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Embryo transfer, Increasing female value

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cody – “The embryo transfer industry did for females what AI did for males, but to a lesser degree,” states Cow Country Genetics owner Dave Winninger of the changes in beef cows in the past 15 years.
Winninger, who operates his embryo transfer business from Cody, explains that today AI is primarily utilized in two segments, the first of which is commercial producers who AI heifers as a means of accessing easy-calving genetics. It gives them access to calving ease sires without purchasing a bull, because owning calving ease bulls can result in management issues when they get too big to mount yearling heifers.
The second sector using AI is purebred breeders who benefit from access to more elite bulls than they can afford to purchase.
Use of AI has changed the value of bulls and resulted in more segmentation between elite and average bulls within a breed. Elite bulls are even more valuable, in part, because semen can be collected from them and used on a higher number of cows.
According to Winninger less than half of one percent of bulls go to a bull stud and are collected. These individuals could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are roughly 10 times more valuable than the average bull purchased to turn out on commercial cows.
Winninger says the same thing happened with registered cows. “Typically less than one percent end up as donor cows for embryos and they are worth about 10 times more than the average cow,” he says.
Donor cows are selected for desirable traits and provide breeders access to elite genetics on the female side. The average donor will produce around 30 embryos a year, with exceptional females producing over 100 embryos annually.
“Donor cows have had an effect on the value of the cut directly below them. Those females in the top one to 10 percentile have probably been depressed in value as opposed to there being an even gradient up to the value of those elite cows. Someone considering a purchase would likely take a very elite cow and put her in an embryo program over purchasing a $5,000 cow and raising calves out of her,” says Winninger.
Donor cows haven’t had as much impact on the commercial side, but Winninger notes they have probably further depressed the value of poor quality cows. With the increased speed at which generations are turned over today, genetic improvement is expected across the marketing board.
“The cattle market is closer to a purely competitive market place than almost any other. There is less government involvement and regulations than in almost any other,” adds Winninger.
As a means of increasing profit, several commercial producers are implementing new management techniques, one being a later calving date. Calving in April and May provides more grass for newborns and their mothers and often results in less haying on an operation. This change in production has widened the gap between commercial and purebred females.
Winninger explains that bull buyers want a bull to be well developed and to look like a bull. To ensure bulls are older and more mature at sale time, registered breeders have maintained earlier calving dates. In some cases, producers run bulls on grass an extra season to get increased growth. These differences in production practices have limited the number of commercial cows used as embryo recipients.
Registered cows that are below herd average are sometimes used as recipient cows. In many cases their value as a producer is lower than that as a carrier of another female’s superior genetics.
“People in the purebred business are selecting for the best cows and want to produce more calves, mostly heifers, out of them to increase the genetic depth of their herd,” says Winninger.
He adds that heifers are preferred because if a producer has five full-brother bull calves, only one will go to a bull stud since they are so genetically similar. The other four will be sold to commercial cattlemen for 10 times less. Heifers, on the other hand, can be retained in the herd where their superior genetics will be of more value to the producer.
There are club calf and bucking bull producers who utilize embryo transfer in hopes of producing bull calves. Other potential embryo transfer users include individuals who purchase a ranch and want a purebred herd. They often buy commercial cows and a few donor cows and do embryo work on their donor cows. In three to four years they have a registered herd at a lower price than initially buying into one.
Winninger adds that he also has customers who have been with him since the early 1990s who continually take embryos from their best cows and placing them in their poorest cows. This is done to constantly increase female value within their herds.
The purebred business is highly competitive and always working on new methods of improving cattle. At the forefront today are two groups, one in Canada and one at Iowa State University, that are conducting biopsies on embryos to look at DNA markers for specific traits. There are markers for anything a producer would want to select for, such as marbling, stayability in Red Angus or pigmentation in Herefords. After desired traits have been noted, only the most superior embryos in those categories would be put in cows.
“There are 950,000 cattle producers in the United States and only 250 embryologists. That’s a pretty small percentage and probably half of them only do dairy cows. We stay competitive through providing this service for purebred breeders in Wyoming and halfway across South Dakota. We usually do a little bit of work for a lot of people,” explains Winninger of the embryo business he owns with his wife Lora, who takes care of everything except physically putting embryos in cows.
The cow has become a much bigger player in genetic improvement through embryo transfer. The use of superior female genetics have improved registered herds in addition to providing commercial producers with affordable, superior genetic combinations. While not a large sector of the industry, the impact of embryo transfer is seen in almost every registered and commercial herd in the country.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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