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New research aims to improve cattle fertility

Researchers are evaluating the cellular, molecular, genomic and all aspects of animal reproduction in order to address fertility issues in beef cattle.

The breeding season is well underway and come fall, we’ll have the veterinarian come out to our ranch and pregnancy check the herd.

Without question, a quick ultrasound is the cheapest investment possible to ensure we are feeding and wintering cows that are pregnant and within our calving window.

It’s also the best place to start building your cull list. Opens and lates are the first to go, followed by older culls, poor doers, bad milkers and ornery dispositions.

Yet, each year at pregnancy checking time, there’s always a favorite cow or a top performer that shocks you as the veterinarian calls out, “Open!”

There’s nothing quite like the sting of losing a good one that can really dampen spirits on an otherwise good day.

And the second you hear the vet’s diagnosis, you start racking your brain to figure out the reason why she didn’t breed back.

Was it my mineral program? Was it the bull? Did she abort her calf during the grazing season? Did I ever see her come around? Was it my AI protocol? Did she milk too hard? Is her body condition score worse than normal?

Without a doubt, fertility is one of the most important traits to track in any cow-calf operation. You can have the best bull genetics. You can have the fanciest looking heifers. You can have the most lush grass or give access to the most expensive mineral out there.

But if your heifers don’t cycle, if your cows don’t breed back and if you’re calving season stretches out farther than you would like, fertility might be the first thing to look at.

At Auburn University, researchers are examining reproductive inefficiencies and ways to improve fertility in beef cattle.

“Our research at the moment is about understanding the complexities and assorted mechanisms of pregnancy,” said Fernando Biase, Auburn University assistant professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Animal Sciences and leader of the project.

According to a press release, “For the first time, investigators performed integrative analyses of pairs composed by the embryo and the endometrium of the same pregnancy, initiated by artificial insemination in cattle. The discovery of this natural molecular variability existing in natural pregnancies opens a new window of opportunity to better understand the plasticity inherent to healthy pregnancies.”

A four-year, $400,000 USDA grant has allowed researchers to advance their study of animal reproduction systems by applying research on the cellular, molecular, genomic and whole animal aspects of reproduction.

“As an embryo arrives in the uterus, the establishment of pregnancy is highly dependent on molecular signals exchanged between the embryo and the uterus,” said Biase. “In this latest published report, we identify thousands of genes actively involved in that embryo-uterus bonding.

“There are studies that have looked at the endometrium alone and other reports that have studied the conceptus tissue alone. But no one has ever integrated these two. We were able to study them in an integrative manner when we started working with them in pairs.”

According to the report, “Nearly all of the 9,500-plus genes functioning in the embryo have regulatory interactions with approximately 65% of the more than 8,500 genes functioning in the endometrium.

“Most importantly, a couple of hundred of those genes—223 in the embryo and 212 in the endometrium— produce molecular messages, named messenger RNA, that produce distinguishable profiles unique to each pregnancy.

“While the initial research involves dissecting the pregnancy process to better understand how it works, the next phase will include disrupting the system using artificial reproductive technologies.”

To read more about the study, click here.

I am keenly interested in following this research because I think once we as producers understand the intricate balances and interactions of each unique pregnancy a cow has, we can better equip ourselves with the tools we need for her to maintain a pregnancy and remain productive in our herd for years to come.

“We’ll be able to understand when these pregnancies fail, and what is occurring outside that window of normality,” said Biase. “Then, we’ll hopefully find ways to fix those things. Understanding the relationship between the embryo and uterus also opens new opportunities for researchers to investigate how this embryo-maternal bond is affected by artificial reproductive technologies.”

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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