Dairy embryos become new profit center

If one word could summarize the past five years of the dairy industry it would be "genomics." Whether or not dairy producers know they participated, they have been impacted by this new technology in many ways, and we are only beginning to see the effects.

Based on a series of timelines, including the launch of genomics, advancements by early adopters, the 9-month pregnancy period of a dairy cow, and the two years it takes for a calf to grow into a cow, 2016 marks the year of the IVF (in-vitro fertilization) calf on larger dairies.

Of course, IVF was possible before, but often thought of as a last resort for an infertile donor. With the advent of genomics, it moved from a sparsely used registered herd strategy to a mass-produced commodity. Finally, calves from the resulting technology's second generation are hitting the ground.

Traditionally, IVF produced embryos from elite animals. Accuracy of an animal's evaluation—with a 68% chance of hitting a confidence range around the predicted reliability—would be 62% for parent average, 84% for genomics, 92% for first-crop daughters, and 99% for a fully-proven animal.

Therefore, genomics provides a better chance and 20% more genetic information than parent average alone in finding elite animals before any calves have hit the ground. Because many large farms have production data already, finding elite animals, with an 8.4 in 10 chance that they add up to projected numbers in their genes makes the economics work for IVF.

Jersey and Brown Swiss accuracies trail Holsteins, but can also provide applications for elite donor animals.

Taking it to the Farm

Today, both farms and companies are after the embryo market, using IVF and oocyte pickup (OPU) to turn fertilized embryos, elite and otherwise, into a commodity.

Trans Ova Genetics, an Iowa-based company with endeavors in sexed semen, cloning, embryo transfer and IVF, advertises six company-owned locations and 29 satellite centers around the country, including more than a dozen on dairy farms.

Boviteq, a Quebec-based company, boasts IVF labs in Madison, Wis., and Saint- Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, and seven OPU centers in the U.S.

J.R. Simplot Company, traditionally a potato, crop, fertilizer and livestock company, has also entered the game with their SimVitro embryos, which they hope to produce en masse. The embryos sell for $50 to $150 for average to elite calves, especially for use in herds that want to convert breeds in one generation and overseas.

As the technology has become more available at lower cost, the flow of animals has reversed. Animals used to be hauled to specialized IVF centers for oocyte collection, often traveling long distances and staying for months or years at a time scheduled for collection every few weeks. Today, IVF/OPU sites are moving on-farm, where homegrown or nearby animals can be housed in special care when required and can still take part in regular farm operations.

For example, Cannon Dairy in Shelley, Idaho, might be one of the largest of these new IVF facilities with 7,500 milking on two sites. Farther west, George DeRuyter and Sons Dairy, LLC in Outlook, Wash., opened its IVF facility in fall of 2014 for their 5,000 cow operation. In the south, Avi-Lanche Jerseys also opened their Trans Ova satellite facility in September 2014.

Cannon completed its facility and lab under the direction of contract veterinarian Kevin Crandall. "He with the most uteruses wins," quips Crandall, referring to Cannon's advantages in the genetics game and the vast number of animals at the dairy. In addition to numbers, Crandall says successful dairies need to have a management team who believes in technology. Finally, since he's a contract veterinarian, Crandall costs the dairy the same whether he is doing IVF work or palpating cows.

Crandall's expertise in dairy genetics is new, with no background in registered genetics or dairy at all. He grew up less than an hour from the dairies where he now works, but was in his third year of veterinary school at Washington State University before deciding dairy was for him. One of his externships was at Tim den Dulk's farm in Michigan, part of the Select Milk Producers/Fair Oaks Farm family of dairies.

That experience increased his desire to be involved with large dairies, and after graduating from veterinary school and six months working for a mixed practice, he was hired as a contract veterinarian for Cannon Dairy.

Kevin Crandall explains the features of their IVF facility at Cannon Dairy, Shelley, Idaho.

Picking Up Genetics

When Crandall started at Cannon Dairy, owner Seth Cannon was building a facility to milk 5,000 cows. Construction was finished in 2008. In 2014, in conjunction with a new permit for 18,000 head, a heifer feedlot was built along with a new transition cow facility and calf barn. The facility is called Kettle Butte Dairy, and is complete with an anaerobic digester.

The original Cannon Dairy in Shelley is now used as the special needs area for treated cows and the old maternity area has been renovated into the IVF/OPU facility.

The farm began genomic testing all animals in fall 2012 using the Zoetis Clarifide test. At that point, Crandall still had not done any embryo transfer work but learned from Andrew King, a regional representative with Holstein Association USA, there was a market for recipients.

King sent embryos to Crandall and they began with fresh IVF embryos in fall 2013, with the resulting calves freshening in early 2016.

Crandall learned how to implant embryos from Brady Hicks, a Simplot employee, as they worked on a theory that embryos would improve conception in animals bred more than four times.

"It didn't work," Crandall says of the first experiment. "We were hoping implanting embryos compared to breeding AI at the same time might improve conception. It didn't. So, we continue learning together."

Today, he does IVF once a week, spending about one hour per animal in the one-man operation. But he says he can train even his 15-year-old daughter to do the lab work and cut that time in half.

He learned the procedure and created a partnership with Rick Geary of Countryside Veterinary Clinic, in nearby St. Anthony. Typically, Geary does OPU while Crandall focuses on placing resulting embryos in the dairy's recipients.

State-of-the-Art IVF Facility

Crandall's quick education in IVF and big thinking on genetic progress transformed the farm's maternity ward into a state-of-the-art IVF facility. The building contains a small garage door, allowing cattle to walk into a squeeze chute for the IVF procedure. Large drains allow for any animal waste to be cleaned quickly to keep the room in good sanitary condition. The room stays heated so the oocytes survive the short trip to the lab room next door, but even that needs improvement for better temperature control, he says.

"Embryos are tolerant to temperature variation," Crandall says. "But oocytes need it constant."

Today, Cannon Dairy checks groups of 250 heifers per month for top genetics, then takes the top three or four animals on average—based on GTPI and 11 different traits—as donors. The top 60% of their herd is bred to sexed semen and the bottom 40% get a green ear tag, meaning their genetics will be removed from the herd.

"We will give them two donor embryos and then beef semen," Crandall says of the green tagged animals. "They might remain in the herd as recipients, but they will never see Holstein semen."

Originally, Crandall also hoped to use embryos in donor cows, but he cannot realize conception rates over his goal of 35%.

"If we start using cows as donors below those levels, days in milk will get out of hand," Crandall explains.

Going forward, Crandall is continuing work with Simplot to produce donor embryos for the U.S. and international markets along with some other large dairies. Their cull cows travel to a slaughter plant in Fresno, Calif., for embryo collection, like many culls in Idaho. Simplot, in a joint business venture with Caviness Beef Packers, recently broke ground on a plant in Idaho where embryo collection will occur as well.

"Genetics is a numbers game," Crandall reiterates. "To rephrase what I said before, 'He who has the most recipients wins,' is the name of the game. The more animals you can produce from the top animals of your herd, the faster your progress."

"I have no doubt we are going to make some elite animals here based on our numbers," Crandall says. "But you could make those anywhere. The key difference is we have recipients in which to put those elite animals' embryos."

The Avi-Lanche Jerseys, Dalhart, Texas, IVF facility has housing for elite animals from calves to mature cows.