Beef production in the pandemic: From producer to plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving AMR through a One-Health lens

The newly-funded Antimicrobial Resistance – One Health Consortium managed out of UCalgary* is about to play an important role in how we safeguard the eroding ability of antibiotics to save lives and prevent illness. Its role will be to leverage the capacity and expertise across Alberta, nationally and internationally to find solutions to a looming antimicrobial resistance (AMR) crisis in humans and animals that spills over to the environment—hence the one health approach. Currently, several thousand Canadians die every year from infections with multiple drug-resistant bacteria, and the rate of increase is exponential. Worldwide, the economic impact of these infections is estimated at US$100 trillion/year.

“In the beef industry, there’s a lot we don’t know,” says Dr. Herman Barkema, Scientific Director of the Consortium and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Infectious Diseases at UCalgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “And we can’t even talk about cow/calf and feedlot operations in the same breath because antimicrobial use and resistance differs in each sector.”

For example, calves are treated with antimicrobials on arrival at the feedlot, then they get medicated feed for the duration of their stay. How much resistance that produces, and whether it causes problems in run-off? Who knows? Then, there’s the health of the animal to consider. The public is playing an enormous role in wanting meat products that are raised without antibiotics, which is reducing on-farm use—but perhaps at the cost of sick animals not getting the drugs they need to stay healthy and productive. And of course, there are people—the producers and their families, and the workers in the industry all of whom may be impacted by AMR.

“If we get resistance against frequently-used drugs in the feedlot, we have a problem—and emerging evidence shows that antimicrobials ARE becoming less effective,” says Barkema. “The only way to protect people will be with drugs of last resort, and we should really be careful not to overuse those because they are exactly that… last resort!”

The Consortium’s 27 projects focus on treatment optimization, AMR surveillance, and infection prevention and control under three thematic areas: innovation and commercialization, education and societal impact, and policy, economics and sustainability.

So why are pharmaceutical companies not investing in new antibiotics? Any new drug is likely to be safeguarded like gold, and used only to treat multi-drug resistant infections. So, minimizing drug use is one way to combat resistance—but it doesn’t result in the large sale volumes needed to recoup the $2-4 billion costs to develop and receive regulatory approval for use of an antimicrobial.

Instead, the Consortium is looking to alternatives like phage therapy, new targets, biomarkers, stewardship, the microbiome, as well as optimizing the use of current treatments. It is also developing protocols to change the prescribing habits of veterinarians, pharmacists and doctors, and the usage practices of farmers and people. Vaccine development, hygiene protocols for people and animals, and genetic selection for disease resistance can all lower antimicrobial use.

“We are excited to be involved in this initiative as we know that some animals are more resilient to infectious disease than others,” says Plastow. “Identifying them is the challenge; however, our work in pigs and cattle is helping develop tools to do this. The team. including others at UCalgary like Karin Orsel and Frank van der Meer. have generated phenotypes and samples to push this effort forward. And Gentec’s Janelle Jiminez will be working with these researchers from April to find new funding to exploit these resources.”

Use practices are already starting to change. As of December 1, 2018, the over-the-counter sale of medically-important antimicrobials is no longer allowed. Such products can only be purchased with a prescription issued by a veterinarian. Those are the (relatively) “easy” administrative changes. The Consortium’s innovative solutions will take years to develop, test and employ, although consumer and retailer push (A&W, McDonalds, Maple Leaf, Sobeys, etc.) may accelerate uptake.

“Then,” says Barkema, “we’d better be ready to follow. Our results in beef will apply to other livestock, and connect to people and the environment. If we use less antibiotics in agriculture, there’s less run-off and less soil contamination. That means better drinking water and environment. Everything is linked.”

* The Consortium is Alberta-wide, comprising the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Lethbridge as well as Lethbridge Research Centre, Olds College, Lakeland College, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

1,600 chickens… and counting

Because the Leghorn chicken is so prolific (up to 320 eggs/year!), it is the darling of the egg industry, and produces the vast majority of eggs in Canada. They lay white eggs, so it’s easy to tell. For those who prefer a brown shell, you can thank the Rhode Island Red and a few other breeds. Between them, they’ve locked up the market.

So what happened to the breeds we used to see around farmhouses, back in the day? Some of them are in trouble, with few individuals left, certainly not enough for a healthy population. Ten of these breeds (1,600 chickens total) find a home within the Heritage Chicken program at UAlberta (with another population at UGuelph, in case of catastrophe at one location).

“Currently, in-breeding is high among four of the breeds because they’re randomly mated,” says Marzieh Heidaritabar, the Gentec post-doc trying to develop a funded project for the program off the side of her desk. “But this isn’t efficient. Ideally, we want a proper breeding program to select the best animals. Genomics is the best tool to help us select the most diverse sires and females as parents of the next generation.”

Eighty-five chickens have already been sequenced. “That’s how we knew inbreeding was high in the first place,” says Marzieh. Now, another $70K is needed to finish the job, and fund students and tests. She plans to apply to NSERC this year to, hopefully, get the project rolling in 2021.

The goal would be to keep the unique genes in the breeds and increase the number of individuals over 2-3 generations to assess the success of the breeding program—but it may make more sense to merge the breeds if they are genetically close. Secondary objectives would be to examine immunity and behaviour, both of which may increase the suitability of the breeds for certain environments. Two other ongoing projects are working on perching and gait traits.

While Marzieh will go through traditional Tri-Council channels and the higher-tech GoFundMe platform, the program has been creative about fundraising in a different way. $175/year will get you a dozen eggs every other week for 10 months. Or you can adopt-a-rooster instead (similar program minus the eggs).

“Every little bit helps,” says Marzieh, “and it’s a great way to get the public involved.”

The First Outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) in Alberta

Julia Keenliside DVM MSc
Veterinary Epidemiologist
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

The porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus first made the jump from Asia to the USA in 2013. Since then, it has spread rapidly across the USA and parts of Canada. Until 2019, the Alberta pork industry had succeeded in keeping the virus out of the province. That changed on January 7th when the first case was confirmed near Drumheller. Three more cases followed in February and March in the Lethbridge area. As of July 2019, the outbreak is still limited to four farms.
PED is a viral disease that affects only swine and their relatives (including wild boar). Symptoms are often unmistakable, with large numbers of pigs affected by severe diarrhea, vomiting and refusal to eat. It is generally fatal in young piglets, but older pigs will recover completely within a week or so. An outbreak typically spreads rapidly, and 3-5 weeks of piglet production may be lost, taking an emotional toll on pig caretakers. Despite its spectacular appearance, people cannot become infected, and pork from affected animals is safe to eat.
The virus survives well in pig feces and on surfaces contaminated with feces from infected animals, especially when frozen. Transport trailers, equipment, boots and loading docks can all become contaminated and serve as sources of infection, allowing outbreaks to spread between farms. Biosecurity measures are the best prevention. However, it only takes a very small amount of virus to cause disease in nursing piglets, so it can occasionally sneak into even the most biosecure farms. Often, the source of the spread is never found.
PED likely entered Ontario in 2014 through feed containing contaminated porcine plasma from the USA. In contrast, evidence in Manitoba suggests the virus was brought in by contaminated American trucks loading pigs at Canadian assembly yards. Manitoba has reported 160 cases since then and Ontario 125 cases. Manitoba has confirmed 60 cases as of July 2019.
Despite a detailed investigation, we still can’t be sure how the virus spread into Alberta. Swine traceability program data showed no transport links with PED-positive premises or contaminated vehicles coming from outside Alberta. Environmental surveillance samples did not show any contamination of assembly yards, abattoirs and truck washes in Alberta throughout 2019.
However, we did find some risk factors. For example, feed ingredient trucks from Manitoba and the USA did deliver ingredients directly to the first Alberta case. A piece of used clean manure equipment from Manitoba was also brought onto the farm. Feed ingredients found on the affected farms originated from nine countries, four US states and five provinces, most of which are infected with PED.
Unlike Manitoba, Alberta farms are generally far apart, which slowed the spread of the virus. There were no direct transport links between any of the affected farms, and the industry did a good job in keeping biosecurity tight. The exact method of spread between the Alberta cases was not clear, as the usual risk factors of contaminated transport vehicles, assembly yards and abattoirs were ruled out. The three southern cases are within 20 km of each other. We know that the virus spreads more easily through transport, people traffic or even the air when farms are closer together.
Risk factors that were identified during the investigation that producers should address include:
a) Changing boots and clothing every time before entering and leaving the barn, even when just going to the feed mill;
b) Washing, drying and disinfecting trailers every time they are used, even if going to abattoirs or assembly yards that have had negative environmental test results;
c) Working with suppliers to understand and reduce the risk from feed trucks and feed ingredients coming from PED-positive regions
d) Being extra careful when equipment and visitors come from PED-positive regions.
All four affected producers are working closely with their veterinarian, Alberta Pork and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) to eliminate the virus. One farm has depopulated, and is testing in preparation to refill. The other three are farrowing again, and moving hogs to market without any clinical signs. All four farms are working towards achieving presumptive negative status by the fall 2019.
PED is a reportable disease in Alberta. If you suspect PED, call a veterinarian and notify (mandatory) the office of the Chief Provincial Veterinarian.

Happy Birthday, gEBVs!

It all started with an idea…. Former Gentec CEO, Steve Moore’s PhD student, Stephanie McKay, thought about developing a SNP chip for applications in cattle, a project that eventually became part of her thesis. With input from Gentec bioinformatician Paul Stothard, plus Tim Smith and Curt van Tassel at the USDA and Jerry Taylor at University of Missouri, that first commercial SNP for cattle on a 50K chip ushered in a new era.

It wasn’t long before 50K SNPs grew to 700K thanks to the advancement of technology. The objective was to develop a tool to predict genetic merit in an animal. The 50K and 700K became the first tools used for large-scale genotyping of cattle and then other livestock species.

Until then, it took 5-7 years to get an accurate reading on a dairy bull’s merit. (Until somebody figures out how to milk a bull, any measure of milk production has to come from daughters, hence the delay.)

To illustrate the old system,” remembers Moore, “I was telling researchers in Australia that we’d sequenced the top bull in Canada, called Braedale Goldwyn. They said they’d sequenced the top bull in Australia… also called Braedale Goldwyn. He’d been dead for four years but was still the top bull in both countries because of the amount of semen stored and how long producers had to wait for new data.”

The dairy industry’s widespread use of artificial insemination (AI) turned out to be a good thing. All those stored straws turned into an amazing reference population that other livestock didn’t have.

“We could go back to the Fifties!” says Filippo Miglior, former Gentec-associated researcher, now Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Sector Innovation and Programs at Ontario Genomics. “Having this reference population provides the biggest difference in terms of accuracy.”

For the first time, producers pushed instead of needed pushing. Dairy producers export a lot of high-end animals and embryos. They wanted quality assurance of their genetics, not just third-party evaluation. With genomic testing at $45/animal (now down to $33) they could test their heifer calves, which helps improve herd management decisions such as which ones to keep or sell, which ones to breed with sexed semen, which ones carry a genetic recessive characteristic, etc.

“The rate of increase in usage in Canada was fantastic,” remembers Miglior. “One of the fastest across all dairy countries—5%/year.”

Now, bulls could be assessed at one year old or even at the embryo stage. The accuracy of genetic information for newborn males and females doubled and a major shift happened towards the use of much younger animals as parents and a significant gain in the intensity of selection, especially for young bulls bought by AI companies. As a result, those genomic-tested young bulls now occupy 70% of the market share and the progeny proven sires only 30-35%, a 180-degree switch. Rates of genetic progress have now more than doubled—even tripled for some traits.

A sea change happened in the AI sector,” says Brian Van Doormaal, Chief Services Officer at Lactanet Canada. “Any AI company can easily have their bulls receive a Canadian genomic evaluation simply with a DNA genotype so the industry has become extremely competitive. Most multi-nationals now own females, with internal programs to produce the most elite young bulls possible. Before buying bulls, which is now based on a new step of pre-genomic selection, they assess each bull’s genomic evaluations and a long list of characteristics, including undesirable recessive traits and haplotypes that negatively affect fertility.”

Since data was only required from a subset of bulls, other traits, such as fat content, A1 vs A2 milk, protein, volume, conformation, hornless or polled, embryonic death, mastitis, lameness, metabolic diseases could be included as well.

Beef cattle were a different story. First, the data simply weren’t there. Second, bulls are come and gone by the time they’re three years old. Third, AI isn’t the norm. But the real holdup is phenotyping animals that you don’t see close up very often. All of which led to a lag compared to dairy. That gap is closing as the larger operations realize they don’t need to wrassle down every last bull to pull a tail hair. While all the Canadian breed associations offer testing, the clear leader is the American Angus Association, which tests a massive 300,000 head/year.

“We always assumed that progeny is 25% related to each grandparent,” says Doug Blair (former CEO, Alta Genetics Inc.). “Genomics found that it’s more variable than that. The contribution from any grandparent may vary from extremes of 15% to 35% rather than 25%. Thus two fullsibs may have very different contributions from the 4 grandparental genomes. My analogy is that we used to forecast weather with ships in the ocean. Now we have satellites. Genomics has done the same for estimated progeny differences.”

So what might the future bring? As genotyping becomes cheaper, it will become a mainstream tool for every producer. It may even be possible to genotype every animal in Canada. This will be useful for traceability, genetic defects, parentage—and for solving issues such as fertility.

“We obtained huge benefits from genomic selection, very fast” concludes Miglior. “It’s a huge success story for Canada that we’ve achieved that in such a short time.”

21st Century Solutions for Canada’s Dairy Industry

Where once genetic and herd management services to the dairy industry came from separate sources, Lactanet Canada now integrates these services under one organization.

As of June 3, 2019, founding partners of the new Lactanet (Canadian Dairy Network, CanWest DHI and Valacta—the leading dairy herd improvement organizations responsible for genetic evaluations, milk recording and knowledge transfer) can offer access to modern herd management through improved technologies and software and more meaningful data. Not only will these integrated services make life easier for farmers, Lactanet will also offer new services, using the same current resources. These services will be offered before the end of 2020, and include remote electronic collection of on-farm data, a national dairy cattle traceability system and genomic evaluations for feed efficiency,

While the objective in creating the partnership was not to save money (although operational efficiencies are predicted), Lactanet’s Chief Services Officer, Brian Van Doormaal, points out that fees for current services to farmers and the staff delivering them, are not projected to change nor are genetic evaluation services to the industry.

What Lactanet will do is: better position the dairy sector to manage business risk, take advantage of operational synergies and efficiencies, integrate genetics with management services, stimulate innovation of new products and services, and build on the strengths of each partner.

“The sector as a whole will benefit,” says Brian. “We’ll be able to help farmers tackle the challenges of the Canadian dairy industry, which include lower milk prices, increased farm debt load and rising interest rates.”

Lactanet’s governance structure is designed to reflect the three founding organizations, and focus on services to Canadian producers: every member of the Board is a dairy farmer. Three additional important industry partners have a producer appointment to Lactanet: Dairy Farmers of Canada, Semex Alliance and Holstein Canada.

“Holstein represents over 90% of all dairy cows in Canada,” explains Brian. “And Semex is the largest Canadian farmer-owned A.I. company with national reach. Dairy Farmers of Canada is the national body that represents all licensed producers from coast to coast. In this way, the Lactanet Board covers the vast majority of services to farmers. As well, working with a Board of nine producers, with the ability to name two additional external directors, allows us to be more nimble in these early stages and ensure success. The Lactanet governance model is scalable, if needed, as the industry decides how to best meet the needs of dairy farmers and remain globally competitive.”

Beef and Wetlands: It’s a win-win

Beef producers and Ducks Unlimited Canada find common ground to improve sustainability

Kristine Tapley has an unusual job title for an employee of Ducks Unlimited Canada, an organization traditionally known as a fowl-hunting lobby. Based in Manitoba, she’s the Regional Agrologist, Beef Industry. The only one for the Prairie region. Her job is to support the beef sector through partnerships, by promoting research and innovative ideas to producers, and by adapting DUC’s programs to ensure better uptake.

“Our starting point is that producers own much of the remaining habitat on the Prairies. As long as they have viable operations, it will stay in grass and water to meet their needs,” she explains. “We are interested in keeping those producers going so that the Prairies support a thriving beef industry, lots of habitat for waterfowl and the ecological services it provides.”

That’s where things get sticky. Long-term average margins show that a herd of 200 head provides an annual income of $17,559. So, not sustainable. And in many cases, there’s no way to make a living on the farm other than by working off the farm. Among the biggest barriers—access to land. Kristine has first-hand experience of this. Her father and brother’s farm is landlocked. She and her husband had to move away to start their own beef operation.

Okay, so still not seeing the tangible link to ducks….

Here’s the clever part. DUC actually has a vested interest in the sustainability of the beef industry. It recognizes that forage and grasslands that stay in the hands of producers benefit both cattle and wildlife—and are critical to health of grasslands and wetlands. A report from the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef shows that the beef sector only accounts for 33 percent of land in agricultural production but provides 68 percent of the wildlife habitat. Other data on the benefits of cattle for biodiversity will be available in a few years. DUC also realizes it can have a greater impact on sustainability by supporting the beef industry than by buying land and conserving it one acre at a time. The broader perspective. There’s only one landscape. Everybody has to live on it—preferably, in harmony.

As such, DUC runs a number of resources and programs to help restore and protect Canada’s land and water, which can become an integral part of a producer’s long-term management plan. Traditionally, the best-known have been easements; legal agreements through which the landowner retains ownership and gets paid for the natural assets on the property but that limit the type and amount of development on the land. However, DUC’s Revolving Land Conservation Program adds a very interesting angle because it recognizes market forces. The organization buys property that is significant for conservation, restores the wetland, slaps a permanent conservation easement on it—then puts it back on the market at a 10-30% discount. Why? The easement deters developers, cottagers, annual croppers etc., leaving beef producers as pretty-much the only purchasers, who are then able to expand their operations. Now, isn’t that clever?

“Today, DUC’s mission is to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl,” says Kristine. “When we poll our community, the biggest issue they identify is water quality. Cattle need both grass and water. If you manage both of those well, there’ no reason they can’t work together.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As an aside, while Kristine was doing her Master’s, she went through the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s Young Leaders Program, which provides the industry-specific training and interest-specific mentorship that will help keep the beef industry profitable into the future. Kristine wanted to focus on sustainability. She was paired with mentor Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell from McDonald’s.

“In 2014, McDonald’s announced it wanted to source sustainable beef—but it didn’t know what that meant yet,” she remembers. “It was a wonderful experience that formed the basis for my job today. I never thought I’d find a beef role in conservation so I’m pretty excited to be doing this.”

Toys for boys: Drones in agriculture

Using drones to manage cattle has piqued the interest of many ranchers over the past years as their appearance in the media and in the malls becomes more common. This has led some in the agricultural community to wonder if these toys could inject a little practical application (and fun) into their cattle operations.

This notion was reinforced to Gentec in the lead-up to and post-mortem of our recent Forage to Beef Demonstration events hosted with the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association in Southern Alberta July 10th & 11th. When canvassing producers for a (non-genomic) topic of special interest to include, drone use by far generated the most interest. As confirmation, Dr. John Church’s presentation, Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to Monitor Cattle, garnered many accolades for highlight-of-the-day.

John was raised with a cattle background and went on to develop a passion for drones that he combines with his day-job as Associate Professor and the BC Regional Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC. In his presentation, he touched on many of the applications below. At Gentec, we did a little digging to see what else we could uncover with respect to drones as they relate to livestock agriculture.

Advances in drone technology, and in particular, the move to multi-rotor design have greatly increased the ease with which the general public, as hobbyists and within a work environment, can control and manoeuvre these aerial vehicles. Improvements in battery life and payload capacity, coupled with inversely-proportionate reductions in price, have caught ranchers’ attention as to how they might use these toys… uhm, “tools” profitably.

Currently, for less than $2,500, you can buy a drone that has a flight time of up to 30 minutes (depending on wind and temperature), speed of 70 kph, range of 8 km—and the ability to record and transmit HD-quality video. With a little imagination and a modification or two, anybody in the cattle industry can now improve and manage their pastures, cattle herd and operational profitability.

The most straightforward application would be monitoring cattle without having to slog through pasture, bush, wind and snow to find them. From a hilltop or roadside, the rancher can make the drone do that miserable job instead. Armed with an infrared camera, the drone can spot animals day or night, and read ear-tags from a height of over 70 m, either visually with an optical zoom or potentially via RFID transmission.

Digital video and expanded sensor technologies are also opening the door to precision pasture and animal management. Infrared technology can “see” below the canopy to find animals in the underbrush. It also provides the potential to take an animal’s “temperature” and remotely identify sick or distressed animals. As a result, it relieves valuable staff time and sends people-power to where it is most urgently needed (precisely “pinned” GPS coordinates).

Similar technologies provide pasture mapping by flying grid-formations over pasture lands that, when combined with computer applications, stitch together topographical maps outlining water / moisture availability, forage and biomass availability and help optimize pasture health, management and rotation. These tools are also increasingly being applied in the ranching and feedlot setting, such as checking on troughs (remote 3D monitoring can check feed depth) and fence integrity; verifying animal inventories in paddock and on pasture; moving livestock, and searching for missing animals.

In fact, the time may not be too far off when ranchers will be able to find and herd cattle using a combination of drone and RFID technology; the drone will be programmed to fly a given route to find an individual animal or conduct a head-count within a defined area; monitor water, salt, and mineral visitation; and provide a status and / or variance report to the rancher.

Taken together, these abilities all aim to make life easier by increasing the timeliness, accuracy, cost effectiveness and convenience of gathering and processing information, and reducing the manpower that is often hard/impossible to find/afford in rural communities.

We finish with a couple of practical tips from the wise:
• Nav Canada regulations apply to the use of drones near populated areas, highways and commercial flight paths, including line-of-sight operational restrictions. Know the law.
• Hone your skills on an inexpensive model. From what we hear… the Force is strong… but there is a learning curve :)!

Genomics tools for commercial cattle producers: So what?

For the commercial cattle producer, crossbreeding is one of the least expensive ways to increase productivity, largely due to the resulting increase in hybrid vigour (scientifically known as heterosis / heterozygosity). In spite of this knowledge, the past 30 years have seen a continual erosion in heterosis in the cow herd as colour and “uniformity” became one of main considerations of cattle buyers. Crossbreeding, in contrast combines superior genetics from different breeds while eliminating any inbreeding depression. The Beef Cattle Research Council article “Have You Rotated Your Breeds Lately?” provides an excellent overview of why inbreeding depression occurs and some ways in which crossbreeding pays off so well for producers.

New tools are being developed that allow producers to use DNA to quantify heterosis (via breed composition) with an accuracy of 96%. This is superior to the degree of accuracy achieved with even the most accurate pedigree records due to the phenomenon of genetic “re-shuffling” that occurs on each chromosome in every generation. For example, an accurate pedigree calculation for a 100% Simmental bull crossed with a 50% Angus / 50% Hereford cow records a calf that is 50% Simmental x 25% Angus x 25% Hereford. In fact, the true genetics of the animal as a result of this “re-shuffling” might be 50% Simmental x 15% Angus x 35% Hereford. As an aside, the genomics method of breed composition automatically captures the neighbour’s bull who thinks the “grass” is greener on the other side of the fence.

But back to hybrid vigour… It is important to calculate heterosis accurately because the benefits are proportional (the greater the heterosis, the greater the benefits), the most economically important of which impact fitness, longevity, and reproductive productivity, the magnitude of which are as follows:

Every 10% increase in Vigour increases:

Pregnancy Rate                                 +2%                       2 more pregnancies per 100 cows*

Weaning Rate                                    +3%                       3 more weaned calves per 100 cows

Lifetime Productivity                      +79lbs                   79 additional pounds of saleable

calf over 5 calvings

Days in the Herd                               +51 days

So what does this mean for the commercial producer? Two things. One: knowing the heterosis present in heifers being considered as replacements helps you select for those animals that have the greatest probability of staying in the herd the longest and producing the most pounds of beef. At an estimated cost of $2,000 to develop a replacement heifer, the longer they last, the better your bottom line!

Second: knowing the genomics breed composition of your herd allows for the selection of those bulls / breeds that will allow you to continue to optimize your mating, selection, and culling decisions, the benefit of which have been estimated at over $200 as the return on the investment of a $45 genomic test. It’s all money in the bank.


* As an example, an increase in average Vigour in a 100-cow herd from 50% to 70% would be expected to result in an additional 4 pregnancies and 6 weaned calves per year; 158 additional pounds of saleable calf / cow over 5 calvings; and an increase in the average number of days a cow stays in the herd of 101 days.

Genome Editing in Livestock

As a beef cattle producer and the Chief Scientific of Acceligen, the livestock food subsidiary of Recombinetics, Tad Sonstegard is in a position to offer a moderate, informed opinion of this technology while standing at the water cooler.

Tad provides tangible examples of how gene editing has already shown it can benefit the livestock sector through the potential for “precise cross-breeding.”

One example discussed as an introduction to gene editing is the potential to select for polled dairy cattle, which removed the need for de-horning and improved animal welfare. These genetics have been selectively bred (the old-fashioned way) for generations via the polled beef breeds and, as such, have been part of the human food chain for thousands of years. One positive signal towards the potential acceptance of this technology is that the Humane Society of the United States has endorsed the use of gene editing technology to select for polled animals on the grounds that it reduces pain and suffering for livestock. More importantly, it also agreed to evaluate and endorse the application of gene editing on a case by case basis depending on its impact on animal welfare.

CRISPR is also being used to mitigate the greenhouse gas impacts of food production, with the most potential for use in the developing world through improving heat tolerance. Heat affects the disease resistance, nutrition, productivity and health of animals. Tad talks of how it takes nine dairy cows in India to produce the milk of one dairy cow in the US, with much of this difference due to lower productivity due to heat stress. If this technology eliminated this productivity gap, the GHG emissions and environmental impact of up to eight cows could be removed with no corresponding loss of milk production while also freeing up the food, water and other inputs currently directed to those eight animals. One application of selective breeding is showing great promise. It takes advantage of animals, referred to as “slick,” which have a hide comprised of hair that is less dense and half the normal length in addition to possessing larger, more active sweat glands. This combination allows “slick” animals to maintain a lower body temperature in more heat-stressful conditions.

In closing, Tad talks of future applications for gene editing and where the greatest economic benefits may lie, which appears to be in addressing disease resistance. More work does need to be done here as we don’t yet understand which areas of the genome are important when it comes to health. With a better basic understanding however, comes the ability to select for innate immunity as well as using rational design techniques that allow animals to better defend against bacteria and viruses. While the means discussed here differ, the ends are similar to those currently being pursued via more traditional methods in the Genome Canada Pig Resilience Project led by UAlberta’ Mike Dyck.

Watch the video summary for a more in-depth look at these and other editing applications