An on-site lab, the only one in eastern Idaho where Holstein eggs are gathered and embryos transferred full-time, is enabling genetically superior animals to be raised at Cannon Dairy Farms near Shelley.
“We’re striving to breed cows with a net merit of 900 to 1,100, while the national average is about 300,” said the dairy’s veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Crandall, referring to the measurement of the lifetime profitability of a dairy cow based on several traits including longevity, milk productivity, udder and hoof health, fertility, and calving ease.
“Our goal is to improve the genetics of the Holstein breed nationwide and worldwide,” said Crandall, who is certified with the American Embryo Transfer Association.
The dairy’s breeding program has recently been revolutionized with the implementation of genetic and technological advancements — genomic profiles, gender-sorted semen, and transfer of in-vitro fertilized embryos.
“It’s revolutionary and exciting to be a part of these advancements,” said Crandall, who began working full-time at the dairy in 2005. “Genomic values have been a game changer as a tool to amplify genetics of superior animals in a herd. One of our donor cows with a superior genetic profile provided eggs to produce 90 calves in 10 months. Along with that, sexed-semen allows us to work both the bull and cow sides of the genetic equation.”
Crandall estimates the lab enables him to implant 450 genetically elite embryos monthly and about 5,000 annually.
The intense genetic program is the result of a three-way partnership, WinStar Genetics. Launched in 2017, the partnership includes dairy owner Seth Cannon, John Andersen of Triple Crown Genetics in Blackfoot, and his brother, Greg Andersen, of Seagull Bay Dairy at American Falls.
While overseeing Cannon Dairy Farms’ reproductive program, Crandall also manages WinStar Genetics’ daily operations.
“John approached us because he needed a large volume of recipient cows,” Crandall said. The dairy has about 7,000 cows in Shelley and Kettle Butte near Roberts about 30 miles to the north.
“Plus, we had a lab,” said Crandall.
He had set it up in 2015 at Seth Cannon’s request to do conventional embryo transfers in which fertilized eggs resulting from artificial insemination are collected for implantation.
“Seth had the resources, while John and Greg had the genetics to elevate us all,” Crandall said.
At Seagull Bay Dairy, one of the Andersens’ cows, 10-year-old Ammon-Peachy-Shauna, produced 5,000 pounds of milk annually above her herd-mates before retiring. Her 8-year-old son, Supersire, has semen sales exceeding 1 million units.
With the Andersens providing a variety of top-tier semen, the lab has shifted from conventional embryo transfer to implanting embryos that have been fertilized in-vitro.
Once a week, Crandall and an assistant collect 300 to 400 unfertilized eggs from 20 to 30 cows. They are processed and shipped in a temperature-controlled container to a lab in Washington, where they are fertilized in a petri dish. A week later the embryos are returned to Crandall, who transfers them into carefully selected cows.
“Cows that have been in heat for six, seven, or eight days are implanted with the embryos because the uterine environment has to match the embryo development,” he said.
Despite advancements in genetics, breeding still has uncertainty. For unknown reasons, some cows and bulls with superior profiles fail to pass on those traits to their offspring.
“It’s a numbers game and can be a risky venture,” Crandall said. “From 100 cows we’ve bred, we might get four or five that meet our net merit standards for WinStar. Cows with net merit below 900 are still well above the national average, so we’ll keep them for dairy replacements or offer them at auctions. Out of 20 bulls, one or two might go to stud and the rest are sold for slaughter.”
What will the herd be like in five years?
“Hopefully, the entire herd could be superior animals with high milk production,” Crandall said.
If milk output increases, the dairy could maintain production with fewer animals.
“That means lower feed costs and less manure, which could help increase efficiency while maintaining profitability,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”