by: Clifford Mitchell

Although fads and trends sometimes disguise what the industry is truly looking for, the goal of most cattlemen is to produce the best genetic specimen for the times. In days gone by, the cattle barons knew the tough old Longhorns or “mavericks”, as they were called when Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving made the initial journey over the Goodnight-Loving trail, needed to be upgraded to produce better beef and cattle the could be more well adapted to the range.

As cattlemen discovered there were differences in performance and certain sire's genetics would excel for the traits in their selection criteria, the need for advanced reproductive technology (ART) surfaced and was met with artificial insemination. This allowed producers to improve their herds through the use of superior sires. As time evolved embryo transfer (ET) became a more common practice as producers searched for matings that would hopefully produce a specific genetic package with the phenotype to match.

“AI let everyone use the elite bulls and capitalize on their genetics. ET allowed producers to maximize production from superior females,” says Dr. Bob Zinnikas, Four Corners Embryo Transfer, Strang, Okla.

“ET allows producers to accelerate genetics for whatever traits they are looking for. You can flush your donor three times, breed her back and have calves by four different bulls. It would normally take a producer five years to do this, with ET we can do it in one,” says Kim Harsh, Cross Country Genetics, Crescent, Okla.

ET, like many things over the years, has gone from a pipe dream for some producers to a reality. This technology allows producers the ability to create specific products for commercial bull buyers or capitalize by mating that awesome female to a maternal herd bull for some excellent replacements. However, genetic material does have a shelf life in the ever-changing beef business.

“Embryos are a pretty perishable item. The quicker you can get live calves out of those matings, the better off you are,” says Steve Yackley, Trans Ova Genetics, Onida, S.D.

“An embryo frozen in the tank doesn't do you any good because genetics get outdated,” Zinnikas says. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of frozen embryos that never get put into a recipient cow. This is a waste of time and money.”

“As fast paced as all the breeds are, everyone is trying to produce the best they can. You can't let embryos sit in the tank too long because genetics are always moving forward,” Harsh says. “Get those embryos put in. If it all works right you should be making progress and hopefully, creating value for your genetics.”

Good recipient mothers have always been a challenge for the seedstock industry to find. Just like the technology, the industry has come a long way to understanding how important this part of the equation is to the overall success of embryo transfer.

“I believe the recipient cow is the most important piece of the puzzle. If you can't get pregnancies, all the other hard work is thrown away,” Harsh says. “That recipient has to have the right nutrition and be the right package to put that embryo in. First off, she should be a cow with a good reproduction history. Usually, if she takes an embryo once, odds are she'll take one again.”

“Producers basically have three options for recipient cows. You can own them yourself, buy pregnancies from an ET center or purchase weaned calves from a cooperator or satellite herd,” Zinnikas says. “All have their advantages and disadvantages from a cost standpoint.”

Maintaining a separate recipient herd works for some operations, but can also prove to be cost prohibitive. Depending on your resources, there are some definite advantages to this protocol, but for some a lack of land, time and knowledge could push them to find a better alternative.

“You have to maintain a lot of cows for a “recipient herd.” That's why I have always had a problem with this from a cost standpoint,” Yackley says. “If you start with 100 cows, more than likely, there are 40 cows open for at least a 21 day period. That costs someone money. I don't care what the production focus is; open cows hurt the bottom line.”

“If you own the cows you have the added costs of synchronization, time and labor. Only a certain percentage will show good heat, only a certain percentage will have a good CL and less will end up pregnant. If you re-synch and transfer, then turn the bulls in, it's going to stretch out that calving interval,” Zinnikas says. “If you have 100 cows and 10 don't cycle, more than likely you'll end up with 48 ET calves and 52 commercial calves. The big advantage here is those 48 ET calves will be born in a two week period.”

“Today, producers have several options. If your goal is to produce 100 embryo calves in a year, it will take at least 180 transfers to achieve this. Open head days absolutely kill you with a recipient herd. Recipients take a lot of pasture and feed,” Harsh says. “The big advantage though is you own them yourself and can provide the correct management in the proper time frame. Still, you have to be right on top of things to make sure you maintain a tight calving season and avoid the cost of open head days.”

Another alternative some producers look to is taking advantage of the middle cut of the cow herd. Using these proven matrons as a tool to create value seems to be a growing trend among purebred cattlemen.

“This looks like an interesting avenue for a lot of producers. You already have the cows in place and they are in your management program,” Harsh says. “Set them up and give it try, but the down side is still the open head days that you have to account for. This is a viable option for producers to see added value with the middle of the road cows. At the same time, it creates a lot value within the herd because you're producing a better product.”

“A lot of people take advantage of their middle of the road cows and not have a separate recipient herd,” Zinnikas says. “After you put the embryos in, you can turn them out with a purebred bull and produce a registered calf rather than a commercial calf.”

“Take advantage of those cows with less revenue generating power,” Yackley says. “Find ways to add value and enhance the quality of your calf crop by utilizing these cows as recipients.”

Purchasing pregnant recipients from a qualified supplier or an ET center has always been seen as a good alternative. This option removes the open head days for some outfits, but still requires annual cow maintenance.

“The biggest advantage to buying these pregnancies from the ET center offers is some of the lower quality embryos we get in the flush will result in pregnancies, which will result in more pregnancies in the long run,” Zinnikas says. “You don't have the labor and time invested in dealing with open cows. This is a great alternative for some producers who have the resources, but lack time or knowledge to set up recipients. These pregnancies will result in ET calves, which, hopefully, are worth more.”

“Buying a 60 day pregnancy is a good option for a lot of producers,” Harsh says. “Work with your supplier and buy cows that fit your program.”

A relatively new trend for seedstock producers is to out source the cost of the recipient herd to a satellite or a cooperator. Utilizing skilled operators could be the answer to lack of resources, like time, land and labor.

“I think this is the best way to raise ET calves. When you align yourself with a cooperator who thinks like you think, it's the most economical way to produce them. This system will also help you transfer those embryos in a timely manner,” Yackley says. “You don't have to take care of the recipient cow. You're never setting the cow herd back because you have to stand the losses for open cows or bull bred calves. When you find a good commercial cow man to raise your ET calves, it's like you're getting a whole new management team.”

“For me, a weaned calf in today's economic environment could be a little pricey for some,” Zinnikas says. “You don't have to carry opens or bull breds, which is a pretty good savings. This could be a valuable resource for smaller breeders or someone new in the business that lack experience with ET. We are dealing with a valuable piece of genetic material and there is a learning curve.”

“Cooperator or satellite herds take care of the management and pay attention to detail,” Harsh says. “This is an excellent alternative for producers who don't have enough room. As long as he delivers what you're producing at home, you'll see some savings through decreased labor, feed costs and open head days. Some producers need this outlet just to produce enough quality cattle to maintain their production and marketing goals.”

Due diligence must be paid to find the right operation to help reach production goals. This could be the most important job interview for a management team, because if you make the wrong hire you could mortgage the future.

“I can almost tell you when I drive into a guys place and sitting at the kitchen table, if he's going to be a viable candidate. I'll ask a lot of questions before we ever go look at his cows,” Yackley says. “There is a lot of money invested in this type of management. You have to be confident he will take care of those calves the same as you do. In my case, there are three entities involved when we make an agreement, if it doesn't work for one, then we shouldn't do it. It's a delicate balance of making relationships with people you can trust.”

“Get some references. See if his customers are satisfied with weaning weights or if he puts creep out for the calves,” Zinnikas says. “It's hard to find good cows, with a proven track record at the drop of a hat.”

“You're looking for operators that mirror your management protocol. They transfer embryos in a timely manner so they wean calves that you can co-mingle with the ones back at the ranch. Find coop herds with the time, labor and desire to do it. A good program, with a good set of cows, will help you raise calves with more value,” Harsh says. “If he delivers, you are going to rely on that satellite/cooperator herd and build a long term relationship. The ultimate goal is not to be able to pick out the co-op calves vs. the ones at the ranch. It's a win-win situation. He gets a premium for the calves and the registered operator is getting the same quality calf at a reduced cost.”

Successful programs usually have one thing in common, a very high level of management. No matter which option a producer chooses to put in embryos and raise ET calves, recipient herds must all have this in common. Working from the ground up, based on several principles of animal husbandry, will help increase pregnancy rates and live calves.

“Potential recipient candidates, especially in cooperator herds, should wean heavy calves, have high conception rates, low death loss and good herd health,” Yackley says. “Facilities make a big difference depending on location and environment. Because we have to DNA every calf anyway, we don't have to stretch out calving interval. Turn in bulls the same day you put in embryos. Just make sure you have enough bull power because there will be a lot of cows cycling after 14 days. A good time to collect a DNA sample is when you're giving those calves the first round of shots.”

“Make sure you're on top of herd health, nutrition, de-worming and have a good mineral program,” Zinnikas says. “This will help increase pregnancy rate through management.”

“Recipient herds have to maintain a tight calving interval. You can set up cows twice, put the bulls out and still maintain a relatively tight calving season. Disposition is a big factor because these cows have to go through the chute four times before we know if they're pregnant,” Harsh says. “To get the best value for your dollar recipients need to be on a vaccination protocol, good nutrition and we like chelated minerals. We're asking her to accept an embryo, everything has to be right.”

Taking advantage of ART has been linked to creating value and moving the herd forward with improved genetics. Still, this is a biological process and sometimes the results are very humbling. Just because top cows are flushed to top bulls, profit is not always achieved. Decisions made throughout the process will help producers increase value and accomplish production goals, if they can meet the challenge.

Sharpening the pencil and avoiding trap doors could be the first step. The final outcome depends on how producers can best utilize the resources available to them. For some cutting expense is the answer in tough economic times, for others taking advantage of every tool available will help offset production costs and increase revenue.

“When you have some experience with managing cooperator herds, you have a better understanding of what needs to be accomplished, going in. This helps build relationships and avoid disappointment,” Yackley says. “ET is a long term commitment and mating decisions are the toughest thing we do on an annual basis. The decision we make today, when we flush a cow, won't impact the bottom line for two years. Most of the time when we fail, the biggest problem is we don't have a plan.”

“Pay attention to detail. Recipients have to be good sound cows to begin with that are on a high level of management. Put a pencil to the costs involved with each system and find the most economical alternative for your operation, but the main thing to consider is convenience,” Zinnikas says. “When we're successful it's based on having a plan. This includes good nutrition, good facilities and timely management. ET is not something you can try once, it takes a commitment. It's a good way to counteract some of the rising production costs we see in the business today.”

“ET is one of the many tools we have in the toolbox. One of the procedures to accelerate genetic improvement and keep improving quality,” Harsh says. “Look at your resources and decide which option works best for your outfit. You have to have a plan and budget ET in. The genetics we're producing today won't be marketed for two years.”

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