Veterinarians use hormones to synchronize breeding of multiple cows


For the Capital Press

Local veterinarians are helping cattle breeders reach the pinnacle of perfection in their programs with scientific assistance.

"I've been doing embryo transplant for the past 20 years," said veterinarian Rick Geary, of St. Anthony, Idaho. "I got started with it while I was working on my master's degree. I found it interesting so I just kept going. Now, it's what I do."

Geary said scientific progress has made the conception rate much higher.

"Frozen embryos now have about a 50 percent success rate and fresh have a 60 percent success rate," he said. "The way we collect, handle and culture has improved the success rate significantly. It's a good way of advancing superior genetics."

Although fresh embryos have a 10 percent higher chance of producing a calf, frozen embryos can keep stellar bloodlines alive years after the cattle themselves have died.

There are two reasons breeders opt for embryo transplant. One is to assure the cattle, such a those destined for slaughter, produce the best and most meat because of their bloodlines. Dairy cattle are chosen for such traits as producing the highest quality milk and most butterfat.

The other reason is for breeders who specialize in producing the highest quality brood stock by perpetuating the finest of bloodlines to offer for sale.

"Without embryo transfer, the elite cows in the breeding program can only produce one calf per year," said veterinarian Galen Lusk, of Rexburg. "This way, they can produce up to a dozen."

Veterinarian Tony Parson is bringing embryo transplant to Blackfoot.

"I studied as much state-of-the-art bovine medicine as I could so I could bring it back home to Blackfoot when I came here to practice," he said. "This will be my first year doing it alone, but I worked with several wonderful vets before I came back here. I feel confident in my ability to offer this technology here."

The cow needed to reproduce will be given fertility drugs to increase the number of eggs she produces. This could increase the cow's production from one to up to 20 eggs. She will be artificially inseminated with semen from a top producing bull.

"About a week after conception, we go in non-surgically, using a catheter and flush out the embryos with saline," Lusk said. "Then, they are implanted into the recipient cows."

The recipient cattle also are given hormones to have them cycling in unison with the donor cow, to provide a welcoming host uterus and increase the chance of conception.

This helps producers utilize inferior cattle as incubators while getting several high-quality calves per year from one well-bred cow.

The cost of embryo transplant is about $200 per cow, Lusk said. He travels around the United States doing embryo transplants.

One of his clients is Gary Willmore, of Willmore and Sons Cattle Co. in Rigby, Idaho. They breed Angus and Charolais cattle.

"We've probably been using embryo transfer for about the past 15 years," Willmore said. "We are looking at $500 to $700 more value for each calf through embryo transfer, so it's certainly worth it."

Willmore has about 60 head of cattle on his ranch.

"We use recipient herds in various places for most of our embryos," he said. "We don't have the ground to support all the cattle we would need for the program so we look elsewhere."

He uses recipient herds in Montana and Oregon.

The recipient herd owners tend to breed their recipient cows three or more weeks earlier than the rest of their herd.

"That way, the cows that don't catch (get pregnant) can be bred back to a bull there without losing too much time," Willmore said.

Willmore has contracts with the recipient herd owners to buy back the calves that exceed 600 pounds at seven months old. This weight level is set so the cattle company doesn't risk an obligation to buy back inferior cattle. They pay a premium for the ones they do buy.

"We buy them back for 15 cents above the going market rate," he said. "It works out well for us and the recipient herd owner. And, we are producing great bloodlines."

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