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Virginia Tech researchers predict pregnancy efficiency to help producers’ bottom lines

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

For many cattle operations, infertility and pregnancy loss are common problems in replacement heifers, resulting in decreased reproductive efficiency. Therefore, maximizing reproductive rates is critical to a ranch’s economic sustainability and bottom line.

In an effort to combat the issue of infertility and pregnancy loss, researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working on a method to effectively identify genetic markers in pregnant heifers to determine if they will be able to successfully reproduce. 

Researchers at the university believe data from the study will save ranchers resources, time and money. 

Predicting genetic markers

According to Virginia Tech, the method used by researchers is driven by machine-learning algorithms, which will be used during two different breeding seasons. This will allow for an adequate amount of data points to be gathered, which will strengthen the ability of the researchers to predict the genetic markers associated with pregnancy outcome.

Research also looked at how early these genetic markers could be identified and whether or not producers can determine if an animal is going to produce a calf early on.

The study came about after Dr. Fernando Biase, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, received a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to conduct the genetic research. 

“This research will help producers adequately allocate resources in their operations and increase the cow/calf production efficiency while minimizing potential loss,” says Biase in the August edition of Virginia Tech Daily.

Returning value of heifers

According to Biase, heifers return value to producers by the amount of calves they produce over their lifetime, and in order for an operation to remain sustainable, a heifer needs to produce one calf each breeding season. 

“Fifteen percent of heifers that do not get pregnant in their first breeding season cause a considerable amount of financial loss to the producer,” notes Biase.

“Producers spend a significant amount of energy and resources to help heifer calves gain enough weight to be at a healthy reproduction level in order to produce a calf when they are around two years of age,” he continues. “Even with their efforts, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Therefore, he notes many management procedures have been utilized to maximize the reproductive potential of heifers, including controlled weight gain, identification of reproductive maturity by physiological and morphological indicators and the implementation of an estrous synchronization program.

With this in mind, Biase and the other Virginia Tech researchers decided to conduct a study to understand the potential gene transcripts circulating in an animal’s bloodstream that can potentially predict the likelihood of a pregnancy occurring, with the goal of finding out how early these transcripts can be identified in a calf.

“This research opens the door for better resource allocation for producers,” states Biase. “Through a simple blood test, heifers could have the likelihood of their reproductive rate determined.”

“Through the integration of advanced technology, our team is solving age-old problems to help improve economic efficiency of cattle operations,” he concludes.

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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