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Genomics on Display at Gentec Field Day

Most days, genomics are like the brainy kid at the back of the class, working away quietly and shunning the spotlight. But on August 22, 2017, they literally had a field day with all the attention, taking centre stage for the Cow-Forage Gentec Tour at the Lacombe Research Centre. 

This year, the focus was on the interaction among cow, forage and genomics. Staff from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, Alberta Beef Producers and Livestock Gentec highlighted innovations around optimizing cow / forage production.

“We were pleased to host about 200 participants,” said Genome Alberta Project Lead Dr. John Basarab, Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry.

Affection for displays

In addition to Basarab’s heifer display with Delta Genomics on the use of genomic tools for cattle producers, there were displays on predicting molecular breeding values and gEPDs and measuring methane emissions under field conditions using the GreenFeed system.

It was a great way to showcase the Genome Alberta research project known as “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle”. The project uses genomics to develop more accurate breeding values for key traits of commercial cattle.

“The data we collect in the project is gathered directly from commercial cattle and the results are deployed directly back to industry,” said Basarab.

“One of the first things we’ve been working on is parentage testing to identify the sire of progeny. In the commercial beef industry, the sire is not normally known, so knowing parentage adds a lot of value.”

Tool time

Even more interesting according to Basarab are some of the genomic tools they’ve been developing such as genomically determined breed composition.

“From that we can determine how much hybrid vigor an animal has. That’s important because a young female that goes into the breeding herd with more hybrid vigor will be more fertile, survive longer in the herd and be more resilient to changes in management and environment. Calves survive better so it’s really a good news story for the cow and calf producer.”

While participants were enjoying tours and displays, Basarab was presenting on the economic advantage of improving hybrid vigor as determined genomically in the commercial cow/calf herd.

“Over the last two or three decades, cross-breeding has become a large part of commercial cow/calf production in North America as it drives large improvements in production efficiency. Cross-breeding can be used to take advantage of hybrid vigor and breed composition where you get superior performance in offspring versus the average of the mother and father.”

Breeding and boosting

Cross-breeding really amounts to a performance boost, and can also be used to complement the weakness of one breed with the strength of another.

“The benefits manifest themselves in fertility, resilience, survivability and longevity. Those are huge things for improvement in production efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of beef production.”

The example given by Basarab looked at high and low hybrid vigor herds and the heifer replacement costs for each.

“The differences were astonishing. They amounted to an improvement of $160 in profit per heifer per year. Those numbers add up in a hurry.”

Unlike some research, the findings by Basarab and his colleagues are seeing real-world application as they are deployed right into Delta Genomics and from there, directly to a service provider.

“The results are not being directed by seminars and presentations at conferences but by a pipeline right to the cow/calf producer. Eventually we will have other outcomes from the project like gEPDs for special traits and multi-trait selection indices. But to keep producers engaged, you must give them things they can use now, not five years from now.”

It was a lot to absorb in one day, but it put genomics squarely at the head of the class.

Class dismissed.

Genomics on Display at Gentec Field Day

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