Make your animals accountable for their jobs — test them
Cattle, sheep and goat producers make a living producing, developing and growing animals — calves, lambs, and kids. If producers do a poor job and are not able to produce animals to sell, they have to go out of business. It turns out that the best way for livestock producers to avoid losing their jobs is to make sure their animals do their job, which is of course producing calves, lambs or kids.
Producers need every potential mother to conceive early in the breeding season, give birth to offspring that grow well, stay healthy and wean without issues. The key first step depends on each breeding female becoming pregnant early in the breeding season, and just as importantly, staying pregnant until parturition. Females must be healthy to be able to conceive, and stay healthy so the pregnancy can be maintained.
Pregnancy establishment depends on healthy, fertile males, making breeding soundness exams on herd/flock sires essential. Then producers need to monitor the success of the breeding season. One of the very best ways to do that is early detection of pregnancy establishment. The blood pregnancy test is a very easy, accurate, inexpensive, non-invasive way to determine pregnancy establishment early in gestation. This is an excellent way to monitor the success of your breeding program. The blood pregnancy tests costs less than $3 for cows, less than $4 for ewes and does, and is very accurate after 28 days of gestation for cows and 30 days for ewes and does. Knowing the pregnancy rate established in his animals provides a producer real insight into the success of his breeding program.
For those producers who have not used blood pregnancy tests before, let me go over them a little. The sample used for pregnancy diagnosis is serum, so producers submit a red topped tube (sometimes called a “clot tube”) with blood from the animal they want to pregnancy check. Lab techs prefer 2 to 3 cc of blood for the sample. The lab will run a test that checks for the presence of “pregnancy specific proteins” in the blood/serum sample. If these proteins are detected, the animal is pregnant, or at least was recently pregnant.
These “pregnancy specific proteins” are produced by the placental tissues that support a pregnant animal’s fetus (or fetuses). It is important to realize that the placental tissues develop several days after breeding and fertilization of the egg, when the embryo “implants” in the wall of the uterus. If you take a blood sample for pregnancy testing too soon after breeding, before the embryo develops placental tissue, you will get a result that indicates the animal is not pregnant. That is why you have to wait the 28 or 30 full days after breeding to take the sample. Timing is important when using this technology. Producers must know when females and males were exposed to each other, the length of the breeding season, and when the males were removed.
It is important to realize a blood pregnancy test provides a “yes or no” answer to the pregnancy question. You cannot use a blood pregnancy test to say a female is “long” or “short” bred, but only that she is bred (or at least recently was). If a female aborts or gives birth and you pull blood very soon after that, the proteins we are looking for in the blood may still be present, and you will get a false, misleading result.
By obtaining a blood sample from all the breeding females 28 or 30 days after removing the breeding males, a producer can tell very early on which animals successfully became pregnant, and which ones were not successful. Open, non-performing females are not “pulling their weight” and are a significant cost to producers. To the extent possible, these animals should be culled or avoided.
Also, early detection of pregnancy establishment can help a producer detect problems in their herd health program. The ability of this pregnancy test to detect the proteins that indicate pregnancy is quite reliable and accurate. If females are diagnosed pregnant and they do not present with offspring, it is a reliable indicator that there is an abortion or pregnancy wastage problem. Pregnancy losses should be investigated and the causes addressed to avoid further loss.
So, how do we do that? Consult with your vet, and look at the factors that impact pregnancy establishment and loss. These factors include body condition scores; fertility of the bulls, bucks and rams; disease incidence; how well the animals fit their environment and management; nutrition available; stress events and weather factors, to mention only a few.
Coover, DVM, and Neely, DVM, own and operate SEK Genetics, a cattle and small ruminant reproductive technologies company in Galesburg, Kan., that provides lab services, embryo transfer services, herd health services, and artificial insemination training, services, supplies and semen. Reach them at (620) 763-2211 or at sekgenetics.com.
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