Kemptville lab unlocking secrets to breeding better livestock

EastGen part of a global alliance responsible for marketing 11M bovine semen doses annually
Baby cow

Just south of Kemptville lies a high-tech lab at the heart of a $100-million industry that’s rapidly increasing productivity within the global livestock sector.

EastGen’s facility, located just off Highway 416, is a “cornerstone” of a global alliance that markets more than 11 million doses of bovine semen across Canada and around the world.

And while the alliance, named Semex, has been handling overseas sales of semen for farmer-owned artificial insemination companies for nearly half a century, recent technological breakthroughs have accelerated its research. Advances in genetics research have allowed livestock farmers to make more informed breeding decisions that allow them to raise healthier animals and respond to changing consumer preferences.

“There were several years where the industry didn’t change a whole lot,” concedes John McDougall, Semex’s vice-president of global operations. “But now ... the speed at which our businesses are changing is much quicker.”

Genomic testing

While Semex has several sites across Ontario, Kemptville is one of its “cornerstone” production facilities, says EastGen general manager Brian O’Connor.

Brian O'Connor
EastGen general manager Brian O’Connor.

Its 75-acre facility employs 30 people in semen processing and animal care functions and also houses up to 400 dairy and beef bulls.

In 2016, new “state-of-the-art” lab investments were completed at the facility to maximize production.

Born out of a 2011 merger between Eastern Breeders and Gencor, EastGen has carved out a niche for itself as a farmer-owned organization dedicated primarily to meeting the needs of dairy and beef consumers.

“Our customers are our owners, so it’s a pretty clear alignment,” O’Connor said.

Through the Semex network, farmers can access low-cost genomic testing that allows them to quickly analyze their animals’ genetic potential and make better-informed decisions on breeding programs.

“That means higher reliability of predicting the merit of productivity of the animal,” O’Connor explains. “That’s been a huge game-changer.”

Another crucial technology for Semex is a genetics tool named Immunity+ that’s used to identify cattle bloodlines that are particularly resistant to disease. Through a partnership with the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, a test was developed that could identify livestock with higher immune responses.

Farmers that select Immunity+ sires can expect to see a five to 10 per cent reduction in disease in just one generation, with future generations being even more resistant to illness.

EastGen’s Kemptville facility is expected to continue to grow in importance for Semex in the coming years.

In the short-term, the pending closure of a Semex facility in Sainte-Madeleine, Quebec this summer will likely mean additional investments in bull semen operations capacity in Kemptville as well as EastGen’s Guelph facility.

Additionally, with farmers consistently looking for productivity and competitive advantages – and with consumers increasingly looking for healthier food sources – the long-term outlook for the alliance looks bright.

“As Semex grows ... the Kemptville facility will continue to play a very crucial role,” O’Connor says.