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Industry Highlight: Alpha Phenomics gives the beef industry the full genetic picture

The beef industry is a major contributor to Alberta and Canada’s economies with ​more than 18 000 beef producers in Alberta, contributing over $17 billion per year to the Canadian GDP. The technology developed as part of the Enabling Bioinformatics Solutions project at the University of Alberta will provide the Alberta beef industry with a powerful tool for fast integration of genetic information into cattle breeding efforts. The technology developed in this project will aid in the discovery of mutations that could enhance economically important traits in beef cattle such as feed efficiency. In turn, this could reduce green house gas emissions and beef production costs which would result in increased benefits to the Alberta and Canadian economies.

The team’s findings will provide the Alberta beef industry with a tool for seamless integration of genetic sequence information into breeding practices. In partnership with Alpha Phenomics and support from Livestock Gentec, they will validate and commercialize the results from their research. Alpha Phenomics is an Alberta-based technology company that seeks to provide data-driven technology solutions that positively impacts the world around them through bio-monitoring. The story of Alpha Phenomics begins after the completion of a 2010 Large Scale Research Project where Delta Genomics was founded. After the sale of its laboratory, Delta Genomics commissioned a review of how it could further benefit the beef industry. With the use of genomics accelerating, Delta Genomics believed that the phenotypes (which are the products of those genomic influenced matings) should be measured. Alpha Phenomics focuses on evaluating phenotypes through its multispectral camera technology which offers real time evaluation and data. Their mission is to be the leading precision livestock partner for their customers by providing a fully integrated data capture and analysis platform for precision agriculture and the livestock farming industry.
Using their multispectral camera and propietary pattern recognition technology, Alpha Phenomics is able to measure various aspects of cattle health including Feed Conversion Efficiency. These outputs will help producers improve feed effieiency and reduce diseases and losses in their cattle and could ultimately reduce their green house gas emissions.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jack Behan, the CEO of Alpha Phenomics about the revolutionary work being done in partnership with the University of Alberta under Dr. Graham Plastow, and how their technology will bring benefits to the cattle industry in Alberta and beyond.
Why was Alpha Phenomics founded?

“We started using breeding companies to make superior boars and then did work in cattle. I have seen the way that both species have taken to practically applied technology, and genomics has really helped that. We think that genomics is at a point now where you need to evaluate the phenotype. So, if you see something that is predicted with these algorithms…we’re going to measure it. We are going to tell you if what you’ve predicted is correct and if you need to change anything. We are giving data back to geneticists that enables them to study what they’ve created and to understand further how the phenotype manifests itself, not just what it is genetically capable of. We are showing how the predicted genetic value is shaping up in real time. We believe that using our infrared cameras is a good way to do this. Using the cameras, we can measure the weight, daily fat, lean and bone production within the living animal. This information feeds back into these indexes that geneticists and animal breeders can use in conjunction with the genomics information. If you can’t prove to a farmer what you’re predicting is true, they aren’t going to buy [the technology]. It all comes back to practical application.”

What does the partnership between Alpha Phenomics and the Enabling Bioinformatics Solutions Project led by Dr. Plastow look like?

“What the project is trying to do is to more accurately predict the cattle being born. We are particularly interested in feed intake. We can give them actual values on daily growth and daily gain and tell you if the animal is thermally efficient. This has to do with carbon. From our algorithms we can tell you which are the most carbon efficient (converting plant to animal protein). ​We want to show that those predicted to be most efficient through genomic evaluations are correct. We want to test the genetic sequences in the field and answer these questions. We are here to show that what we are predicting is actually happening and aim to improve this accuracy.”

Who would be the consumer of this technology?

“Globally there are 68 companies that process about 75% of the meat. These are our target customers that are enabling ranchers who want to produce a quality product. The [other] customer, in my opinion, is the person buying the meat who would influence the producer of the beef…One of the challenges surrounding cattle at the moment is convincing people that it is a sustainable supply of protein. We think that we will have an application soon that will tell us which animals are efficient carbon managers…We think that the consumer will drive the supermarket and the packer…but we need technologies such as genomic testing and artificial insemination to be fully adopted for people to make that choice.”

How will the technology being developed in this project benefit the cattle industry, Alberta, and beyond?

“We need technologies that will make differences in food safety, carbon emissions, greenhouses gases, and the quality of protein that entices people to want to use it. Canada is probably in the best position to make changes [and technologies] due to its huge base of researchers, veterinary surgeons, and people involved in food production.”

“Canada aims to decrease their carbon emissions. Western Canada is full of cattle which produce carbon emissions, and if we want a future for the planet, we need to find ways to reduce these emissions. One of the ways to do this is to understand residual food intake and identify those animals that we think are the most efficient… Canada wants to have a sustainable beef herd, wants to be clean, and wants to create good quality beef, this project will help, and then these findings can be applied globally. We are looking at people producing more efficient cattle and Livestock Gentec is a great place for this technology and information to get out and benefit the world.”

This partnership will provide the tools that will positively impact the use of genomics in the beef industry to create more feed efficient cattle that will benefit not only Alberta, but the world.

Industry Highlight: Alpha Phenomics gives the beef industry the full genetic picture

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