Enhancing knowledge is a worthy goal, but it won’t buy you a new barn. With that in mind, researchers on the Genome Alberta beef cattle project took aim at tangible benefits for producers. Given their progress in developing more accurate genomically-enhanced breeding values for the commercial cattle industry, they seem to have hit the mark.
“One of the most notable outcomes is the commercialization of EnVigour HX™,” said Dr. John Basarab, co-lead on the project, adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry.
EnVigour HX™ is the first made-in-Canada genomic tool for crossbred beef cattle, combining parentage verification, genomic breed composition, and a simple Vigour Score (assessment of hybrid vigour) to assist in replacement selection.
“Genomic breed composition tells you the level of hybrid vigor in an animal. That level is vital as it relates to female fertility, survivability and longevity, as well as the health and resilience of her offspring. Cow herds can range from 5% hybrid vigor for purebred animals to 75-80% for highly crossbred cows. Hybrid vigor is a genomic measure critical to the profitability and sustainability of cow herds across Canada.”
The economic advantage of a high vigor female is substantial, amounting to well over $150 per female over a five year period.
As well, researchers made progress in creating the more accurate molecular breeding values, with accuracy of 35% and higher for 18 traits. They also developed two multi-trait selection indices – one for feeder profit and one for female fertility and lifetime productivity. Going forward, they will be refining those indexes and ensuring they work in a commercial setting to create value for producers.
In a way, this project achieved the best of both worlds by combining immediate success with long-term potential.
“EnVigour HX™ is exciting because we can see the benefit right away. If a producer makes the right breeding choices for his cross-bred cows, he could reap the rewards the next year. Genomic selection, on the other hand, is slow and cumulative, involving good, steady, incremental progress over a greater period. The good news is that we know long term genetic selection for traits like feed efficiency works; it just takes time.”
While industry is sure to benefit from this research, the impact on the participants bodes well for future projects.
“Professional development of our team members was very important to us,” said Dr. Basarab. “We have some key individuals from the project that have gone on to various international universities and organizations. Dr. Mohammed Abo-Ismail has been hired on by California Polytechnic State University, where he will continue his genetic work. Dr. John Crowley – a co-lead on the project – recently joined AbacusBio, a highly respected science and technology firm operating from offices in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.”
Some of the collaborations from the beef cattle initiative will live on as well, such as the partnership with Dr. Donagh Berry, a research officer and statistical geneticist based in Ireland.
Though this project is winding down, it has spawned a new effort to take the next step.
“Our next research program is a five year beef cattle project that will work on all the data we have now. We have a new PhD joining us in the form of Cameron Olsen -an Alberta native - and a post-doc named Dr. Tiago Da Silva Valente coming on board from Brazil. Dr. Olsen will likely validate the indexes developed by Dr. Valente against the commercial cattle industry to ensure maximum impact for producers.”
From a technology transfer standpoint, this project has contributed to important advances in animal management, breeding and genetics. If the research mission was to make a meaningful difference for the Canadian cattle industry, the outcome is clear.