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Aurora Ridge Dairy achieves success with IVF, ET technology

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 29 June 2018

Aurora Ridge Dairy propagates only the “elite of the elite” heifers and adheres to a disciplined plan for keeping nothing but the best offspring in the herd.

The central New York dairy is home to a high-producing herd of registered Holsteins, including 2,250 cows and 2,250 head of youngstock. “We breed for total performance so we can have a great cow,” says Dave Harvatine, who is one of four partners in the dairy. “I don’t think we’ve truly maximized the genetic potential as far as performance.”

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Harvatine handles all things related to genetics and reproduction, including the in vitro fertilization (IVF) program. He is a firm believer in the power and potential of genomics and genetics, and he demonstrates that by adhering to a “keep the best, sell the rest” mantra.

All heifers are sampled and genomic tested within the first month of birth. “We keep the best 80 of 100 heifers born in the month and sell the rest,” he says. “Over time, the genetic level of heifers we cull has gotten a lot higher, and the level of those we are keeping has gotten better too.”

He carefully manages heifer inventory to meet the dairy’s replacement needs. With the parlor maxed out, he focuses on creating the right number of the best cows possible. “The math is simple. We don’t need to run a high cull rate. If we only need 70 heifer calves this month, we’ll cushion that and shoot for 80,” he explains. “If three-quarters are carrying a heifer calf, and we are getting 60 to 65 heifer calves out of heifers, then we only need 15 heifer calves out of our cows.”

By breeding 40 percent of the milking animals to Angus, Harvatine keeps his eyes on making genetic progress through the herd’s up-and-coming females. Reproductive technologies like embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization and sexed semen help him achieve that.

The “elite of the elite” heifers are conventionally flushed on the farm at around 9 to 10 months old with the goal of being bred by 13 to 14 months old. Pregnant heifers are transferred to an IVF facility a few hours away in Pennsylvania, where they are boarded and aspirated.

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Harvatine defines “elite” by looking at all heifers born within a one- to two-month window and pulling out the top handful based on genomic TPI, with consideration also given to net merit, type and udder composite traits.

“I prefer to look at all genetic information, and I still look at linears on the female and bull sides,” he says. The same applies when purchasing a donor female. “Sometimes I prefer the +2740 versus the +2800 animal because she may have better linears or a lower somatic cell count.”

Harvatine focuses primarily on heifers as both donors and recipients. “I’m big on getting cows in calf and fresh again,” he says. “Before IVF, we did ET on 2-year-olds, but then they got out on days in milk. For me, I want to see milk cows get cleaned up and get in calf.”

Embryos resulting from IVF are frozen and shipped back to the dairy to be implanted. In the past, they used fresh embryos; however, the timing of shipping, receiving and implanting was a challenge. Currently, conception rate on the frozen embryos ranges from 52 to 55 percent, with the best reaching 60 percent. Oocyte recovery from some donors has resulted in as many as 20 eggs every two weeks.

The conventional flushes tend to result in more pregnancies. Conception rate on fresh embryos is anywhere from 75 to 90 percent and 60 to 70 percent on frozen embryos. Harvatine usually sees four or five embryos recovered per donor.

With the goal of making pregnancies, only those embryos with the best chance for survival are implanted. “We focus on transferring grade 1 embryos from IVF and try to get as many of the conventional embryos in fresh,” he notes. “It adds up in recipient costs with an extra 21 days on feed if you are putting in ‘junk’ eggs.”

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Harvatine identifies four important factors that drive the success level of flushes, aspirations and pregnancies:

1.  Select donors that respond well. “Whether doing an IVF or conventional flush, you’ve got to have a maternal side that ‘works,’” Harvatine says. Based on his experience, some cow families tend to produce more viable eggs than others. “It seems like you get some families that work and others that don’t,” he adds.

With plans for a collection facility and a lab right on the farm in the near future, Harvatine looks forward to gaining even tighter control over this process. This will allow him to remove heifers producing fewer oocytes from the program promptly. “Once we have it on our own farm, we will work the ones with single-digit results less and swap them out for another one,” he says.

2.  Strong heats in recipient heifers. “Heat detection on recipients is huge when it comes to looking at the pregnancy rates on conventional flushes and IVF,” Harvatine emphasizes. In the past, that meant physically observing for heats five to six times a day for two days straight.

These days, however, the human error aspect has been removed, and Harvatine relies heavily on an activity and rumination monitoring system to tell him which heifers should receive eggs. For example, the heifers that come in heat on Sunday are eligible to receive embryos on Monday. Heifers receive monitoring collars at 11 months.

3.  Healthy recipients. Harvatine is a firm believer in doing things right every step along the way, and it begins in the calf barn. He affirms, “It helps that we do a dang good job with calves.” He sees the benefits in growth and gains among the dairy’s heifers after building a new calf and heifer facility a few years ago.

Calves receive pasteurized milk twice a day as well as a vaccination protocol to protect against infectious and respiratory diseases. Harvatine avoids keeping too many youngstock in a pen during this vital growth stage.

“We need to get as much gain as we can in those first six months,” he says. “We don’t overcrowd at all.” Controlling the number of heifers raised by selling those with the lowest genetics allows animals to thrive and reach breeding age efficiently.

4.  Attention to details and dollars. Harvatine keeps close tabs on the money invested into flushing and IVF. He tracks every cost involved with the process and breaks it down to the cost per embryo. “The variable cost of freezing I don’t care much about, but you have to dilute the fixed cost per cycle,” he says.

Fixed costs include boarding heifers at the IVF site, aspiration and semen. “We look at the cost per live calf and spread out that cost,” he adds.

He also feels it’s important to stay on top of the number results as they become available and to develop a plan and adhere to it. It takes discipline to appreciate the delayed gratification of a genetics program that combines investments in genomics and reproductive technology.

“You’ve got to be committed to the long term instead of the short term,” Harvatine says. “If you start today, you won’t see results for 10 or 11 months.”

However, Harvatine knows patience is rewarded. In his 17 years on the dairy, genetics, complemented by other improvements to cow comfort, nutrition and management, are paying off.

“I remember the days of lots of ketosis and mastitis and hard-breeding cows,” he says. “Now, we are just shy of 90 pounds of milk [no rBST] per cow with 4.0 butterfat and 100,000 somatic cell count. We can see it now … we are just breeding a better cow.”  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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