Farmers, who cannot afford to purchase high milk yielding exotic cows, can use their indigenous breeds in carrying and giving birth to their desired dairy animals.
Through the implantation of an embryo resulting from a superior sperm and ovum, the indigenous cow becomes the surrogate mother that carries the ‘baby’ to delivery.
The In-vitro fertilisation embryo transfer technology also allows for one exotic cow to give more than 12 calves in a year.
The egg from the specific superior breed is fertilised and implanted in surrogate mother, International Livestock Research Institute Researcher Okeyo Mwai said in a video published in the organisation’s website.
The calf will exhibit the characteristics of the biological parents, not the surrogate mother. The surrogate mother does not contribute to the genetic make-up of the embryo.
Female hormones responsible for the menstrual cycle are used to induce the release of up to 30 ova or more after two weeks.
Commercially, the eggs are fertilised to give rise to give rise to hundreds of embryos and calves from one cow within one year. The embryos can be frozen waiting for selling or transportation.
While the cost of a ready for service Friesian, arshire, jersey or Guernsey can cost more than Sh200,000, the technology allows for farmers to get the calve at a price not exceeding Sh50,000.
Some farmers prefer superior breeds, which they import from South Africa at a cost of more than Sh250,000. But in 2016, about 140 farmers lost more than Sh10 million to cartels who pretended to be importers of the cows.
Embryo transfer and IVF programs can potentially allow for one genetically superior cow to produce 10 to 25 (and sometimes even more) female calves within one year.
An objective currently utilized by some commercial dairies is to flush and IVF the top 10 percent of their cows. Embryos from these cows are then placed into the dairy’s heifers.
Due to the fact that heifers have not yet proven themselves for their dairy potential, it can be advantageous for them to carry calves from proven valuable milking cows.
Ultimately, genetic gain in the herd should intensify at a faster rate because an increasing proportion of calves would be coming from the farm’s best cows.
What is IVF?
IVF is an advanced reproductive technology that is slightly more complex than the traditional embryo transfer flushing program. During IVF, a veterinarian will use an ultrasound-guided needle to aspirate follicles off of a cow’s ovary through the vaginal wall.
A vacuum system is used to recover the contents of each follicle, including the important oocyte. Once all the follicles are aspirated from the cow’s ovaries, the fluid is taken to a lab and a microscope is used to identify the oocytes.
The recovered oocytes are washed and placed into a special media that will allow them to mature for 24 hours. Once they have matured, the oocytes will be fertilized with semen and the resulting embryos placed in an incubator for an additional seven days.
Following this time, the embryos can be transferred into recipient animals that are approximately seven days post-heat, similar to traditional embryo transfer programs.
IVF was once thought of as a salvage procedure, performed as a final effort to create calves from an infertile donor. This is no longer the case.
Many producers have realized the benefits of IVF programs and choose to primarily enroll reproductively healthy cows and heifers in their advanced reproductive rosters.
What are the advantages of IVF?
IVF offers many advantages to dairy producers over conventional embryo transfer programs. A large variety of calves can be attained in a very short time frame.
Oocyte aspirations can occur on a donor cow every two weeks, and a different bull can be used to fertilize her oocytes for each collection.
These types of aggressive IVF programs can result in 50 or more calves produced from one cow within a year. This is double the calf production achieved in conventional flush programs.
Producers are able to start their donors on IVF programs as early as prepubescent heifers around 7 months old. Additionally, since IVF does not involve the uterus, pregnant donors can still be collected throughout the first trimester of pregnancy.
This allows producers to breed genetically valuable donors on time while still capitalizing on creating additional offspring.
Conventional flushing often requires the use of two to three units of semen for each flush session.
Since oocytes in an IVF session are fertilized in a microscopically controlled environment, significantly less semen is needed.
In fact, one unit of semen can be used on the recovered oocytes from up to 12 or more donors.
Additionally, if a donor cow produces a large number of oocytes during a collection, they can be split into different groups and fertilized by different bulls.
This allows for the opportunity for greater genetic diversity resulting from one cow.
The era of genomics and how IVF can be used on a commercial dairy
The word “genomics” has become a hot buzzword within the industry. It is a genetic tool gaining favor with many, while causing much skepticism and doubts in others.
For those who are firmly on board with genomics, the potential for even quicker genetic advancement on the dairy is thought to be possible.
The concept of genomics allows for genetically superior animals to be identified as young calves through DNA testing. Once these animals reach puberty, they can be started on an intensive IVF program.
The resulting embryos from these genetically superior heifers can be implanted into the genetically inferior heifers, resulting in a majority of the calves in the subsequent generation having a greater genetic value.
For those who still believe in making a cow prove herself, regardless of what the DNA test says, IVF can be utilized in other manners. Producers can analyze their current milking cows for what traits are important to them.
They can pick the cows that they feel are genetically valuable and choose to enroll those cows in an IVF program. The resulting embryos can be placed into other cows and heifers.
Additionally, it has been shown that conception rates for embryos in cows during times of heat stress are better than traditional breeding.
Transferring frozen embryos from conventional flushing during times of heat stress may help improve conception rates during the times that it is hardest to get cows to settle.
Is IVF economical, and does it pay?
It’s no secret that IVF technology can get expensive, especially with costs that typically double that of traditional embryo transfer flushing. However, the costs of IVF programs need to be analyzed on a long-term basis.
Similar to building a new freestall shed or updating a parlor, these projects are typically not paid for instantaneously – rather they are offset by the overall long-term improvement of the cows on the dairy.
IVF programs allow for the greatest genetic progress in the shortest amount of time. Decreasing generation intervals serve to improve the genetic base of the herd, which will result in more milk with greater components and a cow that ultimately lasts longer in the herd.
No matter what your formula is for defining a “genetically valuable cow,” the genetic basis of your herd improves with your selection intensity, defining what is important on your dairy.
Indicus East Africa is one of the companies in Eldoret that offering this technology to farmers in Kenya.
Gakindu Dairy Co-operative Society in Mukurwe-ini sub-county of Nyeri and Makongi farm in Uasin Gishu County are piloting the technology which they say would considerably reduce costs of high quality dairy heifers.
Ephantus Gichohi, Gakindu Dairy Co-operative Society chairman, says they bought the idea from the East African Semen and Embryo Transfer Association and organised for farmers’ sensitisation programme in partnership with Agricultural Sector Development Support Programme.
He says with proper uptake of the technology by farmers, the society projects to increase its milk collection from current five to 30 litres per cow every day.
Tim Chesire says Makongi firm has entered into a partnership with Invitro Brasil, one of the largest embryo companies in the world, to set up the first laboratory to offer farmers cheaper breeding options. The firm has built a laboratory which has a capacity to produce more than 20,000 embryos annually with a projected success rate of 45 per cent.
“With this new technology, farmers will get quality heifers and embryos at reasonable prices,” he says.
The technology entails removal of female eggs (oocytes) from a cow and transferring to a laboratory where it is fertilised with semen imported from Europe (Scandinavian countries or France) before it is placed into an incubator.
“The oocytes are extracted from the animal through the use of an improvised plastic tube and stored in a cool box before it is transferred to the lab,” says Chesire.
“In the incubator, our vets will control the temperatures as they wait for the cells to split, an indication that fertilisation has taken root. After seven days, the embryo is then placed unto a surrogate.” Ruth Kogos, an embryologist at Makongi laboratory, said the process of improving breeds through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) locally will cut costs for farmers who have been importing pedigree animals from South Africa.
“Before we remove the oocytes from the cow, our team has to conduct an extensive research and protocol on the animal to ascertain the vaccination record and its reproductive status to ensure the final breed is of good quality,” she said.
Kogos explained that the transfer process has the capability of determining the ideal sex for the unborn calf, an advantage IVF has over Artificial Insemination (AI). Through the use of ultra sound, the farmer will know the sex of the calf 80 days after the oocytes have been transferred.
Chesire says Borana cows are ideal as surrogates because of their capacity to easily calf. “The good thing about IVF is that the surrogate does not transfer its genes to the unborn because they are just used to carry the foetus,” he explained.
He said dairy breeds developed through IVF can produce more than 40 litres of milk daily. “For the entire process, we only charge Sh50, 000. Importing pedigree animals from South Africa costs Sh250, 000,” he said.
Farmers in the region have welcomed the initiative, saying it will help them improve on their breeds. Stephen Sorobit, a farmer from Cheptiret, asked the Uasin Gishu County Government to support the initiative by subsidising the costs of the process for interested farmers.
“We have suffered for long. This is an opportunity for us to improve our dairy breeds so we can reap more from farming,” he said. Sorobit challenged the Agriculture ministry to rationalise milk prices in the market so that farmers can benefit from their sweat.