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Sleeping with the devil or a new beginning – you choose

Nutrition with John McKinnon

Many of you may be aware of a recent donation of $5 million by A&W to the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence. I am sure this donation took many in the ranching and feeding community by surprise and there are likely a few of you who are wondering about the sanity of those in charge of this great institution. I must admit that when I first heard of this partnership I had the same thoughts; however, after meeting with A&W corporate personnel and learning about their intent, and more importantly, their commitment to enhancing the Canadian beef industry, I really believe that this partnership has the potential to mark a new beginning for our industry. Let me give you the background and you can decide which part of this article’s title applies.

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The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE) is a partnership between cattle producers, the Province of Saskatchewan, the federal government and the University of Saskatchewan that is designed to foster innovative research, training and outreach. The centre is currently being constructed in three phases on land near Clavet, Sask. Phase 1 involves construction of the Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit (BCRTU) which includes a 1,500 head intensive feeding facility and a 24 head metabolism facility. Phase 2 involves moving the 350 beef cows from the Western Beef Development Centre at Lanigan, Sask., to land and facilities adjacent to the BCRTU. Construction on Phase 1 and 2 is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2018. Phase 3 involves renovations to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Goodale Research Facility, which focuses on reproductive studies in beef cattle as well as equine and native hoof stock research. The LFCE will be a laboratory for Canadian and international scientists that will allow them to focus on emerging issues related to health, nutrition, genetics, public safety and plant breeding as well as on environmental issues facing the industry. Most importantly, it is designed to break down barriers between academics and beef producers, and between colleges and academic units in order to bring scientists from across disciplines together to promote an integrated approach to solving industry issues.

So where does A&W fit? First, let’s state the obvious — many beef producers in this country are, to say the least, furious with A&W’s beef commercials. I would count myself in this group. However, as I indicate above, when you talk with A&W corporate personnel, you very quickly get an appreciation that first and foremost they are committed to their customers, and second, they are committed to serving great Canadian-sourced food whether that is beef, pork or poultry. Through discussions leading to this donation, it was very evident that this company wants to facilitate the growth of the entire Canadian beef sector, and more importantly, to promote this growth by ensuring consumer confidence in Canadian beef. Their message was clear — a healthy Canadian beef industry is good for business for producers and retailers alike! It was also evident that this company knows its customers and does a great deal of research to keep abreast of consumer attitudes, an area of research that unfortunately has not seen a lot of industry funding.

Evidence of A&W’s commitment to all-Canadian beef is evident when you look closely at the terms of their donation; $3 million will be directed towards construction of the Livestock and Food Research Building which houses the metabolism wing. This building will be at the heart of basic and applied digestive physiology, nutrition and health-related research. Our concept when designing this facility was that basic research conducted in this facility will transfer to small- and large-pen studies involving industry partners that, in turn, will provide proof of concept as well as commercial viability of the research. Further, $1 million will go to creation of a visiting scholarship in “one health” research. This research bridges human, animal and ecosystem health and could include holistic approaches (human and veterinary medicine) to antibiotic resistance, vaccine development, food safety, beef quality and environmental stewardship, all critical issues to the Canadian public. Finally, $1 million will be directed to outreach — development of innovative methods to transfer research results and novel technology to beef and forage producers in a manner that will enhance uptake.

In addition to their funding, A&W will also bring one other critical piece of the puzzle to this multifaceted approach to beef and forage research: that being the fact that they have direct consumer contact and knowledge of purchasing decisions. It is great to have producer and government input into research programs at publicly funded institutions; however, if we don’t consider and react to consumer demand, then we will always be one step away from achieving industry’s goal of having Canadian beef globally recognized for its superior quality and trusted for its wholesomeness. With A&W and other industry partners, we will have this input at the LFCE.

So, you decide — sleeping with the devil or a new beginning? Personally, I am looking at this as a new beginning that enhances and focuses our research to the betterment of the Canadian beef industry and who knows, perhaps we will even see new commercials as this partnership unfolds!

About the author

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John McKinnon is a beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Saskatchewan.

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