PROPER DONOR MANAGEMENT STIMULATES PRODUCTION

by: Clifford Mitchell

Our society is made up of different classes. What separates these classes? Is there some magical line that dictates where a person belongs? Do people have the right to earn a leg up and boost status? There are answers to all of these questions, but mainly, it goes back to how hard one is willing to work to get a piece of the proverbial pie.

Are there different classes of cattle within the beef herd? Most would agree every herd splits into at least three categories. Ironically, it may somewhat mirror society, white collar, blue collar and, basically, no collar. Individuals in the beef herd work to establish a calling card, based on the goals of the operation. Elitist will be different from outfit to outfit based on résumé. Often it's a combination of traits coupled with a production record that define these superior matrons and in the seedstock business, embryo transfer (ET) is a way to maximize the value of that female.

“ET starts with good donor selection. Identify that genetically superior cow and hope she flushes well.” says Ernest Bailes, ReproSelect, Shepherd, Texas.

“Flush proven cows that will have marketable calves every year, no matter what sire you use. Flushing the right cows makes ET work,” says William Dismang, Beebe, Arkansas.

Deciding whether ET fits the program or not, is another one of the management decisions that is highly sensitive to each operation. Deciphering the proper steps it takes to enter this realm of production needs to be considered carefully. It takes a special operator to cash in on the benefits of this intense management process.

“ET has to be well thought out before you make the commitment to the program. It is a long term commitment,” Dismang says. “Sometimes it is a hit and miss deal. There are things I like about ET and things I dislike. Decide where you want the program to be in a couple of years and be patient.”

Finding the right cows to join the donor herd is often a tough task because value takes on different meanings to breeders with specific end product goals. For some, building on success of what females do in the pasture is a good place to start. A star in the donor pen depends on more factors than just phenotype, genotype or production record.

“I have to be patient and sure of my genetic combinations. That young cow needs to prove herself before she enters our donor program” Dismang says. “The donors that we use show a lot of variability in embryo production between cows. Sometimes the lack of embryo production will remove her from the program, because it is an expensive process.”

“Unfortunately, we can't really evaluate a donor until we flush her the first time. After the first collection (flush) we can make some adjustments,” Bailes says. “Not all cows are good candidates for a donor program. It is my responsibility to determine if that donor needs to gain body condition or lose body condition and make sure she is reproductively sound.”

Basic animal husbandry plays a significant role in donor management. Work with your embryologist and determine what needs to be done to enhance the success rate for each donor.

“Good vaccinations, a good mineral program and proper nutrition are a must to manage donors correctly,” Bailes says. “I like to start with a donor candidate that is 45 days post partum. Wet cows usually flush better. Her hormones are at a more natural level at this point. Some cows that are a little under conditioned on an inclining plane of nutrition seem to work better than those that are over conditioned.”

“We try to keep cows in the donor program in good shape and on a good mineral program,” Dismang says. “They have to be reproductively sound and ready.”

Managing the donor herd from a nutritional standpoint is just the first step in the complicated process. However, most embryologists will develop specific injection and insemination protocols for each donor. The disciplined process must be followed to the letter.

“Following the injection schedule, heat detection and insemination is equally as important as proper nutrition when it comes to a successful ET program. If you don't follow the schedule, you will not be happy with the results,” Bailes says. “The injection schedule has to be maintained. Timing is very important with this process.”

“You have to give shots at the right times and work off a good standing heat. Timing is pretty important, you have to be on top of everything and follow embryologist's recommendations,” Dismang says. “Everything has to be right to be successful. Sometimes, everything is right and it still doesn't work. That's the frustrating part of the ET program.”

Adjusting the stimulation protocol and insemination times can sometimes help embryo production. Fine tuning the process is ongoing to manage the donor pen to its potential.

“When we set up a donor, we evaluate her history. Stimulation drugs and protocols are different with each donor,” Dismang says. “We'll AI at different times based on embryologist's recommendations and we try to be real careful with our stimulation protocols. It's pretty hard on a cow to produce a lot of embryos and we can't push her too hard.”

“Based on embryo production, we can adjust FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) injections and the timing of the insemination. If she ovulates early or late we can breed at different time intervals. Some donors need an ultrasound to determine standing heat,” Bailes says. “Hopefully, my client has followed the correct protocol. At this point, with an on farm collection, there is nothing we can change when we flush that cow to help embryo production.”

There is sometimes a quandary of when to flush donors, how many times and at what interval. Many factors will ultimately decide this, but supervision from the professional will also help determine this scenario.

“As long as cows aren't over stimulated we can flush every 60 to 90 days. It depends on the client's schedule. It works well to flush these cows every 60 days, move them from a spring to fall calving cow, and focus on getting her bred back,” Bailes says. “Ideally, I like a 45 to 60 day post partum cow with a reference heat. I can set her up on the next natural heat. This is an ideal scenario and it's not often we get this luxury.”

“We like to flush the cows we are going to do multiple times, three times and get them bred back. There are some cows we'll flush one time and breed them back,” Dismang says. “Sometimes the number of recipients we have set up will help us make this decision. We'll try to work out when we want to get her bred back to time the flushes on the donors we flush multiple times. This will allow us to give them as much time between flushes as we can.”

These valuable brood matrons can benefit from having a calf regularly. This is part of any successful donor management. Continuous flushing may actually be hurting the overall goal of the ET program.

“The hardest thing to do is keep a donor on somewhat of a normal calving interval. I really like to keep them on schedule if I can,” Dismang says. “I need progeny from my best donors, but I have to take care of that cow. This will help keep her producing embryos.”

“Donors need to breed and have a natural calf. It is important after every three or four collections (flushes) that cow's have a natural calf. Milk production helps a lot and it does a lot for a cow,” Bailes says. “If the donor is over conditioned, maybe a little stale, the best way to fix that is for her to have a calf. When a donor has a calf, she starts off with a clean slate and it leads to more consistent embryo production.”

Because of outside influences, the beef industry has re-evaluated the way most handle cattle on a daily basis. Managing donors requires cattlemen to go above and beyond when it comes to providing a stress free environment. Just like a lot of other things operators do with the cow herd, there is no room for added stress.

“Handling is often the most overlooked part of the process. Limiting stress is very important,” Bailes says. “You need great facilities and have to handle cattle right. A properly trained ranch staff is needed to correctly handle donor cows.”

“It takes time and money to get set up to flush or put in embryos. Good facilities are important to make the cows and your embryologist comfortable,” Dismang says. “The less stress you put on that cow the better off you are. Sometimes donors get where they don't want to cooperate. You have to be able to get that cow up and make her comfortable.”

Weather is an element producers have no control over when it comes time to flush donor cows. Planning ahead and investing in proper facilities could help the success of the ET program.

“Be prepared with some type of covered facility. Embryologists don't always come on the nicest day,” Dismang says. “Heat, rain and cold just add to the stress factor of people and donor cows. We have to do what we can to limit stress.”

Semen quality will also have some affect on embryo production. Making sure top quality semen is in play will help the success rate.

“A lot of times when people do embryo work, they use rare semen from older bulls because they are looking for something unique. Evaluate that semen and make sure it's good quality,” Bailes says. “Most of the time, if the semen has been collected at a licensed bull stud, it is good quality, and will produce good results.”

Managing the tedious process of the ET program can be overwhelming to some operators. Even good managers will sometimes scratch their head with doubt. Mating decisions still rely on many factors to produce desired results.

A well rounded embryo program can pay dividends. Making sure ET fits management goals should be high on the list before producers make the decision to step up management to a level few have mastered. The learning process with ET is never ending and micro-managing every detail could ultimately reward diligent producers.

“ET is not for the faint of heart. It is a tool and when managed correctly, can be very valuable. Breeders can't over value the embryo program, which is often hard for some to understand,” Bailes says. “ET, to this day, is not an exact science, but we understand more now than we have in the past.”

“Flushing the right cows really works. Breeders can build a program a lot faster with the right genetic combinations. It's a long term commitment because it takes so much time to see the end product. I am bad about not being patient,” Dismang says. “Successful ET requires realistic expectations. You have to be honest with yourself and it's a pretty good learning curve to get adjusted to the program.”







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