February 6, 2019

IVF Helps Turn Better Genetics Into Better Females

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Within the dairy industry there are small groups of producers who are at the leading edge of various aspects of dairy management. There are dairies that lead the pack in technology adoption, sustainability, nutrition, product marketing or another management area. 

When it comes to genetics, the Santos family of Terra Linda Dairy in Tulare, Calif., are industry innovators. 

Most of their 1,500-cow herd is registered with Holstein Association USA. They have retrofitted an old flat barn parlor into an in vitro fertilization (IVF) facility. Terra Linda Dairy sells around 50 high-genomic bulls and females each year, roughly 300 animals locally and out of state, and 1,000 embryos. Their cows make just over 34,000 lb. of energy-corrected milk each year. 

SantosToday’s herd grew from a dairy started in 1944 by Manuel Santos and his brother John. In 1972, Manuel and his son, Michael, formed Terra Linda Dairy next to the original homestead. Terra Linda means “beautiful land” in Portuguese. Today, Michael’s sons, Michael (Mike) Jr. and Craig, are the fourth generation to manage the dairy operation. 

An analysis of the Terra Linda genetics program reveals the program is based on adding value beyond pro-ducing milk. They’re breeding more and higher-quality cattle. 

“Our herd is registered because it adds value to our cattle,” Michael Santos Jr. says. “We use pedigree information in daily management.” 

Santos Sr. started registering the herd back in the ’80s. 

“In the ’90s we sort of got a little more aggressive with it and started registering anything that was over 87% purebred,” Santos Jr. says. “When I got out of college in 2003, we decided we were going to grade everything up.” 

The grade-up process was easy because they had been using artificial insemination (AI) for decades. Today, in addition to adding value to the herd, they also use Holstein Association programs to manage pedigree records, production information and matings, and genomic information. 

“To us, investing in registering animals is a long-term vision we have with our herd and its sustain¬ability,” Santos Jr. says. “We think it adds value to the herd, and the Holstein programs are useful in day-to-day management.” 

While the registration paper verifies an animal’s genetic history, building high-genetic animals starts with genomics. It’s the foundation of how Terra Linda is able to deliver high-quality animals that are valuable to the milking herd and in demand by other producers. 

“We use an animal’s genomic [score] to dictate whether she becomes a donor, receives an embryo or gets bred with semen,” Santos Jr. explains. “Having the blueprint of an animal’s genetic code is one of the most valuable investments we make on our farm. To know an animal’s genetic capability allows you to make day-to-day decisions on her future, and to us, that’s worth every penny that we invest.” 

Females are ranked based on Total Performance Index (TPI), mostly because Santos Jr. values the type of traits that are emphasized in TPI rather than the health traits in Net Merit Index (NM$). 

“I think there is still a lot of variance in the health traits despite the large number of data that is used for it,” he says. The breeding program focuses on larger cows with expansive rib to accommodate high volumes of feed intake and high, wide rear udders with good capacity for higher production. 

labAn animal’s future on the dairy can take a few different paths. If she is at the top of the genomic list, she’ll become a member of the Terra Linda IVF program. 

Santos Jr. started with IVF in 2015 when the farm began to realize the type of genetics in the herd. After talking with other producers who had experience with IVF, they worked with Trans Ova to IVF some of their elite females and had success. 

At first they took animals over to a satellite facility operated by Trans Ova. As the program grew they found themselves taking 30 to 40 head to the facility every two weeks, which “got to be a little overwhelming,” Santos Jr. says. 

Now Trans Ova specialists come to the dairy every two weeks to work with cows. On the opposite weeks their veterinarian comes to do conventional embryo transfer (ET) work. 

Heifers make up 80% of the IVF work and the rest are cows. There’s no magic number for identifying IVF donors, Santos Jr. says. 

“It’s a combination of factors that takes into account genomic information, pedigree data and her dam performance. We also look at her age and ranking within the herd. So, it’s not just one magic number,” Santos Jr. says. “We are also firm believers in donors that produce large qualities of embryos regardless of where they rank in that elite status.” He says those donors are the most valuable because they make the greatest number of high-quality offspring. 

As part of the IVF process, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) is used to stimulate the cow to produce more eggs for fertilization. More recently the use of FSH has been debated, and dairies have gone without using FSH to save money because the cost for a bottle of FSH can be more than $200.

donorStill, roughly 75% of the donors at Terra Linda are administered FSH. “We see roughly 2.5 to 3 more embryos per donor on a stimulated donor with FSH versus a nonstimulated donor,” Santos Jr. explains. “Some animals respond fine without FSH and produce enough embryos without stimulation, but most need it to increase embryo output and quality.” To save money on FSH, Santos Jr. says they sometimes do a bulk batch without FSH to decrease the investment per donor. 

IVF technology is becoming more prominent on commercial dairies. Just over 278,000 viable embryos were collected through IVF in 2017 (the latest data available), according to the American Embryo Transfer Association. That’s up from 2016, when just over 62,000 dairy embryos were produced through IVF. 

There are a few reasons for the increase in embryos produced through IVF, says Michael Bishop, director of strategy with Vytelle, a company that specializes in IVF technology. “The technology has gotten to a point where the whole system is comparable to AI in terms of making pregnancies,” he says.

The skill set of technicians doing the IVF work has dramatically improved, Bishop says. Good technicians are able to match up the age of the embryo with the timing of the uterine environment within the recipient, which dramatically improves conception rates, he adds.

“Plus, the media used in the IVF process is more closely related to what is going on in the cow,” Bishop says. “We’re trying to mimic that environment, and we’re much better at it today than we were in the past.”

embryosSantos Jr. estimates about 60% of the embryos produced stay on the farm and are implanted into recip¬ients and the rest are sold to other dairies in the U.S. More than 1,000 embryos were sold in 2018. Of the total breedings on the dairy, 40% are done by implanting an embryo, with a little less during the summer due to heat stress on donors. Most of the embryos resulting from IVF are frozen, while the ones produced through conventional ET are transferred as fresh embryos. 

Conception rates differ by how the embryo was produced, Santos Jr. says. In lactating animals, first service conception rates run close to 50% on IVF and 65% on embryo transfer. Surprisingly, conception rates on heifers is slightly lower, with 45% on IVF and 60% on conventional ET.

The lower conception rate on heifers initially surprised Santos Jr. “We’ve been doing this for years and we have hundreds of thousands of breedings. What we’ve seen on the milk cows is the advantage of our double Ovsynch breeding program,” he says. Those cows are all synchronized very closely and are ready to receive an embryo, Santos Jr. says, whereas the virgin heifers are just bred off of tail chalk and could be anywhere in their cycle. More Grade 1 embryos are used on milk cows as well, he says, which could be skewing the numbers. 

As far as pricing is concerned, Bishop says producers could expect to invest, at most, $160 per embryo produced. The cost depends greatly on the number of embryos produced by the donor. 

At Terra Linda, most of the embryos are sexed, so having an ample supply of those embryos, along with the use of sexed semen, has created an oversupply of heifers.  

Santos Jr. estimates they probably have 50% more heifers than they need for regular herd replacement. That stands in contrast to other producers who are trying to reduce the number of heifers to cut costs. 

But having that many heifers is part of the added value of the breeding program, because it enables Terra Linda to sell animals off the farm. Each year around 50 high-genomic females are sold, mostly in consignment sales but also to producers looking for that type of offering. 

The dairy sells another 300 head or so locally to other producers. “We put together groups of animals based on genetic merit based on what the consumer wants,” Santos Jr. says. Having registration, pedigree and genomic information on the animals helps them garner a premium over the regular market price, he adds. One load of breeding age heifers brought about a 30% markup over regular commercial heifers. 

Their reputation precedes them as well, having consistently the top production herd in Tulare county plus public knowledge of their genetics and IVF program. 

Bulls from Terra Linda have gone into AI with ABS, JLG, Genex and Semex. They’ve also had bulls rejected by AI studs during the approval process, and Santos Jr. has been able to find a home for those bulls with local producers looking for clean-up bulls. 
Registering animals, genomic testing, using advanced IVF and embryo technology and driving genetic progress is part of the success blueprint for Terra Linda. 

“We feel like genetics is going to be the main driver in the future in terms of dairies that make it or don’t make it,” Santos Jr. says. “The margins are so small that you want cows that are as efficient as possible. We felt like taking the top end of our genetics and trying to multiply the herd with those was a great way to increase production and reproduction. We know it’s a large investment, but we feel long-term it’s something that’s really going to pay dividends.”