Beef cattle researchers get selective


Source: Genome Alberta, Geoff Geddes

If you’re a researcher who thinks accuracy is overrated, it may be time to update that resume. As any good research scientist will tell you, the greater your precision, the greater your progress. That’s especially true for cutting edge work like the Genome Alberta project to apply genomically-enhanced breeding values to the cattle industry. In seeking to improve feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in beef cows, Genome Alberta scientists know that the accuracy of their selection decisions is paramount, so enhancing that accuracy is a top priority.

“One of the main things that influences rate of genetic gain is the accuracy of your selection decisions,” said Dr. John Crowley, Director of Scientific and Industry Advancement with the Canadian Beef Breeds Council and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta.

Along with genetic variation of traits being targeted, generation interval (how quickly generations of breeding animals turn over) and selection intensity, accuracy of selection is a key piece of the puzzle in maximizing results for the beef industry.

Knowledge really is power

“To improve selection accuracy, we need to increase the accuracy of breeding values, which rank animals for the genetic merit of different traits. One way we do that is through the addition of new data regarding growth traits, fertility traits or carcass traits. The more data we have, the stronger our breeding values, so adding to our knowledge base is critical.”

Using that data, researchers are applying the functional information they collect to weigh genotype markers and give more importance to ones that most impact the industry.

“So far, we have seen our predictive accuracy improve thanks to better statistical methods and the incorporation of new data. The functional piece holds a lot of promise, and while we don’t have solid numbers as yet, the preliminary results show a lot of benefits, especially for cross-bred populations.”

For producers, one of the main advantages of greater accuracy is that it gives them more confidence in their selection decisions. As in any business, time is money, and more accurate decisions can go a long way to improving the rate of genetic progress.

Given the goals of the project, the results to date are gratifying for Dr. Crowley and his colleagues.

Progress on precision holds promise for producers

“We theorized that if you look at certain data in a certain way, you should be able to make progress, and today we’re seeing that theory borne out. At the beginning of this project, we aimed to increase the accuracy of selection by generating more exact breeding values, and that is what we’ve been able to do. In the process, we’ve managed to deliver more precise results to producers involved in the project, which is satisfying to see.”

With some solid results in their pockets, the next step for researchers is switching their focus a bit from carcass and growth traits to maternal traits as they look to expand their reach and generate even more solutions for industry.

On a personal level, the next step for Dr. Crowley will see him departing for new opportunities at the Edinburgh office of AbacusBio, an international leader in agribusiness consulting. In his new role, Dr. Crowley will help the company apply world-class scientific research and advanced technology to improve agricultural systems and products.

Picking up where he left off is Dr. Changxi Li, Research Scientist in Beef Genomics with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and AAFC Professor & Chair, Bovine Genomics in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta. Dr. Li brings extensive experience in breeding and genetics, which he can apply in making more breakthroughs for the beef cattle industry. And with credentials like that, he’s bound to be a stickler for accuracy.


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