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Building Better Beef Cattle

If you have ever tried building one of those “easy to assemble” desks with your bare hands, you know that the right tool for the right job makes all the difference. This is especially true when the task is selecting the best cattle for beef or dairy production. “Tools for efficient whole-genome sequence association and prediction analyses” seeks to empower industry in the selection process by putting the “easy” back into “easy to assemble”.

“I like to employ the car mechanic analogy in explaining the challenge,” said Professor Graham Plastow, chief executive officer of the Livestock Gentec Centre. “The background is that we have a fantastic set of resources available to help us select the top beef and dairy cows. At the same time, while these resources include precision instruments to tune or improve performance, we don’t always have the workshop manual handy or the best analytics to place in the hands of breeders or producers. We don’t have the equivalent of the instrumentation you plug into a car in the service bay that says what needs to be tweaked or that the oil needs changing.”

This project is looking to develop some of those missing elements, such as taking a $30 - $50 genotype - like the one derived from the hairs of a cow tail – and converting that to the animal’s genome sequence. In doing so, information could be provided to the owner as to whether a particular animal is going to become a top quality steak or wind up as a McDonald’s burger.

“If it’s a breeding animal, tapping into that sequence data can tell you which ones to keep as replacement cows and which should be sent directly to the feedlot,” said Dr. Plastow. “What are the different ways I can use this animal to best advantage, and how can I make that assessment instantly on the computer?  

Scientists want to make use of that capability and combine it with all of the trait data they have accumulated on Canadian cattle, which includes millions of genetic variants on tens of thousands of cattle. Their goal is to do this quickly and accurately, much like the car in the service bay is diagnosed rapidly and with great precision.

Given the large investment of time and money that has brought genomic research to its current stage, Dr. Plastow and his colleagues hope to maximize the return on such investment by better describing an animal’s potential and using that ability to increase the profitability and sustainability of the beef and dairy sectors.

“That is what all of us are trying to do: stay in business and make a product that consumers want, in the way they want it made, so that we have the most tender, high quality beef that is also raised humanely and with a low environmental footprint. At the end of the day, as with any good technology, it doesn’t really matter what goes into the ‘black box’ and how it all works; it just matters that it provides the person making the final decision with solid information and a recipe of options for the best use and outcome for their animals.”

Dr. Plastow’s team is also excited about the emerging “internet of things” and the increasing ability to collect new data on animals as they grow and respond to different environments.

“We now have ways to gather information via Fitbits or drones or GPS. That is what makes this project so timely, as not only are we trying to solve a calculation problem with existing data, but we’re also positioning ourselves to make use of additional data as we go forward, and that is really the future of precision livestock management.”


Building Better Beef Cattle

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