Automating replacement heifer selection – demonstration site

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Source: RDAR

Outcomes of this research will enable livestock producers to access a package of heifer molecular breeding data on traits that are economic importance to them. This research will provide livestock owners a more complete picture of heifer value compared to providing these same results in isolation.

How will this research impact Alberta’s agriculture industry?

Genomics-based solutions have the transformative power to advance Alberta’s agriculture sector for greater productivity and performance.

Commercial beef cattle selection processes are typically subjective in nature with low reliance on new technology.  Lakeland College aims to create a demonstration site for beef commercial heifer testing.  Unlike bulls which have breeding soundness evaluations, commercial heifers rarely get tested for their reproductive efficiency or soundness.

Surveys have shown reproductive issues represent the main reason for culling females, and often before reaching 3 years of age. Unfortunately, thorough reproductive assessments of female commercial beef cattle are often only done visually, if done at all.

Research objectives are to evaluate and classify yearling heifers using genotypes and phenotypes as indicators of cow reproductive efficiency and longevity. A complete assessment at the demonstration site will involve aspects of conformation, temperament, production performance and genetics, including recording body temperature, activity and behaviours that determine estrus.

Observing such predictive aspects of reproductive efficiency are crucial for cattle producers to know to avoid allocating costly labour, feed, facility and land resources to unproductive cattle.

Why did RDAR invest in this research project?

Reproductive efficiency can be improved through more detailed assessments of weaned heifers that identify below average performance and traits prior to exposing them to bulls for breeding. Packaging molecular breeding values and indexes with phenotypes focused on traits of economic importance, will provide livestock owners with a more complete picture of heifer value compared to providing these same results in isolation.

Genetic selection tools for economically important (fertility & carcass) and functional traits (conformation of feet & legs; udder; pelvic area) related to reproductive efficiency, are necessary for sustainable, profitable beef production that supports animal welfare. Assessment of these traits (phenotyping) precedes genetic selection activities. Developing tools for phenotyping that are objective, practical, and economic and can be applied on farm will improve productivity and enable producers to closely monitor livestock performance, health and welfare as an alternative to traditional subjective measures prone to bias.

Through the demonstration site, Lakeland College researchers will also see how the heifer selection technology works in real-life, and that data can be presented to the technology creators and scientists to make improvements to products, processes and research.

How will research knowledge be transferred and shared with producers?

KTT outcomes will include:

  • An assessment of new tool feasibility in different beef production systems (AB parkland
    prairie; Manitoba pasture; and BC forested grazing reserves);
  • Development of interpreted reports based on new indicators for assessing beef cattle
    reproductive efficiency;
  • Research articles, factsheets and frequently asked questions related to the most promising
    technology/tools.

Through a combination of student labs, guest lectures and field trips this project will engage
the diploma and degree students with potential end users of such technology in assisting to
complete cattle reproductive efficiency outcomes.

Mentoring and train the trainer models could be implemented as tech-savy students are able to train
older generation ranchers or offer livestock data interpretation services to aid future
technology adoption.

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