Ten years ago, Kansas beef producer Jeff Houck knew it was a critical time to maximize beef production and profits at the family's Rock Creek Ranch. He had a strong start.
Over three generations, Houck's family had put together a healthy, hardy Simmental and SimAngus commercial cow herd. It required little in the way of labor or input costs. Houck determined the next step in furthering his herd's value was an embryo-transfer (ET) program. It would be a reach and a team effort.
The ET goal, simply put, was to produce as many high-quality females as possible by synchronizing recipient cows and maximizing conception rates. An artificial insemination (AI) program was centered on carefully selected and varying sire lines to compensate for any trait flaws in the herd. Donor cows were chosen from among those herd females producing the highest-quality calves.
Veterinarian Kirk Gray, at Cross Country Genetics, in Manhattan, Kansas, shared the work with Houck. Together, they prepared donor cows, collected embryos and synchronized recips.
"ET tends to concentrate genetics, allowing producers to develop a herd of cattle that perform the way they want," Gray says. "A good ET program can reduce genetic diversity and improve progeny consistency within a herd. It's a breeding tool much like artificial insemination, an added opportunity to improve beef production."
IDENTIFY THE BEST
Before investing a lot of money in ET, Houck wanted to identify the best cows in his herd.
"From the beginning, my donor cows have had at least four top-performing calves and proven outstanding performance," he says. "That eliminates a lot of variability and helps avoid producing calves I'm not really happy with."
In addition to evaluating progeny, Houck reviews herd female records, using data he provides to the Simmental Total Herd Enrollment program. He analyzes birthweights, weaning weights and overall calf performance. Each cow undergoes an ultrasound to detect total follicle count, a trait varying cow to cow.
"One of the first cows we started flushing is still in our ET program," Houck notes. "Her daughters are doing a tremendous job producing high-quality calves. The last three times we flushed her, she produced an average of 21 or more embryos each time. On average, cows produce 6 or 7 embryos per flush, so she's very productive and significantly adds to the cost effectiveness of our ET program."
Once selected, donor cows are flushed with a calf at their side. They are open when flushed the following one to two years. Houck finds his cows are most productive with that cycle. If a donor cow drops below seven embryos per flush, she is removed from the program. The goal is 80 embryos per cow over 8 to 10 flushes during her lifetime. Average cost of flushing a cow, including the freezing of embryos, is $1,100.
Before donor cows are inseminated and flushed, each receives a customized hormone injection to help stimulate follicle production and maximize the number of embryos that can be harvested. Embryo collection begins approximately seven days before recip cows go into heat. Their heat is timed with an estrus synchronization protocol.
For biosecurity reasons, recipient cows are all within Houck's own herd. This allows him to follow ET calves through weaning and monitor recip cow performance. He estimates it costs $600 to maintain a recip over a year.
To avoid abortion or missed conception, vaccinations for all recip cows (and Houck's entire herd) are administered about 35 days prior to breeding season. At the same time, he evaluates the need among recips for any additional nutritional boost, the goal being a 5 or 6 body condition score. Synchronizing recip cows is carefully planned because Houck knows anytime a cow doesn't settle in her first heat cycle, he loses weaning weight.
"Any cows not settling during that first cycle are either held for one more heat cycle or sold right away," he says. "If we retain the cow, she receives another CIDR [controlled internal drug release] implant and embryo transfer."
ET pregnancy and abortion rates can vary widely. Houck has seen ET conception rates in his herd range from 40 to 80%. Many factors affect ET conception and abortion, including embryo quality, recipients, technical ability and donors. Some donor cows consistently produce embryos with higher pregnancy rates than others, a trait that is undetectable and unpredictable. "Regardless of our ET protocol, each year, we see some variation in conception-rate ranges," Houck says.
Recipient cows calve at the same time as the rest of the herd, and ET calves aren't treated any differently, but they typically outperform the others. Any cow producing calves that have a tendency for scours, low weaning weights or other adverse traits is culled.
"We try to raise ET calves with what we consider as balanced an EPD as possible," he says. "We want to see steady growth, strong maternal traits in females and bulls that either qualify as seedstock or make good steers if they go to the feedlot."
Adding significantly to the bottom line of Houck's ET program are his seedstock bulls. He notes larger customers appreciate the opportunity to buy three or four full brothers they can use on a large herd to reduce progeny variability. Since the inception of the ET program, average sale prices for bulls have increased between $500 and $1,500 per head. The quality of his bulls and diverse sire lines his AI program provides allow Houck to keep back any high-quality bulls he believes will contribute to the genetic quality of his herd. This, along with increased heifer quality, have helped justify the cost of the embryo work.
"The cost of purchasing a high-quality bull ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, so retaining our own bull in itself makes the embryo program profitable," he says.
Part of Houck's ET program is an outcross strategy that allows him to avoid in-line breeding issues. Once he has 20 to 30 daughters out of a donor cow, he removes that cow from his program.
Veterinarian Gray says Houck's careful management and thorough knowledge of his beef herd are a big reason for the success he's seen.
"Jeff manages cows about as well as anyone I work with," Gray says. "Recipient cows must be prepared as effectively as donor cows to make an ET program efficient and effective. Jeff and I evaluate each year's results to identify and overcome any issues in the program."
Houck's ET program won't fit every beef producer's resources and goals. The family operation is about 3,500 acres, and Houck is fortunate to have a large pool of both donor and recipient cows.
"Smaller registered breeders may not have sufficient time or labor to operate an ET program," Houck says. "When calf prices were high, it was costly to lease grazing resources. Today's lower market may make it more feasible to hire grazing."
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