Growing up in the dairy industry on my family’s registered (purebred) Holstein farm taught me a lot about what the ideal (true-type as we call it in the dairy world) Holstein looks like. At a young age I started judging and showing dairy cattle so that deepened my understanding of what desirable characteristics both dairy farmers and dairy cattle judges search for. Through a course at South Dakota State University, where I gained my Bachelors in Agriculture Dairy Production, I learned more specifically why each of the characteristics are desired and what their specific purpose is. Each trait or characteristic that a dairy cattle judge views as ideal has a purpose beyond just “looks”. For example, the udder is the most important part of a dairy cow because it is what produces the delicious milk for all of us. So when a judge is looking at an udder, he or she wants that udder to look a certain way, because often times when the udder is phenotypically correct (looks correct) it CAN perform it’s function well, by producing a lot of quality milk! There are many more details to looking at an udder as a judge, but I hope that helps you understand the general idea. Beyond learning about specific characteristics, I personally learned what the ideal Holstein looks like through working with dairy cattle most of my life, and got to see why these traits are necessary and why they help the cow. The topic of this post is about embryo transfer making that a long introduction that doesn’t exactly cover the very scientific, technical procedure of transferring embryos. While there may be some of you interested in the science side of embryo transfer that isn’t why I am writing about it today. I would just like to help folks understand why we do it. Although the science is very interesting so I would encourage you to read this book, found at the Hoard’s Dairyman, http://www.hoards.com/bookstore/EMBR. I share a copy with my brother, and highly recommend it!
First the definition of embryo transfer, according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Veterinary Medical Board, “Embryo transfer is a procedure whereby an embryo is removed from a donor cow and placed in the uterus of a recipient cow for the duration of gestation (full-term pregnancy). The procedure is commenced by administering hormones to the donor cow to induce “superovulation” (meaning the cow ovulates more than one egg) whereupon the animal is usually artificially bred. Approximately seven to ten days later, the transfer takes place by administering an epidural anesthesia to the donor cow and removing the fertilized ova by a manual procedure of directing a catheter through the cervix into the uterine horn. Several doses of small amounts of nutrient medial are placed into the uterine horn and then pulled out by either suction with a syringe or gravity flow. The media recovered from the uterine horns is searched for ova and those deemed viable are inserted into the recipient cow in a procedure similar to artificial insemination.”
Last summer, while interning, I had the opportunity to shadow a veterinarian, Dr. Daniela, also known as the embryologist for the Maddox Dairy and RuAnn Dairy, for a couple of days (www.maddoxdairy.com for more information). My other experiences around embryo transfer are on my family’s dairy, Watertown Holsteins, where my younger brother, now certified in embryo transfer, performs the procedure. In the past we have also had another great embryo transfer technician from Simple Dreams Genetics Inc. of Hull, IA. So here’s the point, we along many other dairy farmers and ranchers use embryo transfer to help increase the rate at which our genetics improve. As stated earlier, the traits we want in animals help them to live happier and more productive lives. We choose to flush, (slang for embryo transfer, in reference to flushing the uterine body) cows because they have those desirable traits that make give their bodies longevity, productivity and beauty. Another huge part of the decision to flush a cow is knowing the cow’s pedigree, who her parents and grandparents were. In the dairy world we call her mother, her dam, and her father, her sire. Then granddam for grandma, and grandsire for grandpa. Currently there is a huge boom in genomics in the dairy industry, and that also largely affects which cattle are chosen for the embryo transfer procedure. By increasing the rate at which our genetics progress in our herd, we can increase the number of animals that have the desirable characteristics, and decrease the number that don’t. Basically we would like more beautiful cows, who do a fabulous job producing high quality milk. Instead of waiting for that one beautiful cow (who has the desirable traits, pedigree, and produces lots of milk) to have one baby a year, we can have multiple babies from her! The thing is, she doesn’t have to physically have all of the embryos found thanks to being able to transfer the embryos to recipients for the full pregnancy. As the world population increases to 9 billion people by 2050, farmers and ranchers across the livestock industry will be expected to produce more food. As we look to do this we want and need to have cattle that perform their best, look their best and because they look their best, in turn will feel their best since these traits help that cow live a longer, happier and more productive life. Having my cows feel their best is very important to me, so next time you hear about embryo transfer remember it is not only about having better cows, but cows that feel better and do their job better too!
Be sure to email any questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love telling people about one of my passions, dairy!