the beef sector but progress in beef has been relatively slow compared to dairy and swine.

“I’ve been saying pretty-much the same thing since 2007—until recently,” Plastow recalls. “Perhaps real change is on the way with efforts by AgSights, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, TrustBIXS, and the new CBIN initiative taking up the challenge of applying new digital technologies with genomics.”

These efforts are now being taken forward by the beef industry as reported in the article by Sandy Russell of the Canadian Beef Improvement Network. With the 2020 appointment of John Basarab as Head of Beef Operations at Gentec, we look forward to working closely with CBIN to join the dots and help commercial beef producers see the value of genomics for their operations to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the industry.

 

CBIN: Promising value for the beef industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consistent genetic selection for RFI brings economic and environmental results!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”