If that “where’s the beef?” lady Clara Peller was alive today, and held a PhD in Animal Genetics and Biochemistry, she might ask a different question: “How can we develop and apply more accurate genomically-enhanced breeding values for traits of importance to the commercial cattle industry?”
That’s the focus of a new Genome Alberta and ALMA project entitled “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle.”
The project is led by Dr. John Basarab, Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, and also includes funding from several industry and government sources.
“The basic idea is that there is great potential to use genomics in developing multi-trait value indices for improving carcass quality and feed efficiency in cattle,’ said Project Manager Dawn Trautman.
While genomics has shown great value for the dairy industry in terms of improved yields and protein content, that industry largely consists of one breed (Holstein), meaning the population is closely related and predictions are more accurate.
By contrast, Trautman explained that “there are many breeds used for beef production, and in the commercial sector these breeds are crossbred for improving hybrid vigor. As a result, many breeds show a weaker genetic linkage among the populations, which means it’s more challenging to immediately have as high an accuracy of prediction for genomically enhanced breeding values.”
Ready, aim, breed
Through this project, Dr Basarab – along with co-leads Dr. Donagh Berry and Dr. John Crowley, aims to improve that accuracy.
“Their goal is to leverage data collected from past projects and collaborations and combine it with new phenotypic data collected from industry animals and the resulting genomic predictions calculated from this project,” said Trautman.
In doing so, they intend to develop economic models for performance traits that would feed into a final index for breeding decisions.
The project hopes to generate three deliverables:
1.New dataset identifying key functional variants.
2.Genomically enhanced EPDs for 10 traits with greater than 35 per cent accuracy in commercial beef cattle.
3.Two multi-trait value indices that perform well in commercial cattle production.
Seeds of success
Managing such an ambitious project is a challenge, but one that Trautman’s background helped prepare her for.
“I became involved in this project from my role at Livestock Gentec as 'technology translator'. The Canadian Cattle Genome Project was half finished when I started at Livestock Gentec, so I learned about that project from a different angle. Once that project finished, it established the foundation to move the technology into the seedstock sector.”
Now that the beef seedstock sector is equipped to deliver genomically tested bulls to the commercial sector, Trautman sees this Genome Alberta and ALMA project as an opportunity to further enhance commercial production capabilities; but it doesn’t stop there.
“By better selecting for more productive and efficient cattle, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impact of cattle, while also ensuring the sustainability of the industry and future food security.”
Of course, the faster they can improve prediction accuracy, the sooner those benefits can be realized.
Build it up and get it out
“As I mentioned, there is greater genetic diversity among crossbred beef populations. Over time, as the project collects more data on crossbred animals, the accuracy will increase; so one of the challenges is also to build up the database in a timely manner to get the benefits out to industry quickly.”
And in the end, it’s those benefits that drive the project.
“I'm most excited about the possibilities for the commercial beef industry,” said Trautman. “This project has the potential to improve the profitability of producers, while also providing environmental benefits and a better eating experience for consumers.”
Even Clara Peller would be hard-pressed to find a beef with that.
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This is part of a new series of blog posts by Geoff Geddes. He is the communications coordinator for Alberta Pork in Edmonton and also works as a freelance writer/editor for a number of industries, with a particular interest in agriculture. He will be writing about Genome Alberta's latest agricultural research projects.