Dr. Mika Asai-Coakwell and Dr. Nathan Erickson
Dr. Mika Asai-Coakwell (left) and Dr. Nathan Erickson (right). Supplied photos.

USask livestock and forage research receives nearly $6 million

Livestock-focused research projects spearheaded by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and USask-affiliated centres received almost $6 million from the Agriculture Development Fund (ADF) and are supported by industry co-funders.

Nineteen USask-led and four VIDO-led projects were provided funding by the ADF, which receives support from both the federal and provincial governments. Two additional projects at USask’s Prairie Swine Centre (PSC) also received funding.  

The ADF is supported through the Sustainable Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP), an investment of $3.5 billion over five years from federal, provincial and territorial governments with the goal of supporting the agri-food and agri-product sectors across Canada. The Sustainable CAP includes $1 billion in federal programs and activities and a $2.5 billion commitment for programs designed by provinces and territories that is cost-shared 60 per cent by the federal government and 40 per cent by provincial/territorial governments.   

Projects supported by this round of ADF feature research in areas including livestock management strategies, innovative animal vaccination and disease prevention techniques, behavioural analyses, genomic development of feed, and more.  

“The cutting-edge research conducted at USask, VIDO and our affiliated centres is changing the way the world approaches agriculture,” said USask’s Vice-President Research Dr. Baljit Singh (PhD). “Our skilled and accomplished researchers continue to create formidable change; exploring new techniques and technologies so we can continue to be what the world needs in our critical agricultural industry.” 

Industry co-funders for this round of ADF funding include the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association, the Saskatchewan Forage Seed Development Commission, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, and the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission.

 

Preventing disease in calves

New research spearheaded by Dr. Nathan Erickson (DVM) at USask’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), Dr. Nilusha Malmuthuge (PhD) with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, and Dr. John Ellis (PhD) of the WCVM is looking to control bovine respiratory disease in calves.  

As Erickson puts it, the beef industry is very “segmented.” He said the goal of this project is to help maintain the health of calves as they transition from the earliest stage of birth and growth into the second stage, or the “feedlot” stage. The project is receiving $157,672 from the ADF.  

“That transition from cow-calf to feedlot is where we really see a large prevalence of respiratory disease,” Erickson said. “There’s a lot of different stresses that precipitate respiratory disease ... Our goal is to figure out the best (vaccination) priming and boosting of these animals to have robust immunity all the way out to that high-risk phase.” 

Erickson said this project is a continuation of research that has been ongoing since at least 2016. He praised the collaborative efforts of researchers throughout the WCVM and industry partners in supporting ongoing research to protect calves from disease. 

Erickson’s team is working with vaccine protocols in which calves receive a vaccine delivered nasally through mucosal membranes, and then receive a booster further down the line. Because of high concentrations of maternal antibodies in newborn calves, Erickson said early injection vaccines aren’t as effective because the maternal antibodies interfere with the vaccine response by partially neutralizing the vaccine antigen. 

The new strategy involves priming calves with mucosal vaccines that can be given almost immediately after birth and bypass the maternal antibody issue. However, mucosal vaccines do not have the same duration as an injected vaccine, which means finding the optimal time to later provide a booster becomes critical.  

Erickson and his team hope to develop the best immunization protocols for calves to ensure they are protected as long and as comprehensively as possible.  

“It’s really about creating memory in the immune response so when we get to the high-risk phase, they’ll hopefully have that memory established,” he said. “Previous to this prime-boost idea, we haven’t had a good way of establishing memory well in young calves.” 

Erickson said their hope is to provide the most accurate information to veterinarians and the producers they are working for to vaccinate calves against a disease that is a rampant issue among feeder calves. 

 

Finding efficient cows

A USask researcher hopes to discover a genomic connection for what makes an “efficient” cow. 

Dr. Mika Asai-Coakwell (PhD) with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources is using a newly developed ranking system to identify efficient cows from among large populations.  

From there, Asai-Coakwell will look to identify genomic regions that separate efficient cows from less efficient cows – and expressions that link efficient cows together.  

As Asai-Coakwell puts it, an “efficient” animal is traditionally measured as one that reaches peak growth with least required supplementation, whether that be food or other inputs. For mature beef cows, the focus is not on growth, rather the cow’s ability to carry and wean a healthy calf. Asai-Coakwell’s new research will look at more specific traits to measure efficiency – and find genomic links between those traits.  

“That end goal, really, is if we can identify the different genomic variations in these cattle that are associated with that trait, you can eventually select for that trait,” she said. “That would be ideal for our cattle industry.” 

Asai-Coakwell received $147,992 for this project, as well as co-funding from the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association. 

She said her research is built off a previous ADF-funded project which developed a new ranking for determining efficient cows, focusing more on a cow’s ability to reproduce while maintaining a healthy weight.  

Asai-Coakwell’s new research will use the new ranking to identify efficient cows across a much larger population, and then single out genomic regions associated with traits that could be selected to continue raising more efficient cows.  

“If we can identify portions of the genome involved, then you can start to breed for a more efficient cow, and at least you can select for the best cows genome-wise,” she said. “The aim is to identify genes. We do want to associate areas of the genome (with efficient cows), and those can give us clues to discover which genes are involved.” 

The benefits of raising more efficient or productive cows extend to all levels of the farming process. Asai-Coakwell said more efficient cows mean less cost and less environmental impact as the industry moves more and more towards increased sustainable agriculture.  

Asai-Coakwell praised the ADF and the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association for continuing to support cutting-edge genomic research and helping her establish herself as a researcher in this field.  

“They have helped me and been really supportive ... it has been the backbone of building this research lab,” she said. 

Click here to view the full list of research grants.