Hays Converter: What next, genomically speaking?

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Frustrated at the Canadian beef cattle industry’s focus on non-production traits in the 1950s, Harry Hays drew on his experience in the dairy and swine industries and the example provided by the poultry sector to create his own breed of cattle—known today as the Hays Converter. Developed from the best available Holstein, Brown Swiss and Hereford genetics available, Hays created the first true Canadian breed recognized under the Canada Livestock Pedigree Act in 1975.

Harry Hayes 

The aptly named Hays Converters are known for their fast growth; tolerance to Albertan winters; trouble-free feet, udders and calving; good milk production; and fertility. The testimonials in the brochure of the very first sale in 1978 demonstrate the extent to which producers were pleased with the new breed.

 Hays Cow-Calf-Pic2

Fast forward to 2014, Hays’s son, Dan, is still in the cattle business with a core herd of 120 breeding females and a breed that has not been actively marketed since 2000.

“We needed to step back to build and gather more performance records to see what we had,” says Hays. “In terms of using those records, I was impressed by what I saw and heard at the 2010 Livestock Gentec conference, after which we moved to the first stage of research, namely Allison’s work.”

“Allison’s work” refers to Allison Fleming’s Master’s thesis, supervised by Gentec researcher Steve Miller at University of Guelph, completed in 2013. In it, she analyzes growth rates, ultrasound and carcass traits and the management of genetic diversity or inbreeding in the herd. The latter is important because developing the breed necessarily involved the close breeding of animals in a fixed population.

“Thanks in great part to Allison and to the expertise and infrastructure at Livestock Gentec and Delta Genomics, we have a multi-trait index that includes over 11,000 animals with DNA-verified pedigrees,” says Hays. “We have a reliable coefficient of inbreeding to deal with that issue going forward. We can phenotype individual animals to identify those that demonstrate valuable traits, and use them to jump ahead. And we can monitor performance to see if they carry those traits forward.”

The work isn’t over…. Part of the ongoing project is identifying any commercially desirable SNPs in Hays Converter DNA and bringing 21st century-style breeding strategies into play.

“Those results will drive the next decisions for the breed. Yes…” acknowledges Hays, “…it’s a risk!

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