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A Technical Access Centre for livestock production

Key industry issues focus on production efficiency, animal health and welfare and environmental sustainability

The Canadian government has been setting up a number of Technical Access Centre (TAC) research programs to aid several industrial sectors. The first TACs were created in 2011 as part of the College and Community Innovation Program.

In September 2017, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced development of a series of state-of-the-art research facilities to be established across Canada. One of these, the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production, was awarded to Olds College.

Kaley Segboer, the business development co-ordinator, says theirs is one of 30 TACs across Canada focused on various industry issues with the goal of providing access to technology that can help small-to-medium enterprises.

“The unique thing about a TAC is that we can tap into any of those other business streams. Let’s say a livestock producer is looking for a new way to package their product or a new way of mechanizing production. We can tap into other areas of expertise across the different TACs to assist in developing a solution,” she explains.

“We are fully integrated with Olds College and focused on beef, sheep and goat industries and we can support research and development involved in these industries. It might be development of new feeds, or testing new equipment for producing feed. If someone has an idea or innovation they want to invest in, we can help. At the meat labs here at Olds College we can do product assessment and tenderness, etc. Thus we can help producers from beginning to end,” she says

The key areas they tend to focus on, however, are industry issues of production efficiency, animal health and welfare and environmental sustainability.

“One of the things we talk about is rancher research. If you are a rancher, how do you research and develop your product? For most producers, this means calves or backgrounded calves. We talk about data management, best management practices, and some of the services that the TAC provides to assist producers,” she explains.

For purebred breeders, this can be RFI (residual feed index) testing. One industry partner, the Canadian Hereford Association co-ordinates the testing for bulls for RFI at the college.

One of the technologies already being utilized in this research is the GrowSafe System, a radio frequency identification-based data acquisition system (RFID), which measures the amount of feed each animal eats. This can help a producer determine the ability of each animal to convert feed into meat. If a producer has more efficient animals, feed costs will decrease.

“The GrowSafe System feed bunks have been around for a while, but we are seeing an uptake in the beef industry for utilizing that data and how it can impact production,” says Segboer. For instance, seedstock producers can determine which genetics are more efficient in feed conversion.

The TAC is also offering another service in partnership with Delta Genomics, to assist producers by gathering data on commercial herds through Delta Genomic’s EnVigour HX test for hybrid vigour, breed composition and parentage verification.

“This testing is relatively new technology so we are offering pre- and post-test consultations with producers to help them determine what the best testing options might be for their operation. What are their goals for the herd? How many cattle do they need to test, for those goals, and how do they collect the samples? On the post-testing side we give them the results and then present some management options to consider. This gives them ways to sort the data, so it’s meaningful for them,” says Segboer.

In many situations, cattle producers have to use community pastures and their cows may be bred to any number of bulls. Even in some purebred herds, necessity requires the cows to be in a breeding pasture with several bulls. Parentage verification can be very helpful, to know the sire of each calf.

“Hybrid vigour scores can be useful when selecting replacement heifers in a commercial herd, to determine which heifers to keep, along with assessing them for desired traits like conformation, disposition, etc. There are baseline tools most ranchers use, but adding a score for hybrid vigour can be helpful because we know that hybrid vigour increases fertility and longevity in cows,” says Segboer. Those heifers will do a good job longer; you won’t have to replace them as quickly, and this saves money. They will be more valuable cows in your herd.

Finding out what tests are available, and how to utilize them, can be helpful for many ranchers. “We have a vast range of tools today, and TAC is here to help bring awareness to the tools and technology available, but we also encourage producers to think about which ones might be most useful in their own situation.” All the tools are not important to all producers. Some are not relevant in certain ranch conditions while others could be very helpful. Every ranch situation is different.

The TAC recently launched in-vitro fermentation testing of new and novel feeds by recreating the rumen environment in the lab. Researchers can see how new feeds might work (or not work) for sheep, goats or cattle. “Samples of rumen fluids are collected when these animals are being processed, and used in the lab to test various feeds and new feed additives — and evaluate their impact on the rumen environment, and the gases that are produced,” says Segboer.

This is a way to collect data on new and innovative feed additives before beginning live trials. “Researchers can do this preliminary testing and easily assess volatile fatty acids, dry matter degradability and measure how they might affect greenhouse gas emissions. This is a great tool we can offer to feed developers.”

Livestock producers and others can also test ideas and innovations to see if they will work. “Alex Villeneuve, a former student here at Olds College, has developed a way to grow mushrooms from the spent barley residue from breweries. When the mushrooms are grown on it, this increases protein in the spent barley — which is otherwise just a waste product. This increases the protein level and decreases moisture, so the student is looking at pelletizing this material and evaluating the impact it has on the rumen environment,” she says.

Teamed with Olds College, TAC has great potential as a teaching environment for students.
photo: Supplied

These are many ways to encourage innovations that may help the livestock industry, fine-tune them and bring them to the marketplace.

“The TAC has a robust confidentiality policy. When someone is in the process of developing a new product, they don’t always want everyone knowing about the idea until it is accomplished and presented to the marketplace. The innovator wouldn’t want anyone else stealing the idea!

“We are working with people who have some really exciting ideas and once they are farther along, we will be able to talk about them. At this point they are still a work in progress. The TAC at Olds College is still new, but we have already assisted in a number of trials,” says Segboer.

The TAC helps people develop new technology and new ways of doing things, and also helps producers access new technology. “The TAC has partnered with the Beef Cattle Research Council on their best management practices and research results webinar series. If producers don’t have the ability at their own place to have internet service they can come watch the webinar here, and ask any questions they might have, in this environment. They can become familiar with it here and then maybe be more willing to watch some of the past episodes of the webinar. There is some great research happening and we are hoping to get it into the hands of producers, so they can use it,” she explains.

The TAC is also able to help people who are doing conferences or hands-on learning activities. Olds College offers full conference services at the college, plus livestock and facilities that can be utilized for learning opportunities.

Olds College students are involved with the TAC projects and services when appropriate, such as the RFI testing. Not only are they a help with the projects but this is a good learning experience for the students.

“We take time to explain to them what’s involved. They learn about the equipment and how it works, the data, and how this information can be used by the producer. In some trials we are collecting blood samples for analysis and the animal health technicians are involved with that. They are getting some great hands-on livestock experience,” she says.

The TAC has great potential as a teaching environment for students. The researchers are working with agricultural management, animal health technology, and veterinary technical assistant students and providing the students with an opportunity to work with exciting new technologies and assist with applied research trials. Some of the international students come from areas of the world that are interested in feed efficiency and animal health technologies and can take this knowledge back home with them, to help them become more efficient food producers.

“We also provide student focus groups where people can talk about anything, such as trying to find out the beliefs and behaviours of a rural demographic of next-generation farmers, how they are communicating, or what are their tools, or here’s a new product and what are your thoughts on it. Discussion is always helpful when rolling out new ideas or new products, or finding out who you might be selling some of these things to in the future, and get feedback. Whether selling or producing, these discussions can be helpful,” says Segboer.

“For example, we’ve been helping produce videos that explain best management practices. We can do these types of things because we have a vast array of resources here at the college that the TAC can utilize. We have a whole farm on site, so it’s economical and practical for us to film here because we have cattle, sheep, three different types of working chutes, etc. When a person is trying to produce videos, often the travel time makes it difficult, and we have everything here on site,” she explains.

The TAC is testing emerging technologies in a life-like setting at the college. “We have a working farm here, calving cows and feeding cattle. We can test new ideas and technologies in our herd.”

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