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Ultrasound for pregnancy shows accuracy and growth in popularity

Danielle Schlegel for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 November 2018
Dr. Cody Creelman using ultrasound

Pregnancy detection. If only it were as easy to do as it is to say.

Luckily, for those who regularly find themselves tasked with determining what females in a herd are open or bred, manual palpation isn’t the only option.

Ultrasound scanning is a reliable method for more accurate early pregnancy detection in cattle, says Dr. Todd Stone of Redland Veterinary Hospital in Medicine Lodge, Kansas.

With ultrasound scans, Stone points out producers and veterinarians are better able to make better decisions, including the timing of when to sell opens, putting heifers on feed at a younger age, utilizing grass resources by removing opens during drought, diagnosis of twins, assessment of fetal viability, grouping heifers or cows according to stage of pregnancy and overall speed and accuracy of answers.

However, with all things, there are cons to consider. Among those, Stone notes, include pregnancy loss after ultrasounding due to many factors, handling heifers or cows during summer heat, handling the females at a time when they may not be near a working facility and the expense of the equipment or the resources to conduct the scans.

For handling females distant from handling facilities, the ultrasound equipment industry has taken notice. Getting animals and equipment in the same place is less of a barrier today.

“When I first started my ultrasound journey, we were using nonportable units that were pretty cumbersome and large. We’d have it on a trolley and roll it chuteside,” Dr. Cody Creelman of Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Alberta, Canada, recalls. “As the years have progressed, the portability has increased dramatically. We now have portable units that are battery-operated and have also been getting smaller and smaller. The next iteration we have been using is wireless that sends images to your phone, tablet or goggles.”

One of Creelman’s go-to units today is a goggle unit with a hard-wired probe used for transrectal ultrasounds. There is a battery pack “about the size of a butter stick” that sits on your hip. He notes it can also be used as a screen on your phone with the ability to connect to four different smartphones at a time if you’d prefer not to use the goggles.

Similarly, Stone has also noticed the trend of more user-friendly devices that are less cumbersome than models of the past.

“Ultrasound machines have gone from console-based units requiring electricity to systems specific to the application,” Stone notes. “They have become much easier to use.”

These technological advancements have allowed this method of pregnancy detection to be more accessible for vets and technicians.

Creelman also points out while manual palpation is an art that can be developed with a high degree of accuracy, ultrasounds have become more popular to use in tandem, particularly when learning or refining rectal palpation skills for pregnancy detection.

“There are a lot of manual palpators that are very good, but most vets and producers could get more accurate and efficient by using ultrasound technology,” Creelman says. “It is a great teaching tool for learning palpation skills and feeling at the same time. There is a fair amount of literature out there that shows students learning to palpate augmented with ultrasound become even more skilled than without [ultrasound].”

Creelman advises the “second 10,000 pregnancy detections you do are easier,” alluding to the time it takes to refine either rectal palpation or ultrasound scanning for pregnancy detection. Whether you’re a vet student or a producer working to develop their own skills for detection with their own equipment, Creelman notes working with experienced practitioners over time will improve your success rates.

“The way we train vet students is with a skilled practitioner while watching the screen with them while they do it. They pick up quickly on the obvious pregnancies, and then it’s a matter of moving to the more difficult ones that aren’t as easy to see or find,” Creelman says.

“I have worked with producers and students who will screen a group of cows and then ask me to come out and rescreen the animals they marked open. Over time, their accuracy rates improve.”

Ultrasound equipment

If one is considering investing in their own ultrasound equipment, Creelman advises to consider various factors before making such an investment.

“Do a cost-to-benefit analysis of your herd to amortize that cost over the years. Do you have access to the skilled labor needed to run the equipment? How large is your herd?” Creelman proposes. “There are some ultrasound units available that are off-brand from China or India. In my experience, those products are not really designed for large-animal field use; I’d discourage people from trying to cut costs by going that route.”

Both Creelman and Stone advise producers to check with their area or program guidelines as to the requirements for determining pregnancy via ultrasound. As Stone notes, “Pregnant or open is considered a diagnosis only a licensed veterinarian can make.”

However, if investing in your own equipment for your management or practitioner team to use is an overall beneficial arrangement, Stone advises to maintain good relationships and not cut your vet out of the equation entirely in efforts to become more self-sufficient.

“Consider who you’d call at 2 a.m. in January when that heifer is having calving difficulty,” Stone proposes as food for thought.

Overall, ultrasound equipment is becoming a preferred method of pregnancy detection by large-animal veterinarians.

“We get paid for the tricky ones, not the easy ones. I’d estimate 90 percent of pregnant cows are an easy diagnosis. In my practice, 98 percent of the pregnancy tests we do are done by ultrasound. The only time we don’t is when it’s not worth washing my equipment,” Creelman says. “It’s easier on our bodies [than manual palpation] and, for the most part, our producers absolutely love it. It certainly seems to be more and more popular with bovine pregnancy testing.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Dr. Cody Creelman and his team use wired probes into portable ultrasound devices that can been seen through the lenses of their goggles.

PHOTO 2: Ultrasound equipment has seen a lot of interface changes over the years including WiFi and Bluetooth compatibility and mobility of equipment. Photos provided by Cody Creelman.

Danielle Schlegel is a freelance writer based in Whitewood, South Dakota.