Bovine in vitro fertilization (IVF) has been dismissed as impossible for numerous reasons by many cow and calf producers. Managing their female herd day-to-day is a busy task, and producers are unsure whether bovine in vitro fertilization would actually fit and bring success to their cattle breeding strategies.
Cattle breeding operations strive to have accelerated genetic progress. Unfortunately, many rigid timelines of conventional embryo flushing, as well as limitations of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) deliveries, have hampered any advancements in genetic progress.
However, some believe that cattle breeding plans no longer need to follow this outdated pattern. This includes Bruno Sanches, Vytelle’s VP of Operations.
“At Vytelle, our process is very attractive and accessible for all operations,” he says. “With our hormone-free bovine in vitro fertilization program, any customer can access our cutting-edge technology simply by bringing their selected female donor to one of our satellite locations. She doesn’t need any preparation or labor associated pre-oocyte collection. It’s the most accessible, reliable, and predictable way of using IVF.”
Producers are able to research the best fit for their donor needs and have access to hormone-free IVF services scattered throughout the country at several locations. Oocyte collections can be performed from the same donor on a weekly basis without a hormone treatment protocol. This allows those with limited donor numbers time to build a frozen embryo bank that is well-stocked before breeding season begins.
There are four basic IVF tips that can help to improve both the rate of genetic progress and reproductive efficiency. This can be done by shortening generation intervals and quickly multiplying offspring from elite performing animals.
1. Ensure Nutrition Management of Donors and Recipients
First of all, nutrition and management are key for producers for ensuring the highest rates of success in accelerating their herd. Sanches explains that these two factors directly impact the oocyte quality and collection capabilities of donors, as well as effectively support successful embryo transfers (ET) in recipients.
“If we don’t have a good egg, we can’t make the quality embryos a customer expects,” Sanches said. “Using accurate nutrition practices meeting energy, crude protein, mineral, and vitamin requirements is critical for consistent follicular growth and oocyte quality.”
Sanches also urges producers to begin stabilizing the nutrition levels of their donor’s early—at 60 to 90 days before breeding season. This is because it takes time to correct deficiencies and build oocyte quality and embryo development. Similarly, recipients have to be suitably maintained in order to create a successful embryo transfer.
To properly assess condition and develop rations supportive of post-calving needs and lactation requirements, Sanches suggests working with a nutritionist. It’s best to do so at least 30 days before ET to ensure pregnancy success and strong synchronization responses.
“They need to be in good shape to receive an embryo and carry through a productive pregnancy. At times, people mistakenly assume recipients aren’t as important and cut corners with nutrition. Then, we transfer an expensive embryo into them, and they lose money.”
2. Optimize Collection Time Based Off Breeding
Many producers hesitate in using bovine in vitro fertilization because they believe it is too limiting and difficult to keep donors on track. However, Sanches explains that hormone-free IVF only expands rather than limits options.
Donor choice is extensive, ranging from:
- Prepubertal, as young as 6 months of age
- 15 days post-calving
- Pregnant females within the first 100 days of gestation
In addition, since FSH injections are not needed, producers are able to choose donors that can remain in their natural environment until the day of collection.
Sanches also adds that with such a wide availability range, producers are able to focus on collecting from elite donors and ensure their reproduction goals by storing frozen embryos to meet their expanded needs pre-breeding season. Once breeding season arrives, producers can continue to collect from donors and transfer fresh embryos, as well as supplement with frozen embryos from their bank, into recipients.
“If we wait to collect embryos, transfers will be spread across an entire cattle breeding season. Many breeders prefer to start with all embryos transferred in the first few weeks. Then, recipients are released for natural service. I strongly suggest developing an embryo bank before breeding season so there’s plenty to come out of the gate in good shape,” said Sanches.
Sanches recommends harvesting oocytes during the final collection for those wanting to breed their donors but leaving the most dominant follicles in the ovaries.
“We know this egg will be ovulated, and she will breed successfully after a last collection. It’s a natural process.”
IVF has become the first choice for many producers’ best animals, since they have realized they don’t need to use this method only on problem or ‘nonresponding’ cows. The right genetics can be replicated quicker than with hormone-free in vitro fertilization rather than with conventional flushing.
3. Capitalize on Post Breeding Opportunities
Once a donor becomes pregnant, oocyte collection doesn’t have to end.
“It’s an exciting aspect that we may begin using IVF again approximately 15 days after calving, 40 days post-breeding, and after a pregnancy confirmation,” Sanches said. “Herd genetics are accelerated while keeping donors on track naturally, right up to 100 days of pregnancy. After confirmation, we can collect up to four more times before the fetus and the uterus drop out of reach.”
Sanches believes that keeping donors on a regular schedule is important; however, he also admits that everything can be flexible and it’s all heavily dependent on the producer’s numbers and what they need. He recommends that a collection be done every other week, although the logistics of donors and recipients should both be evaluated.
“Planning ahead before cattle breeding season and having the donors on a schedule matching all the involved logistics is critical,” he said. “Know which satellite location will be used, where the embryos will be made, and where the recipients are located. Donors and recipients might be in different states. We work with clients to understand their needs, explain our platform, and help them to be successful.”
4. Pregnancy Checking and Live Calf Data
After oocytes are collected and once plans are in motion, the process of fertilization takes place in a laboratory. Viable embryos are available for producers—either fresh or frozen, depending on the producer’s request—after eight days.
Producers can also maximize possible transfers in one day by synchronizing their receiving females. Transfer services are commonly used, and IVF companies usually can recommend or provide a trusted partner.
Most beef operations in the United States complete embryo placements early in the breeding season, and then follow up with natural service bulls. According to Sanches, it’s vital that these operations work with their veterinarian to complete pregnancy checks.
“If we don’t confirm a pregnancy from an embryo or a bull, we can’t track the due date,” he said. “The timing difference and due date will be around 15 to 25 days. If it’s not tracked, we may have calves overdue, which can become a problem during calving season. Ideally, we like to check at 45 and again at 90 days, but I encourage at least one check for reliable data to be gathered.”
In order to fully optimize results with IVF embryos and help to ensure the success of resulting calves, accurate record keeping is important and should include:
- Pregnancy confirmation
- Gestation length
- Birth weight
- Calf sex
- Subsequent information of health status
“It’s a powerful technology but many people still have the misconception that bovine in vitro fertilization is very expensive, making it out of reach to progress their entire herds’ genetics,” said Sanches. “Some believe it’s time consuming, labor intensive, and requires extensive preparation protocols. It’s really a natural process with zero donor preparation. Plus, lastly, our customers love that they only pay for viable embryos. It changes the game for how breeders can use the technology.”