Want to make a first-year graduate student feel really dumb? Put him in a room with several leading researchers in his field of study and ask what he learned. Talk about a challenge. Luckily I didn’t have to actually get up and speak, but it was encouraging enough to sit in on the “Think Tank” known as the Roy A Wallace Bovine Reproduction Symposium held recently in Columbus, Ohio.

Researchers from universities across the country gathered here to present their research in cattle reproduction to their peers. There were definitely some great questions raised and some challenging discussion took place, but that’s what is supposed to happen when you gather in a “Think Tank.” The Universities of Idaho, Missouri, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and more were represented in this group.

Research of Cattle Reproduction

We have come a long ways in the past few decades when it comes to managing cattle reproduction. We are now able to synchronize estrus in cattle and consistently make 50%+ conception rates from artificial insemination (AI) in herds across the country. Now researchers are to the point of learning how to critique these methods and adapt them to environmental effects.

Most of these researchers presented their findings on critiques to estrus synchronization in cows, influencing the timing of ovulation with fewer injections and getting more cows bred on time. I was really impressed at how consistently breeding rates remain around 50% across the country with the use of AI.

Nutrition is obviously a huge part of successful pregnancies in cattle. We have to “Feed ’em to breed ’em!” There are more folks looking at nutrition management of heifers and bulls in early life and how feeding strategies affect long-term reproductive performance. This definitely ties in with my research of how nutrition while the calf is still in utero affects its performance throughout life.

Application of Reproduction Research

Our biggest challenge is making these tools most applicable to everyday cattle producers. The synchronization protocols are more affordable than ever before and only require running cattle through the chute 3 times in most instances. This can be a huge pay-off for a cattle producer looking to add higher-quality genetics in his herd without purchasing a bull. It’s also a great tool for producing a more uniform set of calves in a tighter window of time.

The most entertaining story I heard centered around the influence on temperament (attitude) of cattle on breeding rates. Apparently hot-headed, excited Brahman cattle in Florida don’t have great conception rates to AI. Part of this might have something to do with handling methods that get cattle excited on large ranches where cattle are only handed a few times each year. Heat, stress, handling, disease, and diet are just a few of the environmental factors affecting reproductive success.

One concern that has been brought to my attention is the effects of this year’s extreme heat and drought. There’s a good possibility that cattle pregnancy rates will significantly drop in areas hit hardest by the extreme temperatures. We’ll have to wait and see as more producers pregnancy check cows this Fall and as we move into next Spring’s calving season.

Study of reproduction in cattle is a long process, requires large numbers of cattle, and is heavily influenced by environmental conditions, so most studies require a few years to complete. Most folks would be surprised how much study of reproduction and embryo development in cattle contributes to reproductive technologies in humans.