“Short term pain for long term gain” may sound like a good deal, but it would be even better without the first part. Fortunately, the Genome Alberta project targeting more accurate genomically-enhanced breeding values for the commercial cattle industry is all about gain: groundbreaking work today to benefit industry for years to come.
“We view this project as an opportunity to improve fertility and healthfulness of cows and calves within the Canadian beef cattle population,” said Dr. John Basarab, Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry.
A lifetime of opportunity
For Dr. Basarab and his team, it’s all about maximizing lifetime productivity by enhancing elements like fitness of offspring and fertility of replacement heifers. That prompted the development of a genomic tool for assessing the amount of hybrid vigor in the female cow.
“Years ago you used to see a lot of differently colored cows as you drove around the country. One of North America’s biggest competitive advantages was crossbreeding, which provided a 25-30 per cent boost in pounds of calves weaned per 100 cows and replacement heifers exposed to breeding.”
Over the years, though, the beef industry has moved away from crossbreeding in a systematic way to more uniform herds in terms of color and type.
A black & red issue
“Now when you drive those rural roads, you see a higher prevalence of black herds and red herds. That means you may get increased predictability in how offspring will turn out and which bulls you should use. But it also means that in the last 10 or 20 years, there has been a reduction in hybrid vigor for our cow herds. So cows are now less fertile and it will take more resources for them to have a calf every year and provide high productivity in the course of their lifetime.”
Thanks to the tool created through this project – called EnVigour HX™ - researchers have been able to take crossbred animals and determine their breed composition with a high degree of accuracy for the major beef breeds.
“We can look at a red animal and say it’s a Red Angus or Simmental, but with EnVigour HX™, we determine the exact breed composition. In turn, that gives us the amount of hybrid vigor and offers an indication of productivity potential over the life of the animal, which is the bottom line in assessing its value for producers.”
In addition, knowing the breed composition lets breeders figure out how to maintain that hybrid vigor in offspring.
“Under the present breeding system, we will probably use the same bull on all cows and not know who is who, which is really imprecise. Through genomic breed composition, if we know the breakdown is 60 per cent Red Angus, 20 per cent Simmental and 20 per cent Hereford, for example, we can easily determine which bull we should bring into the breeding group to optimize hybrid vigor and maintain it in the cow herd. That is a major outcome of the Genome Alberta project.”
Keep up or lose out
Now that scientists have done their part in devising these breeding tools, it’s up to the cattle industry to take advantage of them.
“Canada’s competitors around the world are embracing this technology full force, so we need to be on side to keep pace. I talk about this a lot with overseas colleagues and what they are doing in other countries is amazing. Our international science collaborators are good about sharing knowledge. We are progressing together and it’s vital for the beef industry to be on board in terms of producing high quality products with a low carbon footprint for export.”
By seizing the opportunity that genomic technology affords, industry can gain an edge in the global marketplace, and the only ones feeling pain will be the competition.