Now: Genetic technology transforms beef, dairy sectors; Then: Pine needles cause pregnant cows to abort

Issue date: MAY 31, 1951. Livestock producers were looking for ways 
to improve herd management and for answers to common health issues.


Earlier this year, the McKinsey Global Institute published a list of 12 disruptive technologies it believes could transform life, business and the economy.

Included on the list were improved internet and computer capacity as well as genomics.

The economics research firm estimated genomics could have a potential value to agriculture and human health of nearly $8 trillion between now and 2025.

For scientists, the ability to explore life at its most basic level has resulted in significant benefits to animal health, breeding and public health because of the development of better vaccines. Researchers have gone from examining specimens under the microscope to using super powerful computers that analyze the building blocks of life.

There have been few major breakthroughs in livestock research that changed the industry overnight. Rather, there has been a gradual accumulation of knowledge to improve animal selection, health and husbandry.

However, the progress of genetic technology is comparable to what happened with computers, when the world transformed from using clumsy DOS units to affordable smartphones.

“In 15 years we went from luggable laptops to iPhones we hold in our pocket,” said beef researcher John Basarab of Alberta Agriculture and Livestock Gentec.

“That kind of progress is what I see is going to go on in the beef industry,” he said.

“It is already going on in the dairy industry. That is what I see as disruptive technology. It is really going to change the way in which the beef industry is structured.”

Science may be moving at a rapid pace, but it still takes time, said Agriculture Canada beef researcher Tim McAlister.

“You don’t have too many eurekas. It is usually a number of small incremental steps,” he said.

“Most scientists go through their career without having an incident like that.”

However, massive computing power and the internet have brought the small community of livestock researchers together to share information at an almost unheard of rate.

“The application of those technologies to information generation is instantaneous. The application of those technologies to real on-farm changes in practices takes a longer period of time,” he said.

The unraveling of the mysteries of DNA is exciting, but there is much to be learned.

“It is like publishing a book where the words are random and do not make sentences or paragraphs,” he said.

“We are starting to put the sentences together in the genomics areas. We still don’t have paragraphs.”

At Livestock Gentec, which is the University of Alberta’s genomics division, there is palpable excitement because this new direction in research could revolutionize animal development as well as human health.

“With the tools we have now, the questions we can ask and the detail that we can look at problems and solutions we can create, are pretty amazing,” said Graham Plastow of Livestock Gentec.

Genetic selection is not new.

More than 20 years ago, the hog industry grappled with a meat quality problem known as pale, soft exudative pork.

Canadian researchers worked out the causative mutation for porcine stress syndrome and over time hogs were selected to prevent this problem.

Plastow expects the future to move even faster.

Computing power doubles every 18 months, and as more knowledge is gained, selection for specific valuable qualities has shifted from pinpointing a single trait to multiple traits.

Genomically enhanced breeding values allow young animals to be scanned at birth so that more value can be derived earlier when qualities such as improved growth, better disease resistance or feed efficiency are found in individuals.

“Where genomics can really add value is for things that are difficult or expensive to measure,” Plastow said.

“It doesn’t really matter if anybody understands it if the product is better.”

Enhanced genetic selection does not mean straying from good management. Feed, the environment and good animal husbandry are still needed so that individuals can achieve their highest genetic potential.

“If we selected for animals that were healthier, we might be able to get away with a bit less management precision, but that is a dangerous route to do.”

Besides improved growth or efficiency, future generations of animals could be made resistant to certain parasites or serious diseases.

Healthier animals could be selected with improved genetic information or they could also be treated with genomically developed vaccines, said virologist Lorne Babiuk at the University of Alberta.

Vaccines have been around for a century, but recent developments have made them more effective.

“We are able to identify the critical features of different disease organisms. We have been able to use genomics to produce large quantities of them. We have been able to combine different compounds to stimulate different immune responses. We know which arms of the immune response are required. The concept is not new. The reach is much further,” said Babiuk.

“Anytime you do something wonderful like that and it saves hundreds of millions of lives, it is a miracle.”

Traditional vaccines are riskier, but drilling down to the basic chains of life with DNA provides a more stable product.

For example, the polio vaccine is a live conventional vaccine. It is cultured many times and accumulates random mutations.

The vaccine back mutates once a person receives it, and the patient could be shedding virulent polio virus into the environment. As a result, someone who is not vaccinated could get polio.

“With genetic engineering, you could actually cut out the specific gene, which makes it very difficult for the virus or bacterium to acquire that gene,” he said.

“In my mind, genetically modified vaccines are actually safer than conventional ones.”

Improved adjuvents are available that stimulate the immune response so bacteria do not grow. This can prevent serious disease, especially in the developing world.

Babiuk’s work on viruses has taken him to Africa, where scientists are working on significant diseases such as the mosquito born Rift Valley fever.

“If it ever came to Canada, it would make West Nile Virus look like a Sunday picnic,” he said.

Farmers look at the economics of vaccines and are quick to accept new treatments, as opposed to naysayers who reject them for a variety of reasons.

However, Babiuk has seen evidence of widespread acceptance in the developing world. Many small land holders are women with a few goats and a family to feed. They can be convinced that keeping animals healthy keeps their families solvent.

The research never stops.

Thirty diseases have either emerged for the first time or re-emerged in the last 30 years. About 70 percent affect several species.

“As we continue to encroach on animal habitat, diseases that were circulating within the animal population away from humans, we now get exposed to them. That is how they emerge,” Babiuk said.

The ability to introduce new vaccines and antibiotics have helped elevate livestock production to the level of efficiency seen today, said McAlister.

“If we removed some of those things, we wouldn’t be able to raise animals like we do today,” he said.

“A lot of those things have led to the improved economics and economies of scale which we have seen.… Some people are advocating we need to go back to the old systems because they are more healthy, but I don’t think they really were.”

Producers who may have once raised a herd of 50 steers on the farm could have lacked consistency because of their breeding background, health care or feeding program.

Modern systems deliver well mixed rations, better health and improved welfare for cattle, poultry and hogs. Science helped make improved animal husbandry more meaningful so that producers could see its benefits.

McAlister credits modern computing power for its ability to collect and analyze significant amounts of data.

“We do experiments now that use so much data, that without a computer I could never analyze it in my lifetime,” he said.

The information is not lost and scientists can go back for review and come up with different conclusions or reassess their earlier findings.

“All the data is stored and we can go back in the future and derive more information than what we were originally capable of doing when we looked at it the first time,” he said.

Disruptive technologies

The McKinsey Global Institute has listed technologies that could create economic ‘disruptions’ and transformation:

  • Advanced robots or robotic tools tools that can perform tasks such as microsurgery or be used as prosthetic limbs.
  • Next-generation genomics that can improve performance — for example, using E. coli to improve ethanol and biodiesel.
  • Energy storage devices or systems that make electric vehicles affordable, bring electricity to new areas and improve grid efficiency.

THEN: Pine needles cause pregnant cows to abort

Abortion in beef cattle, long believed to be caused solely by brucellosis infection, can also be brought on by eating of western yellow pine needles.

This was discovered by the federal range experiment station at Kamloops.

Dr. Tom Willis, station director, told the annual conference of B.C. Academy of Science that the station, somewhat skeptically, undertook the experiment to find out if there was anything to the pine needle theory held by some ranchers.

One of his assistants, Alan McDonald, detailed the experiment to the conference, and he reported that pregnant cows fed pine needles lost about 75 percent of their calves, by abortion or by death before or after birth, and that the check lot lost none. All were double-tested for brucellosis.

THEN: Correct placing range salt dump is important

Livestock provided with adequate salt supplies correctly located on the range, are easier to handle, more contented, healthier and freer from disease and make better gains.

The number of salt grounds needed depends on the topography of the range land, the number and kind of stock kept and other factors. Animals cannot go long distances for salt or water if satisfactory use is to be made of the range. If the forage is uniform and the topography level or slightly rolling, salt grounds two miles apart may be entirely satisfactory. One mile apart is often more satisfactory and even closer is better if the range is particularly rough.

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