Coming to market soon! Um… is that too soon? or not soon enough?

I’m not enthralled at the prospect of eating a soy-based patty or crumble that has been processed to be passed off as ‘meat’. I’m not going to consume cell-cultured ‘meat’ grown in a petri dish willingly. But I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a juicy chunk of Pinkglow® Pineapple that’s been genetically modified to stay pink and sweet. Pinkglow® Pineapple is already available in some US markets, and is an option for consumers who want to try it. Another choice that will be available within the next two years is gene-edited livestock products, including beef.

Oh dear… I’ve used the phrases genetically-modified and gene-edited. Very unpopular, unsexy and frighteningly science-y. Let’s get them out of the way.

Genetic selection has been practised in agronomy for centuries. Robert Bakewell is credited for observing that selective breeding in livestock improves the next generation. He founded the first breed associations to record pedigree and performance information. The objective was a centralized repository of data with which selection and breeding decisions could be made. That objective remains in place today.

Genetic selection was applied to crop breeding with tremendous results long before Bakewell. My favourite illustration of the power of genetic selection is the fact that modern cultivars of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and kohlrabi all originate from the same Brassica oleracea plant species. Each modern cultivar was selected based on crown size (broccoli and cauliflower), leafiness (kale, collard greens) or enlarged heads of tightly-rolled leaves (cabbage, Brussels sprouts). This is the power of genetic selection; provided you have a goal and some staying power—because it takes more than one generation to get there.


One way to “get there” sooner is to use genomics technology. In livestock, the rate of genetic improvement can be maximized by using genomically-enhanced EPDs (GE-EPDs). A different application is to modify the genetic material of organisms to generate GMOs. Two techniques are used to achieve these new, genetically-modified variants, both of which insert genetic material into an organism using a gene particle gun or a bacterial host.

The new genetic material can be from the “original” species (changing a naturally-existing gene), it can be a gene from the same or similar species (such as AquaBounty Atlantic salmon, which was created by inserting genetic material from Pacific salmon) or from a different organism altogether (such as genetic material from the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) used to create a papaya variant that is resistant to PRSV). Genetic modification technology has been used since the 1990s to develop varieties of tomatoes, squash, soybeans, cotton, corn, papayas, potatoes, canola, beets, alfalfa, apples, grapes—the list goes on. This technology has been used to create variants (primarily in crops) that are disease resistant, drought resistant and environmentally, economically, and ethically more sustainable. The possible advantages of genetic improvement using genomic modification technology is incredible.

One of the limitations of the technology is its precision. Peppering cells using a gene gun or using bacteria carrying the novel DNA as a kind of “Trojan horse”, doesn’t allow you to dictate where new genetic material (and sometimes what genetic material) gets inserted. Scientist have been working on a more precise technology for decades.


In 2020, Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded a Nobel prize for pioneering a revolutionary technology that improves the precision with which genetic edits can be made. Although new genetic material can be added to organisms using this technology, its true advantage comes from being able to ‘fix’ (change) existing genes. The technology, called CRISPR, has been used to create therapies for cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV, muscular dystrophy and inherited blindness.

In agriculture, CRISPR is being used to modify crops to generate naturally-decaffeinated coffee; eggs that don’t challenge people who are allergic to egg protein; grape varieties that can grow in drought conditions, milk that is naturally lactose-free; tomatoes that are healthier or are naturally spicy; polled (hornless) Holstein cattle; tuberculosis-resistant cattle; cattle that are more heat tolerant; and pigs that are resistant to PRRS virus. Again, the list of possibilities is endless. And the development and regulatory approvals for commercialization and consumption are moving quickly, particularly in North America.

So in view of supply chain issues, labour shortages, food shortages, war and climate change… Are these products coming to market too soon or not soon enough?

Kajal Devani

Director of Science and Technology
Canadian Angus Association





Next-gen talk to next-gen ranchers

Even the title suggests this wasn’t going to be easy. “Introducing genomics technologies to 4H participants to promote genetic tools in the Alberta beef industry.” And yet, this is the project UAlberta Capstone students Jacqui Gironella, Diego Martinez Mayorga, Jayden Pidsadowski, Leah Trenson and Min Chieh (Ruby) Hsu chose to present—to the surprise of Professor Frank Robinson, who recognized the significant challenge and was a tad apprehensive about their success.

It wasn’t so much the first part that was hard: testing about 160 steers belonging to the 4Hers (Gentec did that part, as well as the mentoring). It was getting the information to look understandable, real, relevant—and interesting—in front of the 4Hers and their producer parents.

“These are super-complex topics, and it was hard not to use jargon,” says Diego, who comes from a beef/dairy background in Ecuador. “That was a project in itself. So we made factsheets for each steer.”

The incentive for working with 4Hers is that they are already from a farming background, sometimes several generations back. The team figured that introducing genomics to the farm through them in a simple, non-invasive way was the recipe for success since they are likely to be the future of beef operations in Alberta. The students found that the main objections came from the adult producers who didn’t know what genomics was and what benefits it could offer. Wanting to cover all bases, however, the team also explained in their presentation that genomics is just one piece of the puzzle (albeit a good one) but producers can’t ignore nutrition, shelter, good husbandry in general. Genomics works best in combination with all a producer’s accumulated experience conducting visual assessmentson conformation, feet, udder and temperament. If you can see for yourself that the animal doesn’t measure up—you don’t need genomics. Genomics adds value by facilitating the ranking of the animals you otherwise would consider acceptable.

“Habits are difficult to break,” says Jacqui, who, unlike Diego, had never seen a large animal until a few years ago. “We thought this was a neat way of approaching the hesitancy towards testing and genetic selection for producers who aren’t using it yet. They’re more likely to trust information from their kid or grandkid—and we noticed that lots of generations watched our presentation.”

Enter Paul Franz, son/grandson to ranchers, and now himself a rancher in Grimshaw, Alberta, since 1996 trying to build an F3 and F4 herd. He became involved in the project as the local 4H leader.

“I hope the kids learn about genetic diversity in cows and that they can create crossbreeds to get the ideal animal for their situation, whether it’s a feedlot, backgrounding or a cow-calf operation,” he says. “They’ll get a premium for the calf in the local market.”

Paul is already a believer in genetics. As his knowledge grew through his role on the provincial Beef Advisory Committee and associated Carcass Committee, genetics was in the back of his mind. “Just to know where my cows are from, genetically, and their hybrid vigour.”

This project was a happy coincidence for him. He used the opportunity to get his whole herd tested.

“If you want to move forward in a crossbred program, you’d want to know what your herd is doing,” says Paul. “So research the traits to get more out of your bull. In 3-5 years, those traits will be on your replacement heifer side.”

Back in the lab, Diego and Jacqui are reeling at the difference between the cloistered halls of academia and the hands-on ranch operation.

“In the classroom, we have great numbers and no confusing variables,” says Diego. “We focus on genetics but in the real world, every producer has their own management program so cows with the same potential may end up quite different. I hope that came through in the presentation.”

“Clint was really helpful on this,” says Jacqui. “He guided us on what producers want and don’t want, and made sure we explained everything thoroughly. His perspective from a marketing standpoint was very different and valuable.”

For Diego and Jacqui, the project turned out even more fruitful. Both students have summer jobs at Gentec.

“I’ll be working with Graham Plastow, researching heat stress in cattle using infrared thermography,” says Jacqui. “And with Ed Bork at the Kinsella Ranch, analyzing what the different herds of cattle are eating at pasture there.”

“I’ll be doing extension, attending conferences, manning booths, preparing presentations and writing some research overviews,” says Diego. “It’ll be nice to stay inside for the summer for once. I’d like to stay in ag genetics if possible as a genetic consultant… helping producers select for what they need. Wouldn’t that be an awesome job to have?”

At the Grill with William Torres: Ride for the brand

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) focuses on how loyalty to a genetics brand can help producers get ahead thanks to buy-back programs.

Did you see the Yellowstone episode where Teeter (Jen Landon) questioned RIP Wheeler (Cole Hauser) and John Dutton (Kevin Costner) after being canned for fighting in the bunkhouse?

“So all that ‘this is my home forever is just talk’? F**king scarred for life, it don’t mean nothing? (As she shows her “Y” brand).”

What is loyalty? Do cowboys still ride for the brand? Are you loyal to a genetics brand?

Every producer I’ve ever talked to wants to do two things; survive in this industry and make a living at it. As times are changing, we are getting more and more pressure to do more with less, be sustainable, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, etc. And Lord knows, we must keep the country blacktops free of manure or the weekend cyclist will complain.

Many organizations out there (I won’t name any) claim to be fighting for you—but are YOU fighting for YOU? What are YOU doing to stay in the fight?

One of the many ways you can do all the above is by managing your genetic selection and genetic purchases. I surely hope none of us are still buying sires the way our grandpas did it. So much data are available in one single bull sale catalog nowadays that the only thing left to do would be to interview the bull to make sure he fits with your ranch culture and values. Oh… And make sure he has teeth.

If you’re scared to invest in your herd’s genetic benefit because you think it’s pricey, why don’t you align yourself with a great outfit that’s willing to stand behind its genetic brand?

Take, for instance, the Nelson Family Ranches in Stirling, AB. They put their money where their mouth is. They have a great buy-back program and purchase the calves you get from their sires. How much more can an outfit stand behind its brand!? The Nelson Family Ranches is “a sixth-generation family farm that values hard work, honesty, and bringing top quality, innovative products to you.”

I’ll give you another example. If you’re ever in Calgary and want to go for a great steak, visit Modern Steak. It is (to my knowledge) the only steak house that has partnered with local ranch Benchmark Angus from Warner, AB. to own their own bull. Now that’s what I call commitment and a continual supply of high-quality meat. Benchmark Angus is owned and operated by the Munton Family, a fourth-generation outfit that “has been pursuing Angus beef genetics for the proven tenderness and far superior taste that only premium Benchmark Angus cattle provide.” Their buy-back program from sired cattle supplies their own plant for everyday meat sales.

Bottom line is, focus on the genetics that will make a sustainable impact on your herd allowing YOU to not just survive, but make sure you leave a legacy behind for the next generations. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “If someone tells you who they are, listen. If someone shows you who they are, believe them”. A buy-back guarantee shows you who they are and that they stand behind their brand. These are just two examples.

For more information, contact John Basarab here at Gentec for help.



Putting innovation in producers’ hands

RDAR’s (Results-Driven Agriculture Research) mandate is to fund producer-led results-driven agriculture research, with a laser-like focus on projects that have an imminent benefit to Alberta’s agricultural sector.

“RDAR invests in ag research projects,” confirms Clinton Dobson, RDAR’s Research Director. “Within these projects, we want to see transdisciplinary teams working together in producer/public/private partnerships to accelerate the adoption of technologies and products on farms.”

RDAR’s mandate is guided by a five-year Strategic Framework  designed to anticipate and respond to emerging trends and market demands. This strategy provides the scope to react quickly to change and respond to emerging issues, for example, drought and heat stress, and to the growing use of technology and tools to drive production and profits on the smart, connected farm.

To target the dissemination of innovation, RDAR relies on Extension Services to ensure producers can hit the road running with new knowledge. To be sure that Extension is tailored to the needs of the 21st century producer, RDAR formed a cross-industry Extension Task Force. Following a comprehensive review of options, and completing surveys and consultations with stakeholders, the Task Force is expected to deliver its recommendations in summer 2022.

RDAR also supports extension in the field, demonstrating how new technologies and practices, when linked to ‘how to adopt’ information and training, enable producers to adopt innovation into their operations. At the most granular level, RDAR even brokers connections between researchers, producers and industry to power up the transformation.

The livestock sector is an area of emphasis for RDAR, as exemplified by the linkages between Gentec and RDAR: RDAR’s Board comprises former Gentec directors Dr. David Chalack and Dr. Fred Lozeman, current director Dr. Stan Blade and industry collaborator JP Brouwer. On RDAR’s research team is Gentec alumnus Dr. Brian Karisa.

“Genomics IS happening!” says Clinton, “Although RDAR is new (we came into existence in July 2020), we have invested in two significant projects with Gentec and the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) to advance knowledge mobilization. Together, we can rapidly advance genetic literacy among beef producers so they can achieve the economic potential of genomics on their farm or ranch.”

RDAR’s investments include $1.4 million in Gentec projects (see here  and here  for examples) and $640,000 in CBIN . The standout factor for both organizations is that they can deliver transdisciplinary producer-public-private partnerships to overcome the challenges to the uptake of genomics in the beef sector. Gentec also works with CBIN to determine where Gentec can add value to CBIN’s strategic outcomes and put genetics-based breeding tools into the hands of producers.

“Investing in the collaboration between Gentec, CBIN, the beef breed associations and CBBC was a shoo-in for RDAR,” says Clinton. “It will build greater synergies, and increase the competitiveness and sustainability of producers. We’re confident about the broad adoption of beef-breeding genetics, and we can draw parallels to other sectors’ successes, for example, the dairy industry. Although adoption in beef lags behind dairy, that just means we have great opportunities to make big strides in driving genetic improvement on the ranch.”





Are your bulls earning their keep?

There’s the traditional way of doing things, and there’s the new (usually more effective/informative) way. Dr. Waylon Wise of Cow/Calf Health and Management Solutions (CCHMS) explains both as they relate to bull breeding soundness evaluations (BBSEs) and DNA strategies.

“A traditional herd-health relationship starts with discussing health.” says Waylon, “Once we get this streamlined, the next discussion is usually about how to use the ranch resources most effectively, improve performance, replacement selection etc. That leads to which bulls to buy, how to evaluate the success of them during breeding season, and what works best with the genetics and the environment on the ranch.”

Once pre-pubertal bulls are in the sale pen, vets like Waylon end up seeing them at the business end of a probe for semen testing to evaluate “potential competency” (note, this is NOT a measure of fertility). The goal here is to find the ones that are unfit for sale; it’s a pass or fail test. That said, passing a semen test as a 12-month old bull is like saying “if you graduate high school, you will automatically thrive in the real world.” We all know this isn’t true. Context matters. So passing isn’t the be all and end all of anything.

The main components of a BBSE (BBSE image) are the physical exam, palpation of testicles and internal sex glands, measuring scrotal circumference and evaluating the motility and structure of the sperm cells. The latter is tricky. For starters, it’s hard to perform (for the bull and the sperm) on a cold day (most bull sales are in the dead of winter); nervous bulls don’t respond well to the probe; and a variety of stressors (including being semen-tested) reduces semen quality. Not to mention that high growth rate and superior performance may delay the onset of puberty. There’s a reason why the last bull in the sale order rarely fails a semen test!

“There’s enormous unjustified pressure on these young bulls to pass a semen test,” says Waylon, “but there are too many variables to cast the results in stone. Of the physically normal pre-pubertal bulls that we pursue retesting on, 95-97% will eventually pass and be fertile.”

Large scrotal circumference in pre-pubertal bulls doesn’t mean they are more fertile, produce more calves or more weaning weight. In fact, excessive scrotal circumference (more than 40 cm) in pre-pubertal bulls may delay the onset of puberty—so it may take them longer to pass a semen test. Bulls with a smaller scrotal circumference may be just as fertile. It’s not uncommon for a young bull to gain 3, 4 or even 6 cm (!!) as he reaches puberty. If you don’t like your guy’s measurement one day, just wait a week or two.

And at the end of the day, a physically normal bull that fails a semen test or has sub-optimal scrotal circumference can sire as many calves as bulls that pass. We have the evidence. The opposite is true also. Bulls with exceptional semen quality can fail to earn their keep.

There are also welfare implications of sending 20V of electricity into the rectum to stimulate ejaculation, or injuries that occur in the chute and the unnecessary trauma to the penis by unnecessarily breaking a pre-pubertal, normally-occurring frenulum.

“We’ve already started to shift the paradigm around pre-pubertal bulls, and we need to keep educating young vets about the pitfalls of doing this so early in a bull’s life,” says Waylon. “Bulls should still be palpated, measured and evaluated in the chute prior to sale to remove the physically abnormal ones. But basically, you should be buying a bull based on his merit and what value he adds to your genetic program. The semen test of the BBSE is of minimal value.”

So there IS a better way! Use the power of DNA.

First, all potential sires must have a DNA Case Number (the animal’s universal DNA tracking number: this is the “name” of the DNA record or genotype). The majority of purebred sires will already have a genotype on file at the breed association. The vet verifies this during the BBSE and collects hair or tissue if needed. The sample barcode is scanned into Herdtrax, and the submission file is generated and sent to Neogen for processing. Once the file comes back, it’s uploaded and will automatically link the genotype to the animal’s record. This takes 4 – 6 weeks. Even if the animal is gone, you can use semen in the tank—or meat in the freezer!

To acquire parentage, the vet collects a sample from the calf (usually at branding or weaning), scans the barcode, adds the potential sires and the submission file is generated and sent to Neogen, then returned for upload. The upload will assign the sire and indicate it’s verified.

So the DNA strategies are:

• DNA all calves. Index all the bulls by number of progeny, daily service capacity, weaning weight, weaning ADG (WADG), carcass traits and total lbs produced during a breeding season.
• DNA replacements. Identify the sires who produce the calves that thrive in the current environment. These calves have been selected on data and, in some cases, produce the phenotype desired at the ranch.
• DNA Potential AI sire. Gestation can vary by +/-16 days. Keep replacements from the AI sire when clean-up bulls are used immediately after insemination.
• DNA poor calves/ dystocia. Fertility is not the only parameter. Cull bulls who dilute the gene pool with unfavourable genetics or cause undesirable outcomes.
• DNA herds. Heads-up test-breeding of groups of bulls with similar breed, pedigree or source.

Test within same herd or pasture location to evaluate:

  • Sires that work best to maximize heterosis in different herds (breed composition)
  • Sires that thrive in different pasture locations, nutrition (forestry vs native grass)
  • Sires that thrive within the terminal (low-index) vs maternal herd (high-index)

“Then repeat the trends that work,” says Waylon.

      1. Only use progeny from proven, superior bulls and cows for breeding.
      2. Use proven, superior bulls on the high-index herd to produce your own replacements. Collect semen and AI within your own herd prior to bull turnout.
      3. Send individual bulls with superior progeny performance out for the first cycle.
      4. Use sires with proven carcass traits on low-index terminal cows.
      5. Cull and replace individuals in the bottom 10%.

Yes, it’s complicated, and there needs to be an integrated approach to evaluating bulls that includes a thorough physical exam, selective semen testing of questionable or unproven pubertal bulls, and using DNA parentage to index the performance of their offspring.

“Even today, with advances in DNA technology and enhanced traceability through online and chute-side management programs such as Herdtrax, we still rely too much on a stand-alone semen test in an off-season that is not that correlated to actual fertility, performance or the bottom-line,” says Waylon. “It’s time for a change.”







At The Grill feature by William Torres. Data Management: EPDs… are they as easy as 123?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) focuses the ABCs of your EPDs, how to maximize your cattle selection without focusing on too much data to make decisions, and how to help your bottom line.

Have you ever looked at a bull sale catalogue and thought you might need a PhD to figure out what they’re trying to sell you? I mean… how much data is too much data??

At the end of the day, the people trying to sell these animals want to make the most amount of money and offer you all the most relevant information. But if you’re trying to purchase an animal, you want the opposite: the best genetics for the least amount of money.

So what it really comes down to is doing your homework and understanding your needs (much like purchasing a new car). The part most of us struggle with is EPDs and the other information that we’re not sure we really understand. So let’s recap… what is an EPD?

According to the Beef Cattle Research Council, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are estimates of an animal’s genetic merit as a parent. In plain English, this how to predict the specific performance of a bull’s progeny compared to the performance of another bull’s progeny. The keywords here are PREDICT and COMPARE. EPDs for one animal are meaningless unless you compare them to the EPD of another animal.

So, if Sire A has a birth weight EPD of 4.0 and Sire B has a birth weight EPD of -2.0, then calves from Sire B might average 6 pounds lighter at birth than calves from Sire A, assuming the bulls are randomly mated in the same herd (most EPDs are designed to compare sires within a same breed). That is, until multi-breed EPDs come into the picture, like Feed Efficiency for example.

Now that we’re clear as mud, we should be able to buy the best, right? But what is the best? Let’s go back to buying a car. When I used to test bulls for feed efficiency, the question was always, “How do I sell these for the most money?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. In any given feed efficiency test, there will be winners and losers. Think of it like an eating contest; if you and I compete against each other, only one of us can win. But the bottom line is, you need to sell ALL those bulls.

Selling is an art form. Whether you’re selling cars or bulls, you need to know the needs of the purchaser. Not everyone has the budget to buy a$100,000 bull (or car), But everyone who walked into the lot (or bull sale), is there to buy something. What are they looking for? Here are some examples:

Horsepower = Birth weight, weaning weight
Fuel efficiency = Average daily gain, conversion, feed efficiency
Longevity = sustainability

On the buyer side of the house, you need to consider your specific production goal. For example, if you sell your calves at weaning, you need to prioritize the EPDs differently than producers who retain ownership through the feedlot. A start-up cow-calf operation will most likely have different budgets and needs than a well-established outfit. Regardless of your needs, don’t be afraid to ask the seller what things really mean. Or contact John Basarab, Director of Beef Operations here at Gentec for help.

Ted Bilyea tells it like it is: Waste not, want not!

“At the global level, unless there’s a major technology change in how we produce food where we don’t need land, we’re going to have a food security problem fairly soon,” predicts Ted Bilyea, Former Executive VP of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. “It’s beginning to unfold in front of us.”

Ted breaks the issue down into the three A’s.

Thirty years ago, about 12% of the world food was supplied by trade. That figure is now close to 25%. That’s pretty fragile. In Canada, we don’t have “availability” problems because 70% of what we consume is grown here, and we still export 50% of production. Our availability issue is that we’re the largest importer of U.S. processed-food in the world.

“Many of the US companies that had processing plants in Canada closed them up after NAFTA,” says Ted. “They no longer needed Canadian processing to sell here, and they already had marketing and distribution set up.

Push come to shove, we might not get everything here that we want to eat but we won’t starve to death either.

“That’s when s**t happens,” says Ted. “Covid… closed border with the US… supply chain issues. Especially in the North. Solutions will involve better energy use so they can grow food themselves.”

And we need to do something about food waste. There are two sides to this: what happens before and after food items hit the store. On the before side, issues of rotting, storage, transport, etc. in the developing world can be taken care of with technology transfer, capital investment and political will. Far more troubling everywhere is the threat of disease. For example, China lost half of its hogs due to disease (mostly African swine fever) since 2018. That’s a quarter of all the hogs in the world. Just one single case of BSE (mad cow disease) in Alberta in December 2021 led China, Korea and the Philippines to ban imports of Canadian beef. An outbreak of avian flu in the US in 2015 led to the culling of 75 million poultry, and cost US$879 million to eradicate from production. These are not one-offs.

“On the consumer side, we should stop thinking of the contents of the green box as waste,” says Ted. “It’s an input to somebody else’s business in terms of upcycling. Even meat—because fats become biodiesel. So let’s be careful what we define as waste. It’s all energy in another form. If we’re doing things right, there’s no such thing as waste.”

But there’s a far more insidious issue on the horizon. Globally, we’re coming to the end of the era of abundance, convenience and perfection, food-wise. We’ve taken food for granted for too long. The shift is underway to an era where that may still be true occasionally, locally, depending on the product and location but we’re beginning to look at a future where scarcity is the more likely outcome.

“Productivity is the best indicator of where we’re going,” says Ted. “Supply vs demand is dropping. We don’t have the global security stocks we used to have. Why? Climate change, declining R&D investment in agriculture (Alberta’s RDAR is an exception that proves the rule) and the use of non-renewable groundwater.”

*click picture to enlarge

Eleven percent of the total agriculture trade globally depends on groundwater. In the US, 64% of groundwater is used for irrigation. Fifty percent of that comes from the Ogallala aquifer. The replenishment rate of these aquifers is way down or even zero. Think California. The Ogallala aquifer will take 6,000 years to replenish. When those global aquifers run dry—and they willl!—that 11% of trade will also dry up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Some companies will move into Canada because they value our competitive advantages. Water is one of them. Another is the prairie grasslands.

“One of the first things I learned at Canada Packers is that you can’t move the feed to the animals,” says Ted. “Most of the world is still trying to defend against that because they want to grow their own animals so they import massive amounts of corn and barley. With the emissions footprint, it makes no sense. It never did. You need tariff barriers and subsidies when you’re not competitive. Canada’s western competitive advantage is built in. We have the grass and the feed. And companies like McDonalds and Loblaws pay a premium for the sustainable beef we grow with it.”

This is, of course, where Gentec steps in and shines. Gentec’s tools for researchers (EnVigour HX™, and the new Feeder and Replacement Heifer Profit Indexes) and projects that demonstrate the value of grazing cattle on grasslands will help producers and Western Canada maintain that competitive advantage.

People on low or fixed income have survived this period of abundance because food was cheap. Those days are gone. Major countries are running into issues of availability. Increases in yields are slowing dramatically. We’ve brought massive amounts of land into production. That game is over. Now we’re losing land out of production due to climate change.

“If you had to pick a place to live and farm, Western Canada is a great place,” says Ted. “I see a huge demand for meat. I just wish we had more grass on which to raise more cattle with the least GHGs of anybody in the world!”

The appealing lifestyle is all over social media. The poop isn’t!

Who’s the liar now?

We don’t often get an opportunity to compare apples to apples in terms of social media content vs reality, especially when it comes to agriculture. Producers reading the Wall Street Journal’s “Instagram Stars Make Farm Life Look Delightful – Minus the Manure” might shake their heads in disbelief. Consumers who haven’t had a chance to ever visit a farm might be left with completely the wrong idea. Contrast that with the “How Do We Make Connections” session presented at the Canadian Industry Beef Conference (CBIC 2021). Let’s just say that the two could not have been farther apart in content or theme… starting with the featured personalities.

The Wall Street Journal article starts with the “reigning Mrs. Utah and Julliard-trained ballerina” who emphasizes posts portraying a “farmcore” aesthetic (apparently, it’s a thing) of dancing in the barn in cowboy boots, carefully-organized baskets of eggs with “bonus points” if some blue ones find their way into the mix. Children, readers are warned, can “make a beautiful space not so beautiful”. Tank tops are not Prairie-child wear; and Paw Patrol sweatshirts wreck an otherwise picture-perfect scene.

The second featured farm-influencer, Parisienne Farmgirl, named for her love of Paris and all things French. Like the other influencers presented, Ms. Paris agrees that farmcore comes with an ick factor that is best left out of the photos: the pancetta is gorgeous when coated generously with herbs… What’s behind that photo? “It’s me raising that pig and the smell that goes with it” Then there’s the “amount of manure my cow makes… it’s alarming.” Neither makes it to Instagram.

On the other hand, the CBIC presentation featuring highlights of connecting two social media influencers with two real Canadian beef producers on their farms. Apryl Munro of @thiskindalife was a guest of Gordon Dibble of Dibbhurst Farms near Ingersoll, Ontario. Dibble owns a 4th generation family farm consisting of a 1,200-head feedlot operation and 650 acres of cropland used to feed the operation.

A little closer to home for Gentec, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches (and new addition to the Gentec Management Advisory Board) welcomed Dina Ottoni Battistessa of Like Dibbhurst Farms, CL Ranches is a 4th generation family ranch, operating as a cow/calf, backgrounding and custom-farming operation. Dina arrived with her father and two children.

Combined, the video clips of the farm tours and the conference session provided an interesting and, at times, surprising take on how perceptions differed from reality. The guests mentioned numerous times how information in online documentaries and from friends differed so significantly from what they were seeing and hearing on the ranch. They were particularly surprised at attention and effort put into ensuring the health and welfare of the animals; the quality of the food provided to them; and the commitment of the producers to sustainable production. The latter was evidenced on both operations through their focus on clean water, soil health and nutrients, and—on Gordon’s operation—barns outfitted with geothermal heating capability, LED lighting for minimal energy usage, and natural ventilation.

And the poop—so conveniently left out of the Wall Street Journal article—comes back into the picture. Even the children were able to piece the cycle together where the grass is cycled through the cow: some goes into making beef, some comes out the other end and is used by the soil, as nature intended, to create more healthy grass to perpetuate the cycle. The producers also explained how bulk manure is collected and spread across the land to ensure a natural, sustainable farming environment.

Apryl was surprised at Gordon being younger than her; Dina, that one of the ranchers was female; and both by the fact that the food was produced in a family (not factory) setting in modern, clean, and productive systems, not Old MacDonald’s rickety, spider’s-webby Farm, and that the producers had an emotional attachment to their animals and provided them with the best care possible thus ensuring the health of their cows and the resulting food. Clearly, there is work yet to be done in informing the public.

All that said, the Wall Street Journal and the CBIC profiles did agree that, whether they experience a “farmcore” or actual “farm-life” lifestyle, these “kids see things that most kids will never see or understand”. In a lighter moment, for example, one of Dina’s children asked Cherie if the bulls were there to protect the cows. Cherie responded that they were not, and that the cows were meaner than the bulls anyway.  The camera then panned to the fireplace crackling in the corner of the room as the scene faded to black… Hopefully, Mom explained the true function of the bulls on the drive back to Calgary.

Cherie summed up the divergence between the presentations best. In terms of getting accurate information out to a wider audience, you want to highlight the best aspects of ranch life and beef production but you must also be willing to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly … and to defend the “necessary ugly”. You have to be prepared to be honest. Additionally, many producers and producer organizations just talk about opening their farms to visitors. Cherie feels she gets the most out of her time by volunteering for organizations (such as the Calgary Stampede) where she has access to a million people to whom she could never show her farm, thus allowing her the chance to talk about beef and the science behind it.

Where is the beef….future?

by William Torres, former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards


Bloomberg reported on December 17, 2021, that Tyson, the largest US meat company has invested in a startup (Future Meat Technologies) to make cell-grown chicken and beef. This news makes me wonder where the future of our industry is headed.

From a business perspective, Tyson is looking at its long-term strategies and diversifying its portfolio. However, what message is the company sending to producers in North America?

Well, just like the automotive industry considered the implications of fuel alternatives for vehicles, packers need to consider how they’re going to meet the global demands for protein. If traditional protein can’t be sourced in some parts of the world, maybe a “hybrid” model can fill that gap.

I’ve only consumed beef alternatives probably three times in my life, only to be as disappointed (as I expected). Growing up in a household of carnivores, our definition of beef alternative was pork or chicken. What worries me is that if “we”, the traditional industry, don’t stay engaged, companies like Tyson, Memphis Meats, Future Meat, Beyond Meat, Field Roast, etc., will run their course without knowing what it takes to make cell-based alternatives a palatable choice. We don’t know if scientists have any knowledge of or background in cattle genetics, and how cross-breeding can turn a good steak into a great steak. I mean, do they understand marbling and tenderness? And how some producers work for generations selecting the right genetics to achieve that desirable carcass that packers and consumers are looking for?

Our great industry will never disappear because, let’s face it, no-one raves about how awesome a lab-grown meat-LIKE patty is; and meat consumption worldwide continues to increase along with the global population. Unless these companies can also grow bone in the lab, consumers will never have the same bone-in-rib eye experience.

So what’s the answer? Maybe we should help these companies understand that the right selection of genetics is the foundation of their future. After all, if it’s “cell-grown”, they must source those cells from real animals—animals that will continue to be selected, bred, raised, and slaughtered. In a video promoting lab meat, the host asks, “Are animals really necessary to consume protein?” Well, Yes. These proteins need starter cells that must be sourced somehow.

I mentioned staying engaged. Here are some of the opportunities I see:

• Think about whether your operation wants to be the source of these cells;
• Guide the next generation to study genetics from an alternative market view;
• Start a cell bank;
• Lobby for our right to have a say;
• Become an ambassador and help educate the public;
• Become a certified sustainable operation;
• Tell our story;
• Etc., etc.

The public consumes many alternatives to other animal products, such as soy milk, almond milk, sunflower seed butter, almond butter, soy butter, and dairy-free cheese but the original items are still around.

Cattle are an essential part of our ecosystem. How we participate in the future of our industry is in our hands. We can either fuss about it and ignore it or we can guide, advise and be at the table. As GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle”.

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: