How Mother Nature Hedges Her Bets

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Pasture plants are generally classified as decreasers, increasers and invaders. Decreaser species are the plants you want to see and your cattle prefer to eat, so they face the most grazing pressure. Increaser plants tend to thrive when the decreaser species are challenged by overgrazing, drought or other sub-optimal conditions. Invaders (weeds) proliferate when increasers and the remaining decreasers are so weakened by overgrazing or environmental extremes that they have a hard time competing for nutrients, water and sunlight. 
cattle grazing on healthy, green pastures
Healthy, productive pastures are dominated by decreasers. The composition of the decreaser community in healthy native rangelands was shaped by thousands of years of natural selection and environmental pressures. In tame pastures, humans take the wheel from Mother Nature as we seek to establish and maintain a stand of tame decreaser species that can be productive and long-lived in our particular soil and climate conditions. In both native and tame pastures, good grazing managers adjust stocking densities, grazing intensities, grazing and rest period length and frequency, etc. based on annual and seasonal variations in growing conditions to maintain pasture health and optimize long-term forage and animal productivity. Continue reading

Waste Not Want Not

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

When I was a kid, “no dessert if you don’t finish your supper” encouraged us to eat everything on our plates. Others grew up with the guilt-based “children are starving in the third world” approach. There are more than twice as many people on earth today as there were 40 years ago, so issues like food security and “food loss and waste” are gaining attention. Every year in Canada nearly a tonne of food is lost or wasted per person. The federal Food Waste Challenge is part of Canada’s commitment to the United Nations (UN) goal to reduce global food loss and waste by 50% by 2030.  Food waste is more than just the unidentifiable and vaguely menacing leftovers in the back of your fridge. In fact, food loss and waste are defined as any crop or livestock product that doesn’t directly reach a human mouth.

But some of this food loss and waste does reach human mouths indirectly, through livestock. As part of a Beef Cluster project, Dr. Kim Ominski and collaborators from the Universities of Manitoba and Lethbridge and Agriculture Canada are examining how livestock help reduce food loss and waste. Their first report “Utilization of by-products and food waste in livestock production systems: A Canadian Perspective” will be published in Animal Frontiers. Here are some of their key findings so far. Continue reading

On the Road Again

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced significant changes to Canada’s livestock transportation regulations in 2019. Previously, truckers could haul cattle for 48 hours before a mandatory five-hour feed, water and rest stop (unless they were within four hours of their final destination). The new regulations require an eight-hour feed, water and rest stop after 36 hours, with no four-hour grace period. The new regulations could have benefitted from some meaningful science.

Research that could have helped inform these regulations has been underway since 2018. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein and Daniela Melendez Suarez of Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge Research Station are leading a major study to determine whether feed, water and rest stops provide measurable benefits to feeder cattle during long-distance transport. The January 2020 research column described their first experiment, which found that rest stops didn’t clearly benefit preconditioned cattle. Their second experiment is now published (Effects of conditioning, source and rest on indicators of stress in beef cattle transported by road; doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244854). Continue reading

Get ‘em out, get ‘em up, get ‘em fed, write ‘em down… Rawhide!

A version of this article, written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

It’s called calving difficulty for a reason. They’re difficult to deliver, it’s difficult for the calf to survive, it’s difficult to watch it die, and it’s difficult to lose the $1,250 the calf could have sold for in fall. The Beef Cattle Research Council’s 2019 Adoption Rates of Recommended Practices by Cow-Calf Operators in Canada report indicated that around half of all preweaning death losses occur within 24 hours after birth, with a significant proportion of those attributed to calving difficulties. How you help a calf in the first few hours after a difficult birth is critical to determining whether it will survive to weaning or not.

It’s well known that providing timely calving assistance, effective calf resuscitation and colostrum are critical. But how you do these things is just as important as what you do. These calves have already been through a lot – providing the wrong kind of help can make it harder for them to survive. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also harder for you. Continue reading

Are E. coli Really Becoming More Heat Resistant?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

The past few columns have talked about how antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria. The same survival-of-the-fittest principle applies to environmental stresses like heat.

Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli (STEC, including E. coli O157:H7) are the main food safety concern in Canadian beef processing facilities. High temperatures kill E. coli, so for many years large beef processing facilities have used hot water and steam to sanitize knives, equipment, carcasses and meat, and refrigeration to inhibit subsequent microbial re-growth. But if packing plants routinely use heat-based treatments to combat microbial contamination, will STEC and other E. coli eventually become heat-resistant and pose a risk to food safety? Continue reading

What Has the BCRC Been Up To Lately?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

This column usually features research projects funded by the BCRC. This month is a bit higher level view of some of the BCRC’s other activities. Canada’s cattle and beef producers pay the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-off that supports the Beef Cattle Research Council, Canada Beef’s domestic and international marketing activities, and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s Public and Stakeholder Engagement initiative. Provincial beef producer groups decide how the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-off dollars from their province are allocated among these three main groups.

When the BCRC was established in 2001, about one nickel from each Canadian Beef Cattle Check-off dollar was allocated to research. That left the BCRC with a large mandate – to support forage, cattle and beef research and technology development across Canada – but a smaller research budget than some provincial beef groups. These constraints meant the BCRC had to be selective, focused, and strategic. The BCRC selected research projects that provided very direct benefits to primary producers, either through reduced production costs or potentially increased revenues. “Public good” research (e.g. animal welfare or environmental research) was left to governments to fund. The BCRC focused on funding research, but left extension to the provincial governments. The BCRC was strategic; knowing that a small industry investment could attract much larger government investments, the BCRC was careful to avoid fully-funding projects. This allowed scarce producer dollars to be spread over more research projects. The BCRC also oversaw the Quality Starts Here program, as it evolved into Verified Beef Production and now VBP+. Continue reading

Everything Old is New Again – Treating Chronic Mycoplasma

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Cattle were ideally created (or evolved) to consume and digest high fiber diets. Whoever (or whatever) was responsible for designing the rumen so elegantly probably should have paid more attention to the respiratory tract.

The design of the bovine respiratory tract makes it easy for BRD bacteria like Mannheimia, Pasteurella, Histophilus and Mycoplasma to move deep into the lung and find places to hide and makes it hard for the animal’s immune system to counterattack them. The bovine lung is so susceptible to infection and damage that it has been used as an “animal model” of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in humans.

This is a problem because cattle need a lot of oxygen. Cattle need nearly three times as much oxygen as a similar-sized horse just to stay awake and lie around. But the horse has nearly three times more lung capacity than the steer. Lung damage is one of the reasons that BRD hits cattle so hard, so fast. Continue reading

Will the Real Superfood Please Stand Up?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

“Superfood” is a marketing (not medical or scientific) term used to describe foods with perceived health benefits because of exceptional nutritional properties. Google “superfood” and you’ll see numerous lists claiming health benefits for foods like broccoli, legumes, nuts, salmon, eggs, kale, beans, spinach, and trendy new things like acai or goji berries that marketers are launching. Animal proteins are rarely included, with the occasional exception of eggs or fish.

Meat, and particularly red meat, is often portrayed as nutritionally optional. As one example, Canada’s new Food Guide suggested that plant- and animal-based proteins are nutritionally equivalent, but recommended eating plant-based proteins more often. Like similar reports linking red meat consumption to heart disease and cancer, the new Food Guide has been heavily criticized for selective using evidence to support their recommendations. Continue reading

Corn Silage in Backgrounding Diets

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Recent columns indicated that corn’s potential to produce 50% higher silage (and starch) yields than barley may offset its 30% higher growing costs, provided the right corn hybrid is selected for the local growing conditions, and provided growing conditions cooperate. The higher starch content of corn silage also means that feedlot diets may need to be re-examined. If corn silage is supplying more starch to the diet, perhaps backgrounding diets can feed less barley grain, or maybe cattle can be backgrounded to heavier weights with a shorter grain finishing period, provided growth rates, feed conversion and carcass grade aren’t adversely affected.

Karen Beauchemin of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Lethbridge) recently published a Beef Cluster study examining whether replacing barley grain with corn silage in backgrounding diets impacted animal performance and carcass characteristics (Effects of feeding corn silage from short-season hybrids and extending the backgrounding period on production performance and carcass traits of beef cattle, doi:10.1093/jas/sky099). Continue reading

Where Does Short-Season Corn Fit?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Statistics Canada reports that Western Canada’s silage corn acreage has grown significantly in recent years. Nearly 30% of seeded corn silage acres aren’t harvested, suggesting it’s likely being used for grazing. The potential for a 50% higher yield compared to barley may offset corn’s 30% higher input costs, but only if growing conditions are right.

It is critically important to pick a hybrid that can grow under local conditions. A hybrid with a higher corn heat unit (CHU) rating than local conditions provide will not have time to reach optimal maturity before it is harvested or frozen, and will contain more fiber, more moisture, fewer cobs and less starch than ideal. It will also be less palatable and nutritious, whether it’s harvested for silage or left for grazing. On the other hand, a short season hybrid grown in a historically hot area would be ready to harvest before the growing season is over, sacrificing some potential yield. Corn silage that is harvested too late will be too dry, making it harder to pack and reducing silage palatability. Not every year is ‘average’, and year-to-year variations in growing conditions also need to be considered before deciding whether to try corn, or which hybrid to try. Continue reading