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In vitro fertilization: It’s not just for seedstock anymore

Jeremy Howard for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 July 2019
Cattle at feedbunk

In vitro fertilization (IVF) on commercial dairies has steadily increased over the past few years. While the technology was originally limited to seedstock herds due to the higher cost per pregnancy, recent advances have made it more affordable.

Now, IVF is a flexible technology that can be applied in many situations on a dairy.



When examining the possibility of adopting a new technology, a producer first needs to analyze how it can be used to accomplish the goals of an operation. The costs need to be analyzed on a long-term basis with costs offset by the overall long-term improvement of the herd. While the cost of IVF is higher than at the onset, it may be lower over the long term.

IVF for genetic advancement

Improve in-house genetics

One of the most reliable ways to increase herd performance and make lasting changes in production efficiencies is to increase the rate of genetic advancement. IVF programs have been shown to increase selection intensity and reduce generation intervals, resulting in increased genetic gains.

When combined with genomic testing, IVF can allow a producer to make a tremendous amount of progress in a short period of time. The use of genetic markers to predict the phenotypic merit of animals allows them to be sorted and subsequent breeding decisions made.

The combination of these technologies allows for the identification of genetically superior females that can be used to generate replacement females for the herd through IVF, thus moving the genetic needle faster than previously possible. The cost for producing embryos from the operation’s own cattle varies by the service provider for the IVF process, number of oocytes recovered and resulting embryos produced. Depending on the pregnancy rates that are obtained, cost per pregnancy can range from $200 to $800.


Make genetic investments

IVF use on commercial dairies has led to the development of a larger market for embryos. Several companies and farms have enlarged their selection or now offer embryos for sale. This availability provides a producer looking to test the waters of IVF a feasible way with lower up-front costs and management changes. Additionally, there is the flexibility of purchasing genetics outside of their current pool. The price for embryos can range from $50 on the low end to $800 or more on the high end.

Change breeds and crossbreeding

With the changing economic conditions in the dairy industry, some farmers have a desire to change breeds or to add crossbreeding to their herd. IVF is a great tool to accomplish this. A producer can transplant embryos of the desired genetic makeup into the animals they currently have. An example is a producer who wants to convert the herd from Holstein to Jersey: They can purchase Jersey embryos and use their Holstein cows as recipients. Another example is an operation that wants to maintain a herd of F1-cross animals, such as first-generation Holstein-Jersey crosses. To accomplish this, they continually implant F1-cross embryos into the F1-cross cows to maintain an F1 herd.

Again, the pricing for these embryos is very similar to either the in-house IVF or the purchased options. It is entirely dependent on which avenue would allow them to reach their operation’s goals.

Reproductive efficiencies

Repeat breeders


Transferring an embryo instead of conventional A.I. breeding could bypass certain causes of infertility. A study from Japan investigated the effect the transfer of IVF-produced frozen thawed embryos had on reproductive rates in repeat-breeder (three or more breedings) lactating Holstein dairy cattle. For this study, animals were split into two treatment groups and either inseminated or not inseminated with semen. The data in this study indicated IVF embryos can be used to improve pregnancy rates in repeat-breeder dairy cattle.

Overcome the effects of heat stress

During times of heat stress, reproductive rates can fall as much as 50 percent. Because of the negative correlation between heat stress and reproduction, researchers have looked at what initiates this reduction in fertility and how it can be overcome.

Studies using either fresh, super-ovulated embryos or IVF-produced embryos during times of heat stress show increased pregnancy rates when compared to A.I. breeding. Those studies comparing fresh and frozen embryos to A.I. are limited, yet have shown tremendous promise. In a published study, researchers at the University of Florida and Texas A&M found fresh and frozen embryos had higher pregnancy rates than A.I. Animals receiving a fresh embryo had a pregnancy rate double that of semen insemination, and those receiving a frozen embryo had a higher pregnancy rate compared to A.I.

The decision to use embryos to overcome the effects of heat stress is highly dependent on the reduction in reproductive efficiencies. Researchers at the University of Florida examined the cost per pregnancy when using embryo transfer (ET) or A.I., if pregnancy rate in the summer is 15 percent to A.I. using conventional semen and 25 percent using ET with sexed semen. It would cost $1,157 to produce a female pregnancy using timed A.I., $1,042 to produce an embryo using an oocyte harvested by ultrasound and $820 to produce an embryo using an oocyte recovered from a slaughterhouse ovary. Based on their findings, the IVF embryo derived from a slaughterhouse ovary is the least-cost option for pregnancy creation.

Economic value of calves

Over the last couple of years, the use of beef semen in the dairy industry has increased exponentially, resulting in a very robust beef-on-dairy calf market. Additionally, the market has developed for straight beef calves. In this system, straight beef embryos are transferred into dairy recipients, resulting in a full beef calf at the end of gestation. This growing market has the potential to allow producers to see higher premiums for the resulting calves.

IVF can be used to increase efficiencies of production on many dairy operations. This tool is very flexible and can be applied in many ways to meet the needs of an operation. It allows for greater rates of genetic advancement, greater reproductive efficiencies and provides an opportunity for a greater return on animals leaving the operation. As with any decision, perform a cost-benefit analysis prior to the application of this technology to determine if it is right for your operation.  end mark

PHOTO: Some commercial dairies are using IVF to convert their Holstein herds to Jerseys or to maintain F1 Holstein-Jersey crosses. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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