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Outside of the box: IVF offers options for two Idaho dairies

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 31 December 2014
cow and calves in pen

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is finding its place on commercial dairies, but the way it is being used may come as a surprise.

IVF technology is not new to the dairy industry. For years, it has been used to increase the number of offspring from genetically elite females. These were often hand-picked, high-type show cows or off-the-charts genomic animals. IVF opened a window of opportunity to harvest oocytes and, ultimately, make more embryos from these top-tier cattle.

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In this model, the embryos were implanted into a recipient animal, which might have been an unidentified grade heifer or even a beef cow. The added value in this equation was placed on the resulting calf and its potential to carry on superior genetics.

But hold on … here comes the paradigm shift. Some commercial dairies are now using IVF to add value to the recipient – not just the calf. Others are broadening their focus to simultaneously mass-produce pregnancies while improving genetic gain.

“For some, the purpose is genetics; for others, it is to get cows pregnant,” Brady Hicks explains. As cattle research manager for J.R. Simplot, he has been working with two Idaho dairies taking different approaches to the use of IVF in their herds, and both are finding it offers options and flexibility in achieving their goals.

Kevin Crandall
Cannon Dairy Farms
7,200 milking cows
Two sites:
Shelley, Idaho, and Roberts, Idaho
Goals of using IVF: To improve herd genetics; mass-produce embryos

“My number one priority is to increase the quality of the herd, and genetics is a way to do that,” Kevin Crandall, herd veterinarian at Cannon Dairy Farms, says. However, the way he goes about achieving this goal is what sets him apart from other consumers of IVF technology: he sources eggs from his cull cows.

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Crandall teamed up with Simplot last year to produce embryos from the cows leaving his milking herd. Basically, he sorts off the top end of his cull cow list to fill a semi-trailer load and sends this group of 28 to 30 cows to a specific slaughter facility coordinated by Hicks and his Simplot team members.

As the cows pass through the line, IVF is used to harvest oocytes off of the ovaries. The oocytes are then shipped to a Boise, Idaho, lab to be fertilized, sorted and shipped, either fresh or frozen, back to the dairy. The turn-around time between when the cull cow leaves and when the embryos arrive is nine days.

Crandall and Hicks have completed this process about a half-dozen times. The typical harvest off of a group of cull cows is 400 to 600 oocytes, which yields around 100 embryos. Crandall finds both the speed and success rate impressive, noting that IVF on a live cow usually produces only six to 10 embryos.

“We can mass-produce above-average embryos using IVF technology at an amazing rate,” he says.

The donor cull cows are not necessarily elite; however, they are sound, commercial cattle backed by several generations of good breeding. Crandall’s parameters for determining which cows are eligible for IVF include a production record of 30,000 pounds of milk with above 3.1 protein and 3.5 fat tests. He also considers health traits, history of mastitis and body conformation, specifically feet and legs and udders.

By combining the dairy’s better female genetics with those of proven bulls, Crandall is confident in the strides he is making toward improving overall herd genetics.

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“We are producing better heifers than we would if we were breeding average cows in our herd to an average bull,” he says. “The offspring are above average. They are not superior, but they are well above average for a commercial herd.”

To turn up the speed of genetic progress, Crandall implants embryos in the bottom one-third of his heifers. By using genomic testing and an index specifically designed for the dairy to sort them, he is confident this will improve the quality of the herd faster.

So far, conception rates on virgin heifers lag behind A.I., but he typically runs around 38 to 40 percent with fresh embryos and in the mid-40 percent range with frozen embryos. He is also trying out embryo transfer on cows, but it is too early to determine results.

With his first IVF calves due to arrive soon, Crandall is encouraged by the success he sees with the technology thus far and its promise to improve herd genetics.

“I don’t think this is a fad,” he adds. “As we incorporate this economic model into large dairies, I think this is going to be the next revolution of the dairy industry, combined with genomic testing and embryo transfer.”

Joe Stewart
Stewart Farms Inc.
450 milking cows
Kuna, Idaho
Goals of using IVF: To get problem cows bred back; add value to calves

Joe Stewart was looking for a better way to get one more lactation out of the repeat breeders on his dairy, and he found his answer with IVF.

Every dairy struggles with a sub-group of cows that are difficult to breed back. These cows are often culled for that very reason, stopping them short of reaching their lifetime production potential.

“I look at how much milk a mature cow produces versus a first-lactation heifer,” Stewart says. “The more cows I can bring back for another lactation, the more profitable I am.”

On his dairy, an embryo has become the go-to for cows on their third or fourth service, providing a solution for those that fail to produce a good egg yet have a healthy uterine environment for carrying a calf.

By doing this, Stewart has been able to maintain a 25 percent conception rate among this group of hard-to-breed cows. He applies the same concept to breeding-age heifers. The problem breeders get an embryo instead of being turned out with a clean-up bull.

Beyond the breeding benefits, Stewart has found an added bonus: the ability to produce a beef calf.

Working through Simplot, he sources beef embryos. The company uses IVF to harvest oocytes from culled beef cows that are then fertilized with semen from known Angus sires. Because calving information is available on the bull side, Stewart is able to request lighter birthweight sires to cut down on calving difficulty in heifers.

The resulting beef calves are a good fit for his production system for a couple of reasons. Stewart’s goal is to maintain his milking herd size relative to his land base; thus, growing his replacement numbers is not his priority at this time. Further, the Angus calves are a value-added, terminal project that can be raised in the same facilities he already has for dairy calves.

“They grow well, and they are hardy little calves,” he says, noting that they are raised on the dairy’s existing resources of waste milk and homegrown forages. Both heifer and steer calves are fed out to market weight.

Stewart has raised a few head of beef animals in the past and had an existing customer base for the meat. However, his use of IVF offers flexibility should the situation change.

“With beef prices high, I am taking advantage of what the market is right now, but it is a quick switch,” he notes. “If the market changes in a couple of months, I can just order Jersey or Holstein embryos. Or if there remains a steady market for beef, I can take advantage of that. I see it as a way to adapt to what the market is doing.”

Right now, he keeps 20 to 30 embryos on hand to be implanted as needed. The results of his first beef embryos are coming in now, with some calves on the ground. He estimates another dozen pregnancies in different stages throughout the herd and anticipates that number to be consistent going forward.

Ultimately, for Stewart, the simple economics of getting more cows pregnant just make sense. If he can keep a cow in production, that means another 26,000 to 28,000 pounds of milk, which is more than what he expects out of a first-calf heifer.

“I have net-gained myself 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of milk versus a springer coming into the barn at the same time,” he says. “With IVF, that is worth it.”

There’s more …
There is yet another place for IVF in the commercial dairyman’s tool box: as a means to speed up a herd conversion.

In fact, this is where Hicks sees the greatest opportunity for the technology. In regions where the cheese market demands components, there is a growing interest in the Jersey breed. Some producers are looking to trade their Holsteins for the fat, protein and feed efficiency of a straight Jersey herd. However, achieving this via cross-breeding can take several generations and turn out some inconsistent offspring along the way.

“IVF can produce a pure Jersey much faster than A.I.,” Hicks explains. His company sources oocytes from Jersey cull cows at a slaughterhouse and fertilizes them to known Jersey bulls.

For the dairyman, switching breeds is as simple as placing an order, implanting the embryos and waiting for the calves to drop. Hicks adds, “In one generation, they have a straight-bred Jersey.” PD

PHOTO: IVF opens up opportunities for commercial dairies to add value to both sides of the equation – the cow and her offspring. Among its diverse applications, the technology can be used to mass-produce embryos to improve herd genetics, extend a cow’s productive life, create a calf for the beef market or convert a herd from Holstein to Jersey. Photo courtesy of Simplot.

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