The Cattle Conundrum

Markets demand consistency, yet genetic diversity is key to how ranchers adapt their herds to unique environments and management

It’s long been joked that if you want to ignite war in cattle country, start a conversation about which cattle breed is best.  

Other livestock sectors such as poultry and pork have moved to controlled production environments and a narrow gene pool to consistently produce the type and quality of meat sought by processors and consumers.

However, the beef sector remains divided among multiple breeds and production practices in diverse outdoor environments ranging from grain-fed feedlots to the forage-based systems on the wide open prairie.  

There are 26 beef breeds registered under the federal Animal Pedigree Act, 15 of which are commonly produced. Every combination imaginable exists at the commercial production level as producers build their herds one calf crop at a time based on their local conditions and management style. 

Aiming for an efficient rate of gain and good eating quality are a given. But beyond that, producers select for a variety of traits ranging from cows that are easy calvers, docile to handle or highly protective of their offspring. They might also seek out hardy performers under winter grazing systems or those that thrive on a forage-based diet.

“Beef cattle production is kind of unique compared to other livestock production systems, in that beef cattle still very much need to be attuned and come in constant contact with the environment,” says Tim McAllister, principal research scientist in ruminant nutrition and microbiology at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre. “They need to be able to deal with the changes in weather or the differences in geography or production systems.”

For example, the conditions in southern Alberta’s Milk River area are very different from those found further north in the province’s Peace River region, requiring different types of cattle to flourish on both landscapes.

“The best animal is the animal that’s selected in a manner that’s best adapted to the environment that you want it to thrive in, and that could involve different breeds, depending upon your breeding objectives,” he said.

“There’s no one breed that can equally cope with those different environments effectively, and we often use crossbreeding as a method of further increasing the genetic diversity of those animals to enable them to be successful across a variety of environments.”

Differences in environment aren’t generally as much of a factor in genetic selection for swine and poultry production.

“By confining most swine and poultry indoors we’ve removed those environmental variables that we need to consider in the beef production system,” says McAllister.


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Markets want consistency

Streaming all that diversity into a marketplace where processors want to handle a standard size of carcass and customers expect every steak to be tender and flavourful is a never-ending challenge.

“When you select for certain traits, for example, environmental adaptability, you can also change other traits like production efficiency, in terms of how much feed it takes to produce a kilogram of beef. Even the tenderness of the beef can be influenced by that,” says McAllister.

In environments with high heat stress, such as the southern United States, Brahman and other Bos indicus genetics are favourable in breeding programs.

“Those animals are more heat tolerant and they’re more tolerant of parasites as well, but at the same time then that selection for those environmental traits to be favourably expressed, there’s a reduction in the tenderness of the meat as well because of those genetic effects.”

“The Canadian beef industry works hard to produce beef with consistent tenderness, taste and texture,” he said.

“Those have been some major objectives of the industry, but it’s challenging because of that diversity of genetics that we need to enable cattle to adapt to a broad range of environmental conditions.”

This, he explains, is “why you probably have greater variation in eating quality of a steak relative to if you’re talking about a chicken breast, where pretty well all the chickens are produced in a standard barn, at a standard temperature with standard feed for a standard duration of feeding.”

Contributor: Piper Whelan