Theoretically, all research creates value through greater knowledge and understanding. Yet those who stand to gain from a certain Genome Alberta project – using genomics to develop multi-trait value indices for improving carcass quality and feed efficiency in beef cattle – have a more “concrete” goal in mind: Show them the money. And when money talks in this project, it uses terms like “economic value”, “economic weight” and “genetic correlation”.
“One of the key deliverables on this project is determining genetic breeding values for economically relevant traits of beef cattle,” said Dr. John Crowley of the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, a co-lead on the project and also a research geneticist with Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta.
Those traits include everything from growth rate to carcass weight to feed efficiency. Because there are so many breeding values for one animal, researchers weigh each trait for importance based on economic relevance.
“We derive those weights from a bio-economic modeling exercise using an average production system in Canada. We factor in expenses like cost of feed and income sources such as the revenue received for a carcass, and produce an economic value. Then, based on genetic correlation among all traits, we arrive at an economic weight for each one.”
The modeling is both a crucial task and a very challenging one for researchers.
“Since production systems vary greatly across Canada, we have moved towards a model that is semi-dynamic. There is a sweet spot between having a rigid model and a more dynamic one so that results are both representative of the industry and malleable enough to incorporate everyone’s uniqueness.”
These calculations ultimately produce a dollar value for each animal which helps producers in making the best terminal selections.
“When an animal is to be slaughtered, it’s useful to compare them to their contemporaries. If one has an index value of $200 and the other is $150, it’s clear which is more profitable; so the higher the index value, the better.”
That’s good news for producers who would otherwise be sifting through a lot of information to make their choices. The project’s main goal is offering those producers an easy-to-use genetic selection tool that can increase rates of genetic gain.
The next step is developing a maternal index to identify the best animals to keep as replacement heifers.
As important as the bottom line is to industry, protecting the environment is also top of mind.
“Another goal is properly assessing the costs and expenses linked to methane emissions. One idea we have is to produce a green index that includes things like the carbon credits associated with reducing your environmental footprint. Ultimately that could impact the way we weight economic values.”
With a background in both agriculture and research, Crowley appreciates the potential of this project.
“I grew up on a farm and there are so many decisions involved every day that it’s great to have a nice, usable tool that makes sense and improves your bottom line. When you can deliver that to producers and see them using it and valuing it, it really puts a smile on your face.”
As Crowley pointed out, the research process is really a two-way street. While scientists provide the tools, industry offers feedback on what could be improved and what they want to see next. That reciprocal flow of information ensures that the research remains relevant for the long term.
And whether it’s jeans for your hips or genes for your herd, the better they fit your needs, the happier you’ll be.