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Reproductive technology opportunities grow for commercial producers

Jack C. Whittier Published on 25 August 2014

“Times are a-changing.” I’ve been associated with the cattle industry all my life; that’s 59 years this summer. I’ve also been closely associated with the science and application of technologies and management practices for the beef industry throughout my higher-education and professional career, about 30 years now.

In my opinion, the commercial cattle industry is better poised for using reproductive technologies today than at any time during my life.

There are several factors that I hope will explain why I believe this is true and how commercial cattle producers can benefit from technologies that previously have been primarily used by the seedstock segment.

At the Range Beef Cow Symposium in Rapid City, South Dakota last December, Tom Brink, a well-known thought leader in the cattle industry, listed what he called “Four Game Changers in the Next Five Years.” Here’s his list:

  1. Exceptional cow-calf profits
  2. Shrinking feedlot and packing capacity
  3. “Mouth-watering” success with timed-A.I. programs
  4. Major impact from high-end genetics and the advent of programs built on them

Much has been said about the shrinking beef cow inventory in the U.S., so I will not focus on how this impacts “game changers” 1 and 2 in this list.

Suffice it to say that as I write this article, the value of calves continues to climb as cattle feeders and packers see feed prices decrease.

Furthermore, it does not appear that either item 1 or 2 will change markedly in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I will address points 3 and 4 and how they relate to the topic of this article.

Timed-A.I. programs that work
I have been fortunate to be involved in some of the research efforts to develop dependable, predictable reproductive management protocols that use the biological principles of a beef cow’s reproductive system in concert with pharmaceutical developments to control when cows ovulate.

The development and availability of controlled intervaginal drug releases (CIDRs), along with two other important products (prostaglandins and gonadotropin-releasing hormone) have been a key part of progress with these protocols.

When these products are used in concert with proper time intervals for injections, insertion and removal of CIDRs, it has provided a system for cattle managers to consistently get 60 to 65 percent of cows pregnant to A.I. in one to two days in well-managed herds – all this at the beginning of the breeding season.

With cooperation among universities, the A.I. industry and producers, there are now clear, understandable diagrams of several timed-A.I. synchronization systems available in semen catalogs and university extension publications.

Companies and individuals also now offer “turn-key” services to incorporate timed A.I. into commercial beef herds. More importantly, numerous commercial producers have adopted strategies within their management plans to implement these protocols in a manner that conforms to their specific production environment.

Value of genetic merit is being rewarded
Point 4 in Tom Brink’s list points out that the value of the investment in “high-end” genetics from proven A.I. sires is being rewarded in the marketplace. One does not need to look far to recognize that cattle that perform well in the feedlot and at harvest are recognized and rewarded in the marketing systems that have evolved over the past couple of decades.

Since the practice of marketing fed cattle based on some type of “grid” pricing mechanism moved into marketing channels, it has allowed the true value of each animal to be determined and taken much of the guesswork out of the marketplace.

Simultaneously with grid-marketing systems came tools for accurately predicting the true genetic merit of cattle. The science of using phenotypic information, coupled with probability estimates and significant advances in computing power, led to what I call “rock-solid” genetic predictions on cattle that are available through expected progeny differences (EPDs).

Sires available today are most always backed by volumes of data assembled by progeny testing and more recently by the incorporation of genomic information. This leads to high predictability in their offspring, thus enabling commercial cattle producers to assemble a management plan that incorporates all of these tools.

While one could argue that the evolution of grid marketing and EPDs may be a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” phenomenon, the result is that producers have an even greater ability to take advantage of the true value of the calves they produce.

Mindset is important
The need to handle cows three to four times over a 10-day to 14-day period in order to implement a timed-A.I. program poses challenges. This is certainly one of the downsides of current timed-A.I. programs.

Animal handling, grazing programs and proximity of cows to handling facilities must all be meshed in order to be successful in using timed-A.I. systems. This requires planning and a belief that the results will be worth the inputs.

I recall being on a sizable ranch on the west slope of Colorado about two years ago with a ranch family that operates in a very extensive environment. As we talked about their production system, that now uses timed A.I. on 1,200 cows, it became clear to me how important mindset is for adoption of reproductive technologies into a management system.

This family recognized that if they were to take advantage of the tools mentioned in this article, they would need to make a deliberate step to incorporate adequate cattle-handling facilities into their operation.

Based on that decision, they undertook to “make it happen” because they saw the advantages timed A.I. would bring to their business. Being with this family made me recall a quip I once heard: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

I would be naïve to suggest that use of these reproductive technologies is feasible in all commercial cattle operations. However, I do believe that today there are greater improvements in the technologies and more tools for incorporating these applications into commercial cattle management systems than ever before.

As the U.S. beef industry moves toward a potential growth in cattle inventory, now may be a good time to evaluate whether timed A.I. and related technologies could be implemented in your herd.  end mark

Beginning June 1, 2014, Dr. Whittier left Colorado State University as beef extension specialist where he had been for almost 20 years. He joined the University of Nebraska as District Director of the Panhandle District and the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. He is now located in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He is also a professor in the Animal Science Department at the University of Nebraska.

Jack whittier

Jack C. Whittier
District Director
University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center

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