In light of some recent election results, “giving the people what they want” isn’t always the way to go. When those people are the beneficiaries of your research efforts, however, it’s not a bad idea.
That’s certainly the case with a Genome Alberta project to develop and apply more accurate genomically-enhanced breeding values for traits of importance to the commercial cattle industry. Researchers may have started with a theory, but practical results for industry are a top priority.
“One thing we talked about at a recent team meeting was user tools being generated by the project and how best to roll them out,” said John Crowley, a co-lead on the project and a research geneticist with Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta.
“We need to pinpoint the most effective way for industry to use the information on breed composition. It can be a huge aid in guiding your decisions on what breeds you cross with or what animals within a breed will be of interest to you.”
Ultimately their goal is a decision tool to maximize hybrid vigor, what Crowley calls “that extra bump in performance you get when crossing two unrelated breeds or animals.”
Begin with the end user in mind
In regard to breeding values, the team is looking at how to package and communicate the findings and encapsulate them in one or two easy-to-read figures.
“You can sum up genetic scores in different ways. It may be that a maternal and all around index would be best for the end user, where the economic value of each trait is given its own weighting.”
Since he also serves as Director of Scientific and Industry Advancement with the Canadian Beef Breeds Council (CBBC), Crowley is sensitive to the needs of industry and is closely following their reaction.
“People seem pretty happy with our progress. Research participants are excited about the information they have received so far and glad they had a chance to dip their toes in genomics, so to speak.”
One of their main research partners is Cow Calf Health and Management Solutions (CCHMS). Genome Alberta researchers are working with 10 CCHMS clients and gathering valuable feedback to inform the project.
Another end user for the project is breeding associations for whom phenotypic data and genotypes can be quite valuable.
“It’s helpful for these associations to see how bulls are performing on a commercial farm instead of just being circulated around the seed stock sector. This gives them the opportunity to grab more of the data.”
As Crowley explained, often what go into the genetic evaluation of an animal are its own physical measurements and those of immediate relatives, sire or dam.
“To get a proper evaluation you need to see a lot of progeny perform. Unless an animal becomes the sire for many seed stock progeny, he doesn’t get the chance to show what he can do as there is a disconnection between commercial farms and seed stock farms; this project is trying to close that gap a bit.”
How the end user perceives this project depends on their particular interests. For example, Cargill’s focus is more on immediate benefits and what is being done to improve certain traits.
“They’re looking at the most economically relevant traits such as carcass quality, feed efficiency and female traits. The Cargill representative who saw our findings was quite interested and planned to share them with his staff and colleagues. He liked that we are looking at this from a whole value chain perspective and also appreciated the chance to learn more about this field of study.”
Though there is still a long way to go on the project, Crowley and his colleagues feel they’re on the right track. Given recent events, it’s reassuring to know that listening to the people isn’t always a bad thing; you just have to choose the right people.