The Past and Future of Cattle Reproduction

Flipping through my weekly email updates, I found this interesting story from Drover’s CattleNetwork that highlights notes from the Dr George Seidel, Colorado State University professor. Dr Seidel discusses Past advances in cattle reproduction technology, and what we have to look for in the future. I think the last line of the story sums it up best: “It’s a brave new world.”

Give it a read and let me know your thoughts.

Seidel has led cutting-edge research in cattle reproduction, including estrus synchronization and the development of sexed semen. He says that in some situations, technology can improve the speed and efficiency of meeting reproductive goals, which include:

  • Getting cows pregnant as close to the optimal time as possible. For most herds, non-pregnant and late-pregnant cows are the most costly problem in the operation.
  • Genetic improvement to meet productivity goals and improve profits.
  • Improve convenience and efficiency objectives such as shortening the calving season, introducing the polled trait and decreasing dystocia.
  • Experimenting with new approaches, which, if nothing else, can help keep owners and employees interested and motivated.

Looking back, Seidel notes that prior to the 1950s, there was no frozen semen, no disposable tools for AI, no EPDs, no estrus synchronization, no embryo transfer and minimal vaccination for reproductive diseases. Since then, a number of technologies have come in to routine use with significant impacts. Seidel lists his top-10 in chronological order.

  • Artificial insemination: The oldest on the list, Seidel describes AI, using superior semen, as the most powerful reproductive-technology tool for most applications.
  • Electroejaculation: Essential for breeding soundness exams
  • Vaccination against reproductive diseases
  • Cryptopreservation of sperm
  • Readily available hormones for estrus synchronization: progesterone, GnRH, prostaglandin F-2-alpha, FSH and others
  • Body condition scoring
  • Expected progeny differences
  • Ultrasound for ovarian status, pregnancy, sexing, pathology of uterus ovary and testis
  • Sexing embryos, fetuses and sperm
  • Genomics

Be sure to read the rest of the article for Seidel’s thoughts on the future of cattle reproduction, including sexed semen, trimming the cow herd to only calving heifers, and selecting bulls in vitro.

Dr Seidel’s comments on the future of cattle reproduction, specifically creating cattle herds with one calving cycle before harvest, makes me a bit uneasy. Sure we’re shooting for genetic progress, more uniformity in beef production, and efficiency in the cow herd, but this is pushing it. Where would we be? Much like the poultry and swine producers?

I want to believe such an integration would be hindered by the number of cattle on small, family run farms. Consumer demand for more food information and the niches of grass-fed, local food, could have a small role in hindering the push. Larger operations would definitely have the edge in this type of system, but it would take a lot of money to push out all the small breeders. But heck, it’s happened to other livestock species.

The picture Seidel paints of cattle production would pretty much leave us with developing stocker cattle, feeders, and replacement heifers, taking out the mature cow herd. I know we’re on the road to learning more about reproductive efficiency and how to produce more with less, but what is over the horizon? For many years we’ve heard of a future, more integrated cattle system, but I hope this time is still several years down the road.

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