Breeders Connection 2019: Up to their armpits in success–Colorado training center focuses on innovation in bovine reproduction
December 21, 2018
For beef and dairy cattle breeders seeking greater herd growth, a relatively new embryo transfer model is being performed at a Greeley, Colorado farm and bovine training center. With the dairy industry changing considerably, the International Bovine Training Solutions Center in Greeley is working to fill a gap in the demand and supply of people willing to do livestock pregnancy work, while assisting breeders to gain more calves out of embryos.
So, as a type of 'surrogate parent,' a forward-thinking veterinarian specializing in embryo has been accepting beef embryos, placing them in dairy cows, feeding the calves himself, then shipping them back to the owners. Embryo transfer specialist Kevin McSweeney, DVM, MS, with Bovine Reproduction Specialists, LLC, International Bovine Training Solutions and Summit Dairy Learning Center in Greeley, Colorado also trains ultrasound technology students in livestock at the training center.
"There are still the same number of cows that need to be worked, but there are less and less veterinarians willing to do it. But the novel thing we do is put beef embryos into dairy cows. That has not been done much before, because dairies needed as many calves as possible. But with an excess of heifers, and bull calves hardly bringing much money, we're really taking it on the short; selling them," said McSweeney.
"On the beef side, the majority of the time that a cow is pregnant – you're paying to feed her, whereas a dairy cow is making milk the majority of the time she's pregnant. Also, a lot of breeders don't have many recipients to use for their embryos," said McSweeney. "So, with the year-round availability of 'recips' and the cheaper cost, we've been transferring a lot of beef embryos into dairy cows, and I'm raising these embryo calves on my operation here in Greeley through an accelerated feeding program which gives superior weight gains."
In the beef industry, contracting with cow-calf producers for recipient cows has been around for awhile. Cow-calf producers have new calves on the ground from winter to spring, and some in the fall. However, with dairy cows, there are recipients 52 weeks a year. And because dairy cows are already making milk and generating revenue during their pregnancy, using them as a recipient can be much cheaper. "To get year-round beef recipients, producers who have embryos are often seeking more cows' uteruses; a place for their embryos. So, this is a service for the breeder to maximize their genetic potential, and to get better growth rates from their calves," McSweeney explained.
McSweeney says produces send embryos, either frozen or fresh-shipped in an incubator, directly to the Greeley facility. "With the well-run dairies I've contracted near here, I transfer the embryos into the dairy cows there at a cheaper price for them. They calve it out, then I weigh it as a day old and bring it back to my small dairy and beef farm here. This is real novel and gaining, as the dairy industry is changing so fast."
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Then, using his accelerated growth program, McSweeney feeds these calves with three quarts of whole milk/three times a day, using dairy milk straight from his cows. "Most of my weights on bulls are 400-550 pounds at four months of age, and we have space to keep them here during weaning."
After backgrounding for about 120-days, the calves are loaded up and transported back to their owners, said McSweeney, who has been conducting this process for two years. "This is an option I created two years ago, and it's working well and growing." McSweeney contracts out, raises and weans an embryo transfer calf for less than $1,000, whereas for other cow calf operations to transfer an embryo and raise to a weaning typically costs about $1,500 and more.
The second part of McSweeney's focus is the International Bovine Training Center, which offers a one-year Ultrasound Tech program. Students get exposure with embryo transfer and training, and ultrasound training to scan the ovary to see which embryo should get the transfer. "The interns/technicians usually learn pregnancy diagnosis within a few months. For more advanced skill sets to scan ovaries and fetal sexing can take up to six months." McSweeney asks for a one-year commitment which also enables students to return value to the program. "We provide certification of skill sets so when they leave, they have testing documentation that they've exceeded the requirements."
While a few ultrasound companies offer three-day training classes, McSweeney says there are no other similar extended training programs.
Ultrasound technology has grown in importance, as earlier and more accurate pregnancy diagnosis is a big advantage for ultrasound over palpation. "Especially in times of drought, being able to identify our open cows as soon as possible and sell them can be a big financial saver for a ranch. Identifying the sex prior to calving (without using sexed semen) is relatively easy with ultrasound – yet impossible with palpation," said McSweeney. "If you are synchronizing for artificial insemination or setting cows up for super-ovulation and flushing/IVF, then using an ultrasound to scan the ovaries can help improve synchrony and conception rates, or result in a better response to super-ovulation, thereby making more embryos." He said ultrasound is also better at identifying twins, dead fetuses, and problem cows.
Students trained at the International Bovine Center have gone on to veterinary school, or obtained a Masters or PhD. Most have gone on to work in the dairy industry.
Current intern/technician Elizabeth "Catie" Cates Duncan is excited to take the skill set she learned from McSweeney's program to veterinary school. Duncan will graduate with her Masters of Biological Sciences student at the University of Northern Colorado in December, and expects to receive news of potential invite for interview for admission to Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
"Dr. McSweeney has been teaching me all aspects of bovine behavior, management and reproduction," said Duncan. "I assist with OPU, uterine flushing, embryo preservation and storage, and synchronizing heat cycles for reproductive purposes. I've been learning the ins-and-outs of rectal palpation (vital for learning ultrasound techniques) to identify the bovine reproductive tract, and assess the anatomy for pregnancies, cyclicity, and general health," said Duncan. "Dr. McSweeney came highly recommended from several professors and veterinarians."
Former intern Luke Harding, DVM, also heard about McSweeney's specialized work from a professor while attending Pennsylvania State University. Harding trained with McSweeney during a summer, then went back for additional training over two more summers.
"I went there again after graduating from Penn State; just before starting veterinary school (at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn Alabama) when he was developing the school. I was performing exclusive contract reproductive services for Dr. McSweeney's veterinary clientele," said Harding who is now a veterinarian in Tulare, Calif.; which is considered a dairy mecca. "I'm so grateful for all the medicine skills I learned from Dr. McSweeney as a veterinarian, but also his business savvy and entrepreneurial skills have been so motivating. He's developed protocols that dairies can use, so cows can get pregnant in a timely and efficient manner. What I've learned from Dr. McSweeney, has been pivotal to my success."
When considering becoming an ultrasound tech, McSweeney emphasizes this is physical work and conducted mostly outside, so being able to handle all weather is critical.
"It's so new," said McSweeney, "But, all these skills enable the employer to have more confidence in using the services of these grads. I've been at this a long time and have a pretty good vision of the future and what will have an impact. This will grow and be a good player going forward."