Fixing the labour crunch in agriculture

As agriculture evolves into a high-tech business, automation and machinery do a lot of the heavy lifting, giving producers and employees the ability to “operate” data and robotics to improve profitability. That means changing the perception of farm work for incoming employees, and competing with other sectors who also want them for their technical skills.

On December 9, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar on the need to attract talent and skilled labour in the agri-food sector. Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points. The panelists were:

  • Martin Scanlon, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, University of Manitoba
  • Ryan Riese, National Director, Agriculture, Royal Bank of Canada
  • Jennifer Wright, Acting Executive Director, Operations, Programs and Partnerships, Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC)

 

What key changes in innovation has the workforce brought to agriculture?

RIESE. Human ingenuity is responsible for innovation so it’s the workforce that drives innovation in the sector. When I ask clients, “What keeps you up at night?”, I get a lot about accessing labour. Not even advanced skills but appropriate skills. Sometimes, it’s just showing up reliably. So we need to drive curiosity, bring in the people who want to consider ag as a career, and the skills the industry requires. But those people need to be committed, have a good work ethic, be flexible. Ag is not a 9-to-5 job. Also they have to be ready to learn, listen and be taught.

SCANLON. Post-secondary education expects graduates to communicate clearly, think well and engage with each other professionally. They’ve been trained in crucial teamwork. Those industry needs won’t go away. But technology shapes how we deliver programs because it’s pervasive. If we look at Olds College, it has a 2-year program, Techgronomy. At UManitoba, we are taking a new approach so we don’t compete. All grads, regardless of discipline, should appreciate technology, what it can and can’t do. So all programs and courses have technology embedded in them. We partner with tech companies so that grads understand how to implement tech at the farm or other level.

WRIGHT. CAHRC does a lot of labour market research focusing on the workforce of today and in the future. Producers are experiencing labour shortages now. Our forecast says the shortage will double in next 10 years. Looking at ways to increase efficiencies and be more productive will help. That said, we also see that tech is adopted quickly but not changing the number of people required. Instead, it’s impacting the skills required. So where computer skills might have been necessary for entry-level jobs, now it’s for all jobs. We’re also hearing from producers that soft skills, teamwork, etc. are becoming more important because they are hiring people who didn’t grow up on farms. They need to teach the technology but without core background skills they won’t be successful at teaching the hands-on skills. So there’s a balance between soft skills and how they affect all elements of the workforce.

 

How well do you think public perception of working in ag aligns with reality? There’s the idyllic image of a barn with a red door and a calf peering through, munching hay. That’s changed but the public is not realizing the opportunities ag can offer.

SCANLON. We’re not doing a good job of reaching out to urban youth, and showing them the broad array of careers in ag. There’s an image issue that we have to work with at the school level. Students have to be interested in science and then see where they can do computer programming, agrology, etc. We started a program to steer undecided science grads towards food processing and agronomy. With the Faculty of Science ,we’re offering 4-6 courses that these grads can take to get insight on what an ag or food processing career is. It’s the kind of leg-up that gets them in the door for an interview. They can say: “I have gaps but here’s my science. With additional training, I’ll be useful employee”.

WRIGHT. I have first-hand experience of this. My 15-year old son wants to farm. We live in downtown Ottawa. When he shares his desires with teachers, the feedback is that he’s taking the easy way out, wanting to be a lazy farmer. I’ve had a chance to talk to those teachers but that’s not a one off. So we have a lot of work to do reaching out to urban schools, elementary and secondary, and then build on drawing undecided science grads into ag. We’ve just started two initiatives for students. One is developing business cases that require ag and non-ag students to work together, which helps build awareness of how an IT degree can be used, for example. In many cases, they’re not aware because of incorrect or old perceptions of the industry. And we’re running a wage subsidy program to connect non-ag students to ag.

RIESE. People get farther from the farm with each generation so the more opportunities they have to understand, the better. Perceptions are mostly incorrect. Industry needs to keep promoting and encouraging people to join the sector who did not grow up on the farm, and not make it a prerequisite.

Also, I want to point out that working in ag doesn’t necessarily mean you’re starting a farm or becoming an owner/operator. Those barriers are very high. That’s another conversation. But there are lots of support roles on farms as farms get bigger and more complex. They require subject matter expertise on different areas of the business. So there are lots of opportunities to join the sector without being an actual producer. We have to highlight that, too.

We see researchers going into various fields but not ag R&D. They want to build the next spaceship, but not the next farm robot. Is this an image we want to continue promoting?

SCANLON. Once people get engaged, whether they have the background or not, they are powerful advocates. We need to keep getting the message across. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have this program: what equipment do we need for the mission to Mars? They brought in the best engineers, scientists and innovators, then added ag and food. There’s nothing old hat about ag. It’s the bedrock of society so we have to attract talent to keep it going.

RIESE. Research is the starting point but it takes many years to come to life. How great is it to wake up knowing you’re going to feed society? It’s a great story to be told. You don’t have to work for Amazon, Google, etc. There’s an incredible opportunity in ag for those looking to embark in the tech world.

WRIGHT. A lot of the tech being implemented on farms comes from outside Canada, so too does the technical help. Canadians can fill that gap.

 

Agri-food activities are conducted outside urban areas but that’s not where people live. How do we engage people to move to rural areas?

WRIGHT. I’m hearing that there’s more movement out of urban centres but it’s not translating into an increase in the labour pool because people are working remotely. They’re not connecting with the local labour force but they are increasing the need for services. So communities can ensure support for newcomers in terms of housing and services.

RIESE. We need government policy that helps bring the right people in. I hope immigration policy and ag policy are working together to kickstart the process. A lot of towns need people to work in ag.

SCANLON. It certainly is an issue. For example, Portage is an hour west of Winnipeg. It has 13,000 residents. Local companies run four buses a day from Winnipeg to ensure they have people with the right skills to ensure the continuity of their operations. Those issues aren’t going away. Then there’s the issue of bringing broadband to rural communities.

 

Automation could address labour shortages but how can you reduce labour without reducing productivity?

RIESE. Any time animal husbandry is involved, we still need physical beings to look after them. We have an obligation to the animals to ensure they are well looked-after, so we need people in that regard. Automatic feeders will help reduce that physical labour but we also need people to break down data and learning. So the roles will be different. That’s the message we want to carry.

SCANLON. Every sector is looking for people… health, IT, transportation. Are we not facing an endemic issue that won’t be solved with an ad campaign? Should we plan for ag with less people involved?

RIESE. That could be Plan B. Our goal is to attract people. If we can’t find people, it will hurt our sector or not allow us to capture opportunities. That’s unfortunate as a country. We need policy and promotion from all levels of government. Not many places in the world are better than Canada to meet the growing demand for food and protein.

SCANLON. The Barton Report identified ag as a key sector of the Canadian economy that could drive growth. That’s because we have unique endowed benefits of land mass, water, environment and climate. It would be criminal if we don’t get the talent to maximize these opportunities!

Read more about the shortage of labour in agriculture:

 

 

Kill the culls! Sex selection saves lives

Sex is big business.

Florid intro sentences aside, in agriculture, sex is a large—and largely under-reported—animal welfare issue that straddles economics as well. The numbers really aren’t good. In the UK, 95,000 male calves are culled every year. In Australia, 600,000. In Germany, 200,000. We couldn’t find numbers for Canada because the topic isn’t well researched but the few studies done record paltry neonatal care compared to females, long travel with irregular feeding times and, often, on-farm euthanasia. That’s just the dairy industry.

In Canada alone, 22.5 million male chicks are culled every year to produce our eggs. In France, that’s 50 million every year. Is pork any better? Not much. As piglets mature, they release chemicals that release a foul smell when the meat is cooked so any male pigs used for meat are killed before that happens.

But what if females could produce litters or offspring of only the desirable sex? And by the way, not only females. Sometimes, males are required, too, especially in the lab environment where this question was first raised. Enter Peter Ellis at the University of Kent, and collaborators Charlotte Douglas and James Turner at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK.

“My research focused on testes so we needed male mice,” says Peter. “I had to give the females of the litters to researchers who specifically wanted them—or cull them. That makes you aware of sex. So our goal to ensure that as few animals get culled just for being the wrong sex.”

That idea isn’t new. Sperm sorting is already used in the dairy industry but it’s not infallible and can damage the sperm. In pigs, the technique isn’t fast enough to be viable. So, basically, we can do better.

Embryo selection using CRISPR gene editing is a leaps-and-bounds improvement. For starters, it’s one-hundred-percent effective. Guaranteed. It’s also ethically more humane to cull embryos that have no nervous system and aren’t capable of suffering than live baby animals. And bonus, the resulting litters are a little larger—in mice. See here for the technical details.

Peter is quick to remind us that this research is still in the early stages. We know it works in mice. It’s bound to work in other animals but that’s yet to be tested. And at the farm level, it’s years away. In the Canadian beef industry, those coming into closest contact with the technique would be breeders.

“Once the line has been generated, it’s simply a matter of breeding,” confirms Peter. “You don’t have to gene-edit every generation, the genes required can be maintained stably in the sire and dam lines. The male carries a gene on his Y chromosome, and the female has a guide RNA that activates it. Cross them, and you get the required offspring in the next generation.”

One reason embryo selection is years away in agriculture is the public concern over genetic modification technology in the food chain.

“The UK is considering relaxing the rules around gene editing in ag,” says Peter. “That could provide important benefits, but also comes with some risks about reducing care and welfare. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done a lot of work around this. What level of biotech the public wants and why it’s acceptable are big questions. What we’ve done is provide a proof-of-principle to inform that debate… to take it out of the hypothetical and abstract into the real world.”

The Nuffield Report is clear that the public is suspicious of ag technology that lines producer’s pockets but more likely to be on board with it to improve animal welfare. However, the debate still has to explore acceptability behind using technology for breeding but where the end product is “normal”.

“We’re not engineering cows to produce more milk or grow faster. These animals will be the same as ones from conventional breeding practices,” says Peter. “Since milk doesn’t contain cells from the cow, that too will be normal. My sense is that public debate on gene editing will shift when people realize the welfare benefits that are possible. In the short term, that’s what our research will accomplish.”

In Canada, where GM salmon and apples are already on store shelves, public debate might reveal different answers than in the UK. Gentec researcher Ellen Goddard and her team are the national go-to experts on public acceptance and willingness-to-pay for technology-enhanced foods.

“I’d be very happy if Gentec decided to sponsor public surveying at a more granular level in Canada,” says Peter, who is a former collaborator of Gentec CEO Graham Plastow from his Ucambridge days.

Another reason for the long time horizon for embryo selection in ag is quite simply the need for more research. The research in mice represents 6-7 years of work, of which the first three alone were to develop cell lines. So the main next step—in parallel with the public debate—is developing cell lines to make sure that the parts that make the sex selection system in mice also work in other animals.

By then, we should have a better idea of whether the public, wherever they are, really wants to make a difference to animal suffering.

For more reading on this subject, try the official press release or the Francis Crick Institute website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Animal Health Canada: A bold initiative to improve Canada’s resiliency to contagious animal diseases

“Our current approach to risk management around animal health is too fragmented and too under-invested in prevention. The economic consequences of contagion are so enormous that we can’t tolerate the status quo. We have to bring public and private interests together to prepare for and prevent disaster. Just around the corner, diseases are lurking that could slam our beef and pork exports and devastate the rural economy. The whole system requires a new frame of thinking.”

With those cautionary words, Rory McAlpine set the stage for how Animal Health Canada (AHC) would be different. Rory emphasizes that he has retired, and speaks from his position as a champion for the initial concept of AHC and his earlier work with the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council, which is the secretariat supporting the creation of AHC. Two examples illustrate his thoughts.

African swine fever (ASF) killed half of pigs in China either directly or through herd culls. It has not appeared in Canada but would take just one wild boar in a remote part of the country to bring $5 billion in pork exports to a standstill—overnight! You can bet that Canada isn’t ignoring this. An ASF Executive Management Board (on which Rory sat) is building a Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan.

“But they’re doing this off the side of their desks,” points out Rory. “If we had AHC, we’d be better prepared in terms of biosecurity standards, surveillance, traceability, border measures, and maybe even a vaccine. Even with AHC, it would be especially challenging if both wildlife and farm animals were implicated because disease management in wildlife is mostly a provincial matter.”

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is one such feared example. It’s like mad cow disease but in deer, caribou, elk, etc., which are a food source in Indigenous communities and rural Canada. Some evidence exists that it could transmit to humans. There is no nationally-focused prevention-based strategy to handle it. See the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report on CWD for a better idea of the imminent threat to Canadian agriculture. CWD represents an especially thorny challenge because risk management is all-encompassing, involving wildlife management, farm management, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, veterinarians several farm sectors and indigenous communities.

“The prion protein doesn’t care about borders,” says Rory. “It doesn’t care about mandates set in legislation about who’s responsible. COVID demonstrates the need for integrated governance when managing infectious diseases. Our current approach is too based on bureaucratic convenience and siloed action plans across industry. If more actors were prepared to share their authority and resources with a group like AHC, we could better manage these risks. CFIA certainly can’t do it alone.”

Although some stakeholders are fretting about the urgency related to ASF, AHC is not operational yet. The journey has been politically challenging, with several levels of government and multiple species groups all accustomed to autonomy. The final step to occur by 2022 is a legal public-private partnership with funding.

To get this far, potential models to adopt or adapt were examined. Animal Health Australia was considered a good fit: a public-private partnership that has been funded and given legal authority to manage animal health risks and the associated financial risk. That organization has a complicated formula to manage financial risk that considers variables like whether human health is implicated and whether the source of infection is foreign.

“We can learn from Australia and others,” states Rory. “If ASF strikes tomorrow, decisions have to be made immediately about zoning, liquidating herds and financial compensation. A response fraught with lobbying and hand-wringing is not ideal, and could compound the duration and severity of the crisis.”

This type of readiness provides opportunities to drive the development of genomics tools, whether related to tracing the origin of animals (“DNA fingerprinting”) or as part of developing less susceptible populations that reduce the impact of disease. Whether we use the “Swiss cheese model” or “rings of protection”, different approaches help build resilience into a system where redundancy has been eliminated as part of just-in-time efficiencies.

But isn’t animal health just one third of the equation? Shouldn’t we be talking about One Health?

“One Health is the ultimate prize,” Rory concedes. “An integrated One Health approach to managing public health and animal health in the face of zoonotic disease risks has to start with better coordination in each camp. We have world-leading scientific capacity, digital technologies and financial resources… now we need our decision-making structures to catch up. The lives of people and animals depend on it.”

For more background on Canada’s need for Animal Health Canada, see Rory’s article in the “transition binder” the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute would give to the new minister for Agriculture, after the 2021 federal election.

“In that article, I use the example that it took SARS to stimulate the need to create the Public Health Agency of Canada, albeit lacking good integration with provincial public health authorities, as we see in the COVID response” says Rory. “And it took the tainted blood tragedy to fix our national blood safety system via Canadian Blood Services. We can learn from these examples in the space of animal health.”

But I’ve been using antibiotics for my animals all my life!

 

We know we should be more careful about appropriate antibiotic use for people, domestic and farm animals to avoid increasing antimicrobial resistance. But how exactly should we be more careful? And how come the solution isn’t the same for everybody? Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard tackled some of the thorny questions around behaviour change at a UCalgary One Health webinar on November 17.

One Health has a very complex definition but we tend to think of it as relating to zoonotic diseases, especially diseases from wildlife. The principal drivers for the emergence of zoonoses are human activities such as agriculture, travel, trade and land use.

So almost everybody is affected by the definition but an office worker in downtown Toronto may not feel the same connection as someone who works directly with animals, be they farmed, domestic or wild. That very context colours our approach to potential solutions.

Farmers, for example, are directly involved. If you’re a farmer, you’re probably convinced that you’re behaving in the best way possible to protect your animals, the environment and the health of your family. You’ve learned and studied as much as you can from your neighbours, extension agents and vets. So if somebody shows up on your doorstep saying that you need to change your habits around antibiotics completely—and you’ve always used antibiotics successfully to protect your animals—that idea is not going to go down well. That may be because you don’t fully understand the connection between antibiotics and the development of antimicrobial resistance. Or because you don’t see that the actions you take on your one farm also affect the soil, waterways and wildlife far beyond it.

So complexity is one of the fundamental things that discourages behaviour change.

Another is that, at the end of the day, we are dealing with people, individuals and society’s approach to the use and care of animals. We all have views about animals: they are created in our youth, through cultural ties, schooling, etc.—and they almost never change. If we’re raised to believe that animals need protection and care, that applies to all animals. If we find out that they are being mistreated or subjected to actions that we interpret as mistreatment, we are likely to respond very strongly.

For example, culling animals is one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of disease, whether to protect domestic or farm animals, wildlife or humans. As scientists, this is obvious. That’s what the data say. But if half of society has strong, fundamental, ethical beliefs about not mistreating animals and the authorities are going to cull a large number of wildlife, you can bet the reaction will be angry and hostile. This is a perfectly rational response from people who believe protecting animals is ethical. And they think they’re doing the right thing.

An example of this is the badger cull in the UK. Badgers are a protected species, so the public can’t get its head around the idea of culling them because they are bringing tuberculosis onto livestock farms. Badgers need protecting, period. That said, the public supports vaccinating the badgers (this is doable). On the other hand, farmers are desperate for protection from this disease. They want the culls. Once again, the data show that, in areas of the UK where culling has taken place, the rate of cattle infection from tuberculosis is lower. So farmers say, “See? Culling works.” Then the decision falls into political hands, and citizens feel undermined because their position, contribution and voice aren’t valued.

An example closer to home is chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids. Deer are far removed from most people’s lives these days, so you’d think the public would have no interest in culling decisions. The Alberta government tried that—and there was a huge pushback. People simply didn’t like the idea of killing huge numbers of deer and elk. Setting the cull aside for a moment, CWD hasn’t been shown to affect livestock or humans but we don’t know if that will change or what the long-term implications are. Farmers say they like the idea of deer and wildlife on their property. They worry that if CWD is transmissible, they would have to act to stop the deer/human/animal interaction. They like that their farms are private property, not accessible to others. It makes them feel they can control some aspects of their environment. So we have to understand what motivates people to change their behaviour when an issue of animal health may affect the public.

From our surveys, we know that everybody opposes taking NO action; but hunters, outfitters and the public differ hugely on the type of action to take. If you make your livelihood on something that will be restricted, you will feel more strongly than the said office worker in Toronto. So individual behaviour influences the success of any One Health strategy. If we don’t come up with multifaceted solutions, we will fail because, particularly in the context of animals, people have strong feelings that drive whether they accept or reject solutions.

That’s why it’s so important to do behavioural modelling to test strategies that may be successful. We need to understand what drives people’s behaviour, pick the strategies that encourage change, and tailor them to groups and individuals on the front lines. This will be essential if we’re going to apply One Health in a way that benefits the world to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Gentec: The best-kept secret in Canadian agriculture

Genomics isn’t the first “Big Thing” to land in the lap of farmers and producers. Just looking back 100 years or so, there’s the internal combustion engine, chemical weed control, antimicrobials, refrigeration, no-till technology, GPS—and probably lots more if we think hard enough. These advances—widely and quickly adopted—allowed farms to grow and prosper based on increased yields and back-saving efficiencies.

Genomics has been adopted by the Canadian dairy, crop, pig and poultry sectors but not so much in beef—even though the benefits have been demonstrated.

“Canada’s beef sector faces a unique set of challenges,” explains David Andrews, owner/operator of Lazy A Farms Ltd. and Chair of Gentec’s Management Advisory Board. “Number One is the 50,000 independent cattle farms with an average of 70 cows on each one. This complex community is very difficult to motivate to adopt new technology.”

Two components contribute to profitability: good marketing and low costs. Enter the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) (see our articles on CBIN here and here) to address a data exchange system integrating all levels of the sector to reap common benefits—and Gentec to develop the tools producers need to deliver in-demand products more cost-effectively.

“If I ask my neighbours,” says Andrews, “I get blank stares back. Gentec has almost no brand recognition; and yet, it has and will continue to deliver tremendous value to producers.”

Gentec focuses on producers and how to deliver the tools needed to address local opportunities and challenges that genomics and genetic improvement can solve. Gentec prioritizes activities identified by industry that have a clear line of sight to industry benefit.

Part of the invisibility is due to timing. Since 2010, Gentec has been compiling uniquely-Canadian databases of phenotypes and genotypes of beef and swine. That will never make headlines. What has are the tools created out of those data:

Using EnVigour HX could increase net returns to producers by $160/cow/year, creating a total benefit of $205 – $410 million AND reduce the sector’s carbon footprint. gEPDs can improve fertility and feed efficiency, and quality for carbon credits estimated at $145 – $324 million over 5 years. Using the Indexes costs a couple of thousand dollars vs several thousand for the old-style, individual genetic tests.

With these tools and the numbers that support their use, Gentec, in the form of new Head of Beef Operations, John Basarab, Clinton Brons and Kira Macmillan, is more visible in the agricultural community (as seen in August 2021 at AgSmart).

“That’s where I see Gentec’s role,” says Andrews. “We provide the dedicated research and the data to back up the arguments for everybody in the value chain who uses genomics. We communicate with the industry associations, packers and retail; they relay consistent, evidence-based messaging to their members.”

That mandate is reflected in Gentec’s latest Strategic Framework, with a virtuous circle of generating revenue from research to fund extension activities in a self-sustaining way.

“One thing that will help with uptake is the growing number of young managers of large herds,” says Andrews. “They’re more inclined to read and understand the research, so I expect to see significant progress in the coming years. Gentec will have an important role in communicating credible information that producers can trust.”

Ambitious 10-year goals for the beef industry

The world has changed enormously in the last decade. The beef industry wanted a roadmap that takes it 10 years out (but still building on the 2020-2024 goals) to support Canada’s regional beef organizations and speak to the global conversation on sustainability and climate-change.

“We also wanted to showcase that a strong Canadian beef industry is integral for climate mitigation and the sustainability of the food system as a whole,” says Brenna Grant, Secretariat of the Canadian Beef Advisors. “The thinking behind these seven goals is to spur innovation in the industry so we can achieve more than if we hadn’t set the goals in the first place.”

Goal 1. Greenhouse gas and carbon sequestration

Can we keep global warming from exceeding the 1.5°C target? Even though they are unintentional by-producers of methane and carbon, beef and agriculture also contribute to the solution. The 2030 industry goals are:

  • Safeguard the existing 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon stored on lands managed with beef cattle.
  • Sequester an additional 3.4 million tonnes of carbon every year.
  • Reduce primary production of GHG emission intensity by 33% by 2030.
  • Reduce food loss and waste from secondary processing to consumer by 50% by 2030.

Agriculture is one of the front-line sectors in terms of being affected immediately by weather fluctuations and extremes, so building resilience within production systems is critical. One of agriculture’s advantages is the potential to sequester additional carbon in grasslands managed by cattle-grazing.

“We want to empower producers to measure and monitor the change and get paid for it,” says Grant. The US government is already looking at that.

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 2. Animal health and welfare

Animal health and welfare are closely tied, not only through management practices that allow animals to engage in the species-specific behaviours that keep them healthy but also through the appropriate provision of medicines that heal them.

  • Ensure the five freedoms of animal wellbeing by increasing adoption of on-farm management practices.
  • Ensure the effectiveness of existing and future antimicrobials is preserved to support human and animal health and welfare.

What makes sense in one production system and species may not in another. Just in the beef sector, there’s a huge diversity of production systems across the country, from cow-calf to backgrounding and finishing. Producers already have a high level of care, and that needs to be recognized. The new goals show that the Canadian beef industry is committed to welfare; and part of that means protecting the effectiveness of antimicrobials so those products are still around in the future for humans and animals. Like Goal 1, the agriculture sector won’t achieve this on its own. For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 3. Land Use and Biodiversity

“We can’t safeguard 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon on land if we don’t maintain 35 million acres of native grassland,” acknowledges Grant. “If it gets converted, plowed or developed, a lot of carbon is released. So to achieve Goal 1, we need this underlying land-use goal.”

  • Maintain the 35 million acres of native grassland in the care of beef producers.
  • Maintain a network of natural landscapes and healthy functioning ecosystems through well-managed grazing systems that maintain sustainable plant communities and healthy rangelands.

This goal has the most support—but is by far the most difficult to achieve because commodity prices drive land conversion; and with technology, rainfall and new cultivars, more areas are amenable to crops. If farmers aren’t getting paid for carbon capture and biodiversity, that land is at risk of being converted to other uses. So payment for ecosystem services is critical, and will make the difference in maintaining the grasslands and other areas around Canada that can sequester carbon even faster than native prairie. For more information, see the factsheet here.

Goal 4. Water

The water goals were designed to be principles that recognize the effect water has on the landscape and to reflect the diversity of Canada’s regions.

  • Promote practices that maximize water quality and retention to deliver healthier landscapes, resilience to drought and flood events, and groundwater recharge as appropriate to the region’s precipitation.
  • Improve water use efficiency in the beef value chain.
  • Build recognition by the public and policy-makers of the benefits provided by grassland ecosystems.

“Canada has one of the lowest water use numbers in the world for beef cattle,” says Grant. “We definitely want to promote practices that continue to ensure efficiencies throughout the supply chain.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 5. People health and safety

Goal 5 is about taking care of the people in the beef industry: producers, employees, ranchers, feedlot operators, packers, etc.

  • Create a culture of safety across the beef industry supply chain.
  • Reduce serious, fatal, and fatigue-related incidents by 1.5% per year up to 2030, by supporting education, awareness and improvements in farm and ranch safety.

“Increasing education, awareness and training helps reduce serious incidents,” says Grant. “We were developing these goals during the lockdowns, which raised our own awareness of mental health issues and the lack of supports for this in some rural areas. Plus, COVID comes on top of other stressors like adverse weather events, market challenges, supply issues that are making these challenging for everybody in the supply chain. We want to make sure that support and training are available in rural areas.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these principles, see the factsheet here.

Goal 6. Beef quality and food safety

Canada has a lower percentage of AAA and Prime carcasses than the US, and premiums for Canada AAA are smaller than those for USDA Choice. Demand must be built for every cut on the AAA carcass to match premiums and send a market signal back to producers to produce more. AAA and Prime provide a more consistent and satisfactory eating experience, and consumers prefer them. The enabling goals are:

  • Establish the inherent quality and value of Canadian Beef in domestic and export markets which supports comparative equivalency or superiority to alternatives.
  • Increase the value of AAA and Prime carcasses to be equivalent with the US by building demand for all cuts on the carcass.
  • Remove internal regulatory impediments to innovation, export and commercial trade and the competitiveness of Canadian beef in domestic and international markets.
  • Support the development, regulatory approval and adoption of improved food safety interventions and technologies throughout the supply chain.

As well, the industry needs to keep a closer eye on developments in food safety technologies in the supply chain so that regulatory approval can be obtained faster.

“We’ve seen that regulatory impediments are reflected by a reluctance to adopt a technology, especially if that technology is not recognized internationally by trading partners,” says Grant. “Either it gets implemented everywhere quickly, or everybody waits to see what everybody else is going to do. At the same time, we can be proactive about consumer acceptance to avoid past mistakes.”

For more information on the beef quality and food safety goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 7. Technology

“We realized that, if we didn’t have specific goals around technology in terms of providing solutions for industry, we weren’t going to reach our other goals,” says Grant. “Technology really is an enabling goal.”

  • Improvements in speed, reliability, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness of traceability solutions that advance both business and regulatory objectives.
  • Supporting functional information flow solutions to producers derived from a competitive service sector.
  • Invest in technological solutions that reduce costs, improve competitiveness and enable regulatory approvals and business functions that support trade and commerce.
  • Support innovation, research, refinement and commercialization of technologies throughout the supply chain that support economic viability and worker conditions.
  • Promote the acceptance of sustainable and safe beef production technologies by customers and regulators, in both domestic and international markets.

“There has to be a willingness to invest up front to address the challenges that producers face so we tried to identify those challenges. We want to partner with those who have expertise in technology. Sometimes, it’s already invented, it just needs to be adapted to the sector,” explains Grant. “The answer lies in demonstration and trials to see what works best.”

For more information on the technology goals, see the factsheet here.

 

 

Sean McGrath joins Gentec’s Management Advisory Board

Gentec welcomes Alberta producer and 5th generation / Centennial Ranch owner Sean McGrath to its Management Advisory Board. A feature-length article on Sean and the Round Rock Ranch will appear in our October 2021 issue as the second installment of our Centennial Ranch series.

Sean, his wife Tanya and three children manage and maintain a herd of 200 cows on native rangeland, and brings a unique mix of the practical, experimental and entrepreneurial perspectives to the MAB. The cattle work is still done on horseback (“nothing more effective and more time-tested”); he provides skin-in-the-game by enrolling his cattle and pastures into our research projects as well as providing strategic and practical oversight; and he is the founder / President of  Ranching Systems Ltd.

Through these initiatives, Sean brings an invaluable skill set to Gentec: He graduated from USask with a BSA with Distinction1999 and from the Animal Science Major Executive Development Program (George Morris Centre – now AgriFood Management Excellence). He has an extensive understanding of the science and application of genomics through providing genetic evaluation services to national breed organizations, experience in delivering consulting and extension services to beef producers while working hard to instill the agricultural skills in the next generation as an instructor at Lakeland College.

All these aspects are consistent with Sean’s approach to his own operation … right down to having DNA on file for every cow and bull in his herd.

REPORT: Silos of excellence webinar

On September 23, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss the most effective ways to advocate in meetings with federal ministers, and whether Canada’s plethora of industry groups is the right approach versus a single unified voice. The panelists were:

  • Bob Friesen, Past President and VP of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, member of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
  • Andy Mitchell, PC, former minister of AAFC in the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.

Opening comments

Mitchell. Advocacy is central to the development of policy. Without it, ministers would not have the information they need. There are three key points to effective messaging:

  1. Quality trumps quantity. Concise, well-presented information is welcomed.
  2. Expertise trumps politics. We need to know your expert opinion, not the colour of your politics.
  3. Relationship trumps rhetoric. Relationships build trust and a rapport that makes the messaging more than just words.

Advocacy is about getting information from experts so you can test hypotheses. Organizations need to be effective, prepared, professional, knowledgeable and have a few key messages. Messaging should ask for what the government has power to achieve. Make sure the ask is clear. Too often it isn’t. Blue-sky requests waste everybody’s time. Understand the difference between policy and politics, again to avoid wasting time. Be prepared to listen but let the minister’s team talk because that’s how you gain intelligence.

Friesen. I agree with the above. Often, meetings with the minister feel like a conversation. That’s not what these meetings are about. They are for a precise policy issue or an ask. Also, we tend to forget that government is not there for us to right. Collaboration is the best approach.

Thousands of organizations represent agrifood, of which 1,200 are registered to lobby. Is that too many? Is it effective?

Mitchell. Too many voices can be a problem but agriculture is complex and operates at a number of levels, so it’s not surprising that there are so many. It’s useful to deal with umbrella organizations that represent others at a national level. Not all organizations take the same view because some issues don’t have common ground. Those umbrella organizations play a role in trying to build that consensus. That process is critical. Again, the message is what’s important, not the size of the organization.

Friesen. The number of organizations doesn’t necessarily mean the sector is divided. Some of them are sector-specific or commodity specific or speak to specific policy issues. When an issue transcends a sector or commodity, that’s when organizations should collaborate. When I was President of the CFA, our approach was not to speak on commodity issues unless we had a position that endorsed it. The current president has done an excellent job of reaching out to non-CFA members, even internationally, to collaborate and agree on messaging.

Farmers are funding a plethora of CEOs and Executive Directors. It’s a lot of overhead to carry, and farmers are confused as to whom to send their dollars to.

Mitchell. Organizations need clear lines of communications and accountability. I don’t believe that’s a problem with CFA members or many other organizations. However, they have to communicate to their members what they stand for, and how they fit in the larger agenda. And at the end of the day, farmers choose whom they support.

There’s a concern that umbrella organization have a long list of issues. Do you get a sense that umbrella organizations have trade-offs on what is presented to ministers?

Mitchell. If it’s a broad policy issue, then an umbrella organization like CFA makes sense, especially if it has worked to build consensus already. But for a commodity issue, you want to hear from a commodity organization. It’s never a good idea to go to a minister’s meeting with a list of priorities because it looks like nothing is a priority. So both types of organization are important.

Friesen. Ministers can’t deliver on everything so it is the responsibility of organizations to prioritize. Another thing to note is that ministers have to go ask for the money. For a while we had brutal net farm incomes, and always wanted funding—but we were sensitive to the fact that the minister has to sit at a Cabinet table where every minister is asking for money for their issues.

Trade policy is an example of commodity vs general issues. I had turkeys and pigs on my own farm. Both have different trade policy interests. So if I said to Andy (Mitchell) that I didn’t care about supply management, I just want more market for pigs, Andy can’t advocate for just one sector. As minister, he must negotiate for all agriculture so that all farmers are better off. It amazes me that commodity groups meet the minister, hammer in their interests, and think the minister believes nobody else matters. That’s not how it works. Collaboration works.

Is there a fear that when you collaborate, is there a concern that some of the expertise or individuality of the case will be lost? Collaboration is great but how do you see beyond that to ensure all voices are well represented?

Friesen. There’s no fear of losing individuality. I would ask the Canadian Pork Council, What is your issue? Do you want us to weigh in on it in public? They would let us know the commodity messaging. If the issue was general, they and all the other commodity groups brought expertise. We have ten provincial farm organizations all doing the same thing we’re trying to achieve nationally.

Mitchell. When I got to Cabinet, I worked with the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray who had been around a long time. He said something that stuck with me: When you go into the Cabinet room and insist on your way, and others do too, none of you get anything any of the time. That shows the importance of building consensus—because if you can get 80% of what you need 80% of the time, you’re probably successful.

Was the research agenda a top priority when groups came to see you?

Mitchell. I believe that pushing the research and innovation agenda on broad pillars is more effective than narrowly, by commodity. Examples of a broad approach would be increasing yield, environmental protection, production processes. These are more effective and easily actionable.

Another way to encourage collaboration is to reward it in research proposals. There’s only a finite amount of money in the federal pot, so collaboration leverages that funding to make it go farther. That’s what we like to see.

Alberta’s Centennial Ranches strongly connected to Gentec

Cherie is CEO of the vast CL Ranches located just outside Calgary’s western city limits. The ranch itself consists of seedstock and commercial cow/calf operations, a backgrounding lot and a large mixed-grain farming operation.

After graduating from the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program, Cherie managed an 11,000-cow beef operation in Uruguay, selling beef directly into Canada and the EU. Her time in Uruguay also exposed her to the packing industry through an investment into an 850-head capacity packing plant. Most importantly, Cherie is the mother of the 5th generation of ranchers at CL Ranches, and as such, dedicates much of her time to defining what sustainability will mean to them. Towards this end, Cherie has been generous with her time providing her expertise and leadership through participation in the following initiatives, to name a few:

  • WA Ranch Advisor Member – University of Calgary
  • Advisory Board Member of Strategic Engagement Group, Olds College
  • Advisory Member Rangeland Research Institute – University of Alberta
  • Executive Committee Member – Canadian Beef Improvement Network
  • Sendero – Director & Co-Founder
  • Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef – Executive Officer
  • Canadian Cattlemen’s Young Leaders -Mentor
  • Calgary Stampede – Board of Directors
  • Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) – Interim Chair & Executive Committee Member
  • Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) – Chair
  • Calgary Stampede – Chair Agri-Food

She speaks affectionately of the sustainability of the operation and the resiliency of the cattle. Upon hearing her story, it is easy to infer that these are also the traits the family has had to exhibit to advance the ranch into its current, 4th generation of stewardship.

The genesis of the ranch stretches back to 1887 when brothers Richard and John Copithorne arrived in Canada from Cork, Ireland. They established a homestead, and began a new life raising cattle along the Jumping Pound Creek under the Lazy J brand. It was also here that they built the foundations of an operation that paved the way for Richard to register is own independent CL brand in 1895. One hundred and twenty-six years later, Cherie is leading it through its 4th generation and working hard to hand it off to the 5th in even better condition than she inherited it.

Although the entrepreneurial spirit may be the same, the operation has morphed from a range herd of Durham cattle that saw the brothers survive hard times, in part through bartering butter, into to a sophisticated operation—but one that still uses all the resources available to grow and sustain the legacy.

To this end, Cherie and her team capitalize on the abundance of gravel on their property; partner with a local outfitter to allow hunting on their land; and undertake land development initiatives. There is even a complete Hollywood filmset featuring scenes from the 1850s through to 1940 on the property.  As any cowgirl will grimace, “Cows can’t pay all the bills!”

As in any industry, progress occurs and the innovations of the day are adopted to stay competitive. The Durham cattle gave way to horned Herefords. Later, the “heresy” of crossbred cattle entered the fray – in Alberta, this occurred through the pioneering work of Roy Berg and as a result of enterprising ranchers willing to try out “what seemed to work” as opposed to blind orthodoxy. Other advances pursued over the years included becoming an early adopter of artificial insemination technology and an intense selection for the maternal characteristics that still characterize the herd. As for the latter, much of this work was done through collaboration with the Beefbooster system led by John Stewart-Smith. Through the years, CL Ranches has been an early and continual adopter of this science, exhibiting a curiosity and habit of applied experimentation that still exists today.

Today’s herd has been developed around the (still evolving) CL SuperCross seedstock cattle breeding program, and employs any and all tools that deliver practical results. This means pursuing a balanced approach focused on optimizing the herd as opposed to maximizing any single characteristic. Here, everyone is expected to work hard. The cows must be efficient and raise a strong calf every year—and not in not the easiest of conditions (Alberta!). Calves are expected to maintain a high and efficient-post weaning gain, and their beef to be tender, of high yield, abundant marbling, and great taste.

“At the end of the day,” says Cherie. “If we want to thrive, our cows have to deliver for us, for our customers, and ultimately our customer’s customer”.

Included in this is the belief that you can only manage what you measure. SuperCross cattle must perform on a 40-45 day breeding interval (still in Alberta), demonstrate conception rates well in excess of 90%, and deliver on pounds of weaned calf per cow in the fall.

This is why we at Gentec are so excited to have Cherie join our Management Advisory Board. As stated by Chair David Andrews, “If you look at the priorities of CL Ranches, they overlay almost perfectly with the performance metrics established for Gentec over the next 5 years. Cherie’s ranch and management is as good as it gets. She wakes up every morning thinking about exactly the same mandate as we do; she is exceptionally well connected within the industry through a lifetime of ranching, industry leadership, and boots-on-the-ground practicality that resonates with other producers. We need that to succeed and that is why we are so excited to have her and Sean, joining the MAB.”

Cherie concurs. The adventure is not over. The future of breeding cattle lies in finding profitability through the predictability of an animal’s performance within all segments of the beef value chain. CL Ranches is also a founding investor in Sendero Limited, a company that focuses on bringing together like-minded producers, feeders (and one day possibly even packers) to make this a reality.

“We want to create a value chain that improves and optimizes the genetic merit of the cattle,” says Cherie. “This is done through genetics and by improving the management practices used in the environments that produce them. To do this, phenotypic and genotypic information needs to be collected, analyzed, and result in better combinations of cow, environment and management.”

As the saying goes, if you actually want to get something done, ask a busy person. How does Cherie respond?

“I am honoured to be a part of the MAB. Gentec is a world leader when it comes to innovation, and I look forward to contributing to this journey of continual improvement for Canada’s beef industry.”

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.