Reproductive management and genetic advancement are at top speed in the dairy industry, accelerated by the reproductive tools available to dairy producers. Since 1980, Trans Ova Genetics has been leading the way, offering embryo transfer and advanced reproductive technologies. John Metzger of the Iowa division of Trans Ova was at the 2016 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to help dairy producers discover what role embryo transfer, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and genomics play in their dairy operations.
“Embryo transfer allows dairymen to increase the genetic impact of superior females providing one more calf per year out of those really good cows,” Metzger said. While the industry focuses on the donor dam and the genetic potential she offers, Metzger said, “Most programs will live and die on the recipient and the embryo transfer program because it’s the most difficult part to do.”
While IVF embryos are not as robust as embryos from flushing, IVF has recently increased in popularity over flushing because of the simple results. The embryo transfer process involves inseminating the donor and fertilizing the eggs. Once the eggs are fertilized, the embryos are flushed out of the donor and transferred to a recipient.
The IVF process is more like “making a test tube baby,” remarked Metzger. The oocytes are aspirated from the ovaries, put into a test tube and fertilized with semen; then the embryo is transferred into a recipient. Through IVF, Metzger said, “You can produce more heifer calves from a donor in a given amount of time by using sexed semen.” In addition, oocytes can be collected from a donor more often than you can flush a donor.
Metzger emphasized that when considering an embryo transfer program, it’s imperative to make the decisions based on economics, and he provided an example. “If it costs $600 to produce a heifer, she has to pay for that extra cost through her performance. In order to be able to justify that, the donor female needs to be $300NM [net merit] higher than the recipient that you would have normally inseminated to produce a replacement heifer,” Metzger said.
When considering the number of donors needed to produce all the needed replacements on a dairy, the efficiency rate comes into play. The higher the efficiency of the donor in producing embryos, the fewer donors needed.
When it comes to genomic testing embryos, Metzger advised, “Genomic testing embryos depends on the situation. If you have unlimited numbers of recipients, and you’re paying to feed them anyway, it’s probably not economical.” He went on, “The only reason to genomic test the embryos would be to decide if some of these embryos that you’re going to transfer aren’t very high in genetic merit. But if you have all the recipients you need, there is no reason to test them.” In addition, the more you do to an embryo, the more the conception rate is negatively affected.
Metzger jokingly added, “The emotional part of this is that if we have the potential to genomic test an embryo and we find out it’s the highest animal in the world or really, really high, and there is a 50 percent chance it’s not going to produce a calf, that might add more stress to your life.”
Metzger said there are many areas that are key to a successful embryo transfer program. One is selecting for profitable genetics. “The traits that you need to select for, need to bring profit to your dairy, whether that’s milk production, fat production, protein production or longevity, it needs to be based on economics, not just assuming you will pay for it with merchandising extra animals,” he said.
Metzger also emphasized that a successful program needs to be based on improving the entire population, not one individual. Conception rates are also an important consideration. “You can produce all the embryos in the world, but if they don’t become heifer calves that turn into producing cows, then all is for naught.” He continued, “So if you don’t have a really high conception rate, you have a little work to do before you can implement a good embryo transfer program.”
Excellent animal care is essential. Metzger advised, “If you don’t provide the proper environment for these high genetic merit animals, they will not reach their genetic capacity.” Metzger also said the best embryo transfer technician is not necessarily the cheapest option. “This is where the program will either fail or be successful,” Metzger added. It takes a significant amount of time and training to become a skilled technician. PD
Melissa Hart is a freelance writer in North Adams, Michigan.