Producers beef up ways to manage what they measure

A research centre in Alberta delivers genomic information to livestock producers

By Kate Ayers
Staff Writer
Better Farming

Genetic information rests at the centre of better understanding how living things function and adapt to their environments.

The livestock industry can use this information, such as genotypic and phenotypic data, paired with breeding tools to obtain desired traits in progeny and make improvements throughout the value chain.

Cow Calf Pair in Pasture
    Joseph Tointon/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“The phenotype or trait is the basis of all genetic improvement,” said Dr. Graham Plastow. He’s CEO of the Livestock Gentec Centre and a professor in the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences at the University of Alberta.

Livestock Gentec is an Alberta Innovates Centre based at the University of Alberta. Since 2010, centre staff have shared the commercial benefits of genomics with the Canadian livestock industry, the organization’s website said.

Researchers work to “determine the relative contributions of genetics and the environment because most phenotypic traits will be influenced by a combination of those factors,” Plastow said.

“If we are trying to improve tenderness, we don’t want that trait to come at a cost of increased greenhouse gas production. We need to understand the relationships between those traits and decide what information we need to make improvements. Once we have those measurements, we can cross the best females with the best males.”

Since the beef industry includes cow-calf, backgrounding and feedlot operations, as well as abattoirs and processing plants, stakeholders collect many data points and focus on different traits. This disconnect can cause issues.

“One of the most important things for a chain is to lubricate it. If you don’t lubricate a chain, it seizes up and doesn’t work properly. One way to lubricate the livestock industry value chain is to share data and add value,” said Plastow.

“We need to find ways to share this information.”

We can work with stakeholders to use the Internet of Things to compile data. Then, scientists can use artificial intelligence to review this centralized database to help analyze phenotypic relationships, Plastow said.

And then researchers can “use genetic information and computing technologies to help farmers make better management decisions.”

Developments in data collection methods are making it easier for some producers to collect and record measurements. However, increasing the accessibility and durability of technological advances would greatly benefit the livestock industry.

“Sometimes, the trait we want to improve is difficult or expensive to measure. For example, information on how much an animal eats and grows is important because we want to raise healthy animals at the same time as reducing the environmental footprint and producing as little waste as possible,” Plastow said. But measuring feed intake in grazing cattle can be challenging.

While expensive right now, “imaging technologies can monitor animals 24 hours a day, even on pasture,” he said.

“Wearable sensors and drones give us opportunities to look at animals all the time and observe traits.”

As the beef industry increasingly uses monitoring equipment and genomic data, producers can take advantage of hybrid vigour in their herds and improve the profitability of their operations, Plastow said.

“Genomic info helps predict the lifetime productivity of the animal. Farmers (can use these insights to) select bulls and replacement heifers,” he said.

“By improving the accuracy of phenotypic predictions to optimize animal selection, we can select for traits that make animals more resilient to stress, environmental changes and disease challenges. These animals will be healthier and require less treatment throughout production.” BF

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