Sometimes we limit ourselves because we don’t know our options – or have heard misrepresentations about what is possible. Many past unachievable efficiencies or techniques are now a standard part of everyday life, on and off the farm.
Genetic programs are not an anomaly to this. Most herd genetic “quick fix” solutions are labeled impossible. Yet, many are possible, very quickly, using embryo transfer (ET) technology with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Once considered a relevant tool only for the most elite in special genetic marketing programs, IVF is becoming profitable for progressive dairies of all sizes. The mentality for IVF has shifted. Instead of making a few good calves from one special cow, make an entire herd of ideal cows to optimize return on investment.
Commercialized IVF programs allow for zero disruption of business as usual in your youngstock and breeding protocol. Donors can be aspirated as soon as confirmed pregnant, allowing for normal age at first calving or calving interval. Implantation for recipients is as easy as having breeders skip breeding heats; simply record heat dates. The following week, an ET technician would transfer embryos alongside your breeders in the headlocks.
Smoothly operated, turnkey embryo strategies could mean a day will come when we don’t breed cows with semen, just transfer embryos. In fact, some South American countries have already adopted IVF embryos as nearly the exclusive means to getting cows pregnant.
Lie #1: Dramatic genetic change takes many generations
Generally, you need to project what your milk market could be in the next 10 years when making genetic decisions. It takes over three years for the dairy sire you purchase today to have daughters contributing to your bulk tank. What kind of milk will processors be demanding when those heifers freshen? Keep in mind, even if predictions are correct, it takes several generations of three-year gaps from conception to freshening to create meaningful change across an entire population with strategized breeding.
Let’s say your processor is going to start valuing higher component milk; traditional genetic tools may take a couple of generations to reach your protein or fat goals.
Disregard this delay with embryos. Do it in one generation.
Another instance of an overnight milk market change, consider if an A2 milk-only plant opened down the road. In not much longer than it takes them to acquire permits, you can have a generation of A2A2 calves on the ground. You can do this with your existing herd.
Using embryo transfer tools, you can source embryos or donors who will yield an A2 milk population. The same logic applies to other milk market or facility adaptions, such as transitioning to Jerseys from Holsteins without crossbreeding. Handpick a consistent and profitably aligned next generation with IVF.
Lie #2: IVF is only economically beneficial for elite genomic donors and celebrated show cows
IVF has evolved to be a game for the masses. Historically, the goal was to create as many offspring as possible from one single cow. The mindset has shifted. Create as many high ROI pregnancies as possible. Eliminate low-value females from creating unprofitable calves. Commercialized IVF program goals are to maximize high-value pregnancies and minimize low-value pregnancies.
Instead of culling out low genetic females at various ages to prevent them from eating their way through your heifer-raising program, stop making them. Displace pregnancies resulting from the low end of your herd with an embryo or a terminal cross with beef semen.
If the genetic variation and performance potential in your herd is widespread, you have a significant opportunity cost between a low genetic cow carrying her natural calf and a low genetic cow becoming the recipient of a high-profit future replacement embryo. Remember, in genetics, like begets like. The low percent of your herd’s genetics will always create the next generation of low.
Eventually, with IVF, you will have a herd created solely from the best. It is as close as you can get to cloning – an entire commercial herd of your most profitable genetics.
Lie #3: The best industry standard index animal will be the best donor or mating sire
One of the most important decisions you can make when beginning an IVF program is selecting your seedstock. Incorrectly identifying the most profitable genetics for your operation, with the extreme speed of change IVF offers, can be dangerous. Trusting an index designed to create good cows based on a country’s average index could ultimately end up costing your operation hundreds of dollars per cow.
Collaborate with a genetic adviser to determine which traits are most closely aligned with your milk market, facility and labor efficiency goals. Once your business and genetic plan align, IVF will create the fastest genetic progress toward highly efficient, long-lasting and relevantly productive cows.
For some operations, the most profitable combination of genetics might be to maintain a F1-cross. Embryos allow for repeated generations of this combination, without having to make decisions on F2 or F3 crossbreeding.
Lie #4: Reproductive performance in the summer can only be enhanced with investment in heat abatement systems or high-fertility bulls
While IVF will not fix a broken reproduction program, it can help with your annual reproductive rates. IVF takes some of the pressure off the cow’s ability to become pregnant during summer months. The reproductive system is most sensitive to heat stress during day one through day six after estrus. With IVF, during this phase, the embryo development is occurring in a controlled in vitro environment. Not inside a heat-stressed cow.
With fertilization of the oocyte occurring prior to implantation, all the cow needs to do is have a viable corpus luteum. As long as heat detection is accurate, IVF could positively influence reproductive efficiency during summer months by minimizing reproduction variances.
- North American Dairy Genetic Services Specialist
- ABS Global
- Email Mandy Schmidt