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In vitro fertilization: Should commercial dairies take the plunge?

Dave Wilkins Published on 31 December 2014

Most dairy producers have probably heard that in vitro fertilization (IVF) is expensive but may not know much more about it than that.

It’s true, IVF can be expensive, but so is feed and labor.

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The question is whether an IVF program can boost profitability on commercial dairies. The answer is a qualified “yes” because it may not work for every dairy, experts say.

Registered livestock breeders certainly don’t need any convincing. Many have been early adopters of both embryo transfer (ET) and IVF technology. And why not – they’re in the business of selling genetics, after all.

IVF is a much tougher sell for the commercial dairyman. Still, many producers have taken the plunge in recent years.

Should you join them?

There are two basic strategies now being used to implement IVF in commercial settings.

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One focuses on genomic testing of the herd to identify elite cows and then collecting oocytes (unfertilized eggs) from those cows. The oocytes are sent to an IVF lab, where they’re fertilized with conventional or sexed semen and placed in an incubator. The resulting embryos are ready to be transferred to recipient animals in about a week.

With the second strategy, ovaries are harvested from cull cows immediately after slaughter, bypassing the need to collect oocytes from live animals. The ovaries are sent to an IVF lab, where the oocytes are removed, and from there the process is very similar to the first strategy.

Dean Lusk, a veterinarian from Jerome, Idaho, believes a compelling case can be made for IVF. He recently began offering the service to commercial dairies and is one of the few vets in the state to do so.

The first step is to identify the top-performing cows in the herd through genomic testing and then use those elite cows as IVF donors.

“Guys have to be believers in the genomics testing, and they have to see the results of that testing. Then they have to be willing to front the money for three years before they see a return on that investment,” he says. “It pays for itself, but it’s a three-year investment.”

Waiting three years for a return on investment might seem like a long time, but IVF may be one of the quickest ways to improve the overall genetics of a herd.

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Consider that on average, milk cows in Idaho stick around for about 1.5 lactations before they’re culled. They may produce a couple of calves (one likely a bull) before they go, “but the likelihood of you getting a lot of replacement animals out of your very best cows is pretty slim,” Lusk says.

The reproductive math changes dramatically with IVF. Suddenly, it’s possible for one genetically elite cow to produce 50 or more heifer calves in one year, experts say.

One of the advantages of IVF is that it doesn’t interrupt production, Lusk points out. Oocytes can be aspirated from donor cows every week to two weeks – even throughout the first four to five months of pregnancy.

Collecting ovaries from cull cows after slaughter is another way to go. It’s a strategy being used by several large dairies in California.

Some are sending as many as 150 to 200 cows to the slaughterhouse per week, so there are plenty of ovaries available to produce embryos at low cost, says Alex Souza, a University of California Extension dairy adviser for Tulare and Kern counties.

“This is doable in the U.S. because of the concentration of Holstein cows, for example, going to a single, large slaughterhouse that is located in a dairy area,” he says.

While the slaughterhouse strategy doesn’t focus on genomic testing or elite cows, it still has the potential to improve overall performance of the herd by getting the most out of high-value sires.

With IVF, less semen is needed than in typical A.I. or ET procedures because the oocytes are fertilized in small dishes. One straw of semen can fertilize oocytes from as many as 15 different donors, allowing breeders to make the most of rare or expensive semen.

“If you can use a single straw for 500 oocytes, you don’t buy $15 semen, you buy $200 semen,” Souza says. “It’s going to be an outstanding sire. Even if the cows are not the very best ones, the offspring are going to be pretty decent.”

Souza sees the slaughterhouse strategy as primarily a means to improve conception in lactating cows during the summer months when heat stress often takes its toll.

So which is better, the elite cow/genomics strategy or the slaughterhouse strategy? Both have their place, Souza says.

“I don’t think one strategy is better than the other; they are simply different tools that need to be used according to the herd’s goals in terms of expansion and/or improving reproductive performance,” he says.

While IVF is still relatively expensive, costs could decrease as more labs and equipment are set up in the U.S.

Many of the companies specializing in IVF are based in Brazil, where the focus has been on beef cattle. The economics of that business has been in decline, and those companies are now looking to expand elsewhere.

“IVF should be growing a whole lot here in the U.S. in the next couple of years,” Souza said. “That’s my forecast. I think it’s going to grow exponentially over the next 10 years.”

There are some potential downsides to IVF that should not be ignored.

A transvaginal probe/needle is used to collect oocytes from live donors. Cows rarely die from the procedure, but it can happen. Another risk is that some cows may develop adhesions, possibly causing oviduct dysfunction.

Calculating actual costs versus benefits can also be a real challenge with IVF because there are so many variables.

Most cows will produce five to 30 oocytes per procedure, but some may only produce two or three. Poor donors can increase costs dramatically.

Steve Vredenburg, owner of Paradise West Embryo Transfer in Banks, Oregon, recently began offering IVF services to some of his dairy clients. He doesn’t expect it to become a widespread practice on commercial dairy farms any time soon.

“I don’t believe we have reached the plateau of commercial application, nor has the technical application evolved to its most efficient level,” Vredenburg wrote via e-mail from Russia where he was teaching ET techniques.

“It’s a new and useful and often affordable tool, but sometimes it can be a waste of money depending on results that are extremely variable, often frustratingly so,” he wrote.

After weighing the pros and cons, many producers may still decide to give IVF a try in the next few years. Considering that milk prices have been at record highs, now may be the perfect time. PD

Dave Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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