Can genomics, OPU and IVF take the industry to the 'next level?'

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Could world renowned executive educator, coach, and consultant, Marshall Goldsmith’s book, “Take It to the Next Level: What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There” be used as an example for today’s dairy farms? Is the dairy industry ready to move from the past 75 years of artificial insemination (AI) as the primary way of advancing genetic progress, to using genomics, ovum pick-up (OPU), and in vitro fertilization (IVF) as another combination of technologies that could be used routinely to help take the dairy industry to the “next level” of genetic progress?

The AI industry has been around a long time. Since 1937 when Penn State and Rutgers University Extension dairyman Dr. Enos J. Perry returned from Denmark with a new scientific research-based technology called artificial insemination and established the first AI Cooperative in the United States, the AI industry has flourished. A primary reason that the AI industry became very popular was that the dairy industry very quickly figured out that this new technology quickened the rate of genetic improvement by selecting genetically superior sires that could sire thousands of offspring. Other scientific breakthroughs related to AI also made a huge difference in the popularity of the industry. These included technologies such as the development of semen extenders and the ability to freeze semen for an indefinite period of time. However, AI’s one shortcoming to even more rapid genetic progress was that the technology geared itself to the sire side of the equation and very little on the cow side of the equation.

Now let’s take a look at the combination of new technologies that may continue the advancement of genetic progress, help with cow side of the genetic equation, and take the dairy industry to the “next level”.

  • Genomics – Genomics is the study of the role of nucleic acid sequences in cellular DNA that are associated with animal (including human) performance or trait expression (Cassell, 2012). For dairy cattle, one important current use of genome sequences is to predict genetic merit of dairy animals for economically important traits. The use of genomic testing has helped identify animals, both male and female, with superior traits for longevity, health, production and physical appearance (del Campo, 2013). Genomically testing groups of cattle on dairy farms not only helps identify elite animals, but also identify animals with lower genetic potential.
  • Ovum Pick-Up (OPU) and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) – Transvaginal oocyte retrieval (TVOR), also referred to as ovum pick-up (OPU) or even simply egg collection, is a technique used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization (IVF). These technologies allow for the removal of oocytes (OPU) from ovaries of donor female animals, fertilizing these oocytes with the use of (IVF) outside the body, and enabling larger numbers of fertilized embryos to be available for implantation in recipient animals.

According to Boni (2012) OPU was first established in cattle by a Dutch team (Pieterse et al., 1988). These researchers found that oocyte collection could be repeated as often as once a week without risks to health and reproductive activity. Some of the potential advantages of OPU as compared to more traditional embryo transfer include:

  • The possibility of increased numbers of embryos harvested and ultimately increased number of offspring from elite females. (up to 2 to 3 times more according to Roelofsen-Vendrig et al., 1994)
  • The ability to use OPU technology on pregnant donors as well as non-pregnant donors.
  • Along with IVF, can maximize oocyte fertilization with rare, expensive or sexed semen.


So with all of this as a backdrop, what might the “next level” in technology-based genetic progress look like on tomorrow’s dairy farm?

We may see a significant number of both commercial and registered dairy breeders use these technologies together.

  1. Many will use genomics to determine the elite females on the farm or to purchase elite females from other dairy producers for use as OPU donor animals.
  2. They will use OPU and IVF technologies on these elite females using high genomic sires whose semen has been sexed.
  3. The resulting embryos will then be transferred into genetically inferior cows and heifers on the farm or transferred into “recipient” animals that have been purchased to become surrogate dams.


There are certainly obstacles to overcome before we see widespread use of these combined technologies. These include potential cost concerns, a lack of widespread understanding of the potential benefits of these technologies, and the general cautiousness of many dairy producers. However, if we could go back in time to 1937 and ask Dr. Enos Perry what he felt the greatest obstacles to the adoption of the new AI technology he brought back with him from Denmark were, his answers might have been very similar.

For additional information about genomics, OPU, and IVF and how these new technologies can impact the future dairy industry, refer to the articles and websites below.

Additional references

  • Boni, R. 2012. Ovum pick-up in cattle: a 25 yr retrospective analysis. Anim. Reprod. 9:362-369. http://www.cbra.org.br/pages/publicacoes/animalreproduction/issues/download/v9n3/pag362-369%20(AR521).pdf
  • Pieterse, M. C., K. A. Kappen, T. A. Kruip , and M. A. Taverne. 1988. Aspiration of bovine oocytes during transvaginal ultrasound scanning of the ovaries. Theriogenology. 30:751-762.
  • Roelofsen-Vendrig, M. W., R. Boni, Y. A. Wurth, M. C. Pieterse, and T. A. Kruip. 1994. [Possibilities of ovum pickup in cattle]. Tijdschr Diergeneeskd. 119:61-63. [Article in Dutch]

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Aeon the Terrible    
February, 17, 2014 at 11:29 AM

Maybe solving the reproductive problems, so more cows are bred and calve. The current system, with the average age of cows, just over 50 months, she has two calves, one bull and one heifer, and everything that breeds is saved............genetic improvement?


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