Nebraska debates over who can do embryo transfers

US - Call it sexual equality or gender unbias. If cattle producers can collect semen from what they think are quality bulls, they also ought to be able to take advantage of their best cows and heifers and combine the two techniques to produce more genetically superior calves. Call it embryo transfer (ET).
calendar icon 21 February 2007
clock icon 7 minute read
“Without ET available in the state, it would make a serious economic impact on the seedstock producers,” said Jeff Pope, who has a herd of about 100 cows near Ravenna, Neb. “Look at the value of some of the bulls and females sold in this state. Look at the names of the more popular herds, national and worldwide leaders in their respective breeds. All of them are selling calves as a result of ET.”

The embryo transfer process permits a producer to harvest multiple embryos from a cow or heifer and transplant the best embryos into recipient cows, greatly increasing the number of offspring that the donor cow can produce.

Instead of one calf a year and maybe a dozen in a lifetime, that cow can be responsible for dozens in a single season. And the process can be repeated about every 60 days.

The cow receives multiple hormone injections to cause multiple follicles to ovulate. The donor cow is inseminated at peak conception time. About a week later, her uterus is flushed to remove the embryos.

After microscopic examination, the best of the embryos can be transferred to the recipient cows or frozen for later use.

The first such transfer took place more than 100 years ago in England. The procedure required surgery to flush and implant the embryos. It became non-surgical about 30 years ago, which is about the time it came into popular use in the Midwest.

“It’s an important technique for seedstock breeders,” said Jim Gosey, semi-retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Extension beef specialist. “With artificial insemination, they get multiple use of the sires, and some want to utilize their outstanding females. The best way is to use ET, for multiple genetics of outstanding females.

“It’s a tool that’s available, or we hope it’s available,” he said.

A licensed veterinarian doesn’t necessarily have the qualifications to do the procedure. It requires extra training and there are just a few such training facilities in the country, including the National Embryo Transfer School in Senatobia, Miss., and Agtech in Manhattan, Kan. Non-veterinarians also can become trained and practice on their own herds.

But who can do what and where has become an issue in Nebraska, and Pope has become the central figure.

Pope attended the Mississippi school and has a degree in animal science from UNL in 1997. He has a registered Gelbvieh herd between Ravenna and Shelton, Neb. With his training, he also has been able to spread his knowledge, working with about 60 other ranches over the last seven years.

“It’s developed into a nice business for me,” he said. “Or it was, until I received the cease and desist order.”

Last fall, Pope was ordered to stop the embryo transfer practice by the Nebraska Board of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery. He said the board contended that he was practicing veterinary medicine without a license, a Class 3 felony. Pope appealed the order in Buffalo County District Court.

The appeal has since been transferred to Lancaster County, the veterinary board’s home base.

“The state statute doesn’t say anything about embryo transfer,” Pope told those attending the seedstock council meeting during last fall’s Nebraska Cattlemen convention. “It’s broad to allow the vet board to interpret it anyway they want.”

The cease and desist order states that the board had received complaints that Pope was engaging in the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine. An investigation “reflects that you advertise embryo transfer services and provided embryo transfers” in the state without a license.

“Your conduct in holding yourself out as or presenting yourself for embryo transfers, or in providing embryo transfers is the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine,” the order states.

Pope stressed that he wasn’t giving medical advice.

Marla Augustine, spokesperson for the Nebraska Health and Human Services System, the state agency that includes the veterinary board, said the board “could consider something within the scope, even if it’s not in the state statutes.” She likened it to the State Board of Medicine and Surgery making a decision on a laser procedure, even though it wasn’t in the statutes, because it fell within the board’s area of responsibility.

With the pending court case, the chairman of the veterinary board, David Ylander of Alliance, declined to be interviewed for this report.

Pope told the Cattlemen that there were only a couple of veterinarians in the state who were willing and trained to do ET work. With ET growing at a rate of 14 percent per year, Pope said, the vets can’t provide the needed service.

Scott Reynolds, a veterinarian in the Broken Bow-Berwyn area and familiar with Pope’s work, said, “We’ve got to have the Jeff Popes around. What we need to do as an organization is support Jeff and others who do quality ET work.”

Reynolds said ET isn’t a lot different than AI, which also began as a veterinarian-only service but now is used and conducted on many ranches.

“If we let the vet board get by with this, then they’ll come after AI,” he said. “Let’s stop this ball from rolling.”

The Cattlemen passed a resolution to “aggressively seek state policy that allows the state of Nebraska to certify and/or license embryo transfer practitioners.”

The Nebraska Farm Bureau adopted a policy that supports “legislation to exempt ‘embryo transfer’ in cattle services and procedures from being defined as part of the practice of veterinary medicine and surgery” and to work with other interested agriculture organizations to craft legislation.

With the 10 days of bill introductions completed in the 2007 Nebraska Legislature, no bills were offered that dealt with embryo transplants, Augustine said.

Gosey, the UNL beef specialist, said the list of qualified and legal ET practitioners is short. Myron Danner of Burwell, Neb., was the first to do ET work in the state. Though not a veterinarian, Danner has a doctorate in reproductive physiology, which also is acceptable in Nebraska.

Companies such as Cross Country Genetics near Manhattan, Kan., and Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, also do a lot of ET work, Gosey said.

“At a bare minimum, they have to be really good at AI,” Gosey said of individuals wanting to get into ET. “The second hurdle is to go to a reputable ET school. And they have to invest in equipment, just to do their own ET.

“Under current law, they would have to have a practicing vet there in order to handle the drugs. That’s where the disagreement comes, whether the vet they work with has to be on site or they have a good client relationship and be off site, like Jeff,” he said.

One of the frustrating parts of ET is having people qualified but not legally allowed to practice, said Sandy Johnson, a reproductive physiologist and beef specialist at Kansas State Research and Extension in Colby, Kan.

“We’re short of large animal practitioners,” she said. “So the argument is hard to understand when someone comes out of a reproductive program, with extensive practice … but they just can’t do it.”

Pope is convinced ET is the right way to improve cattle quality while making good use of both genetically superior and average cows. The donor cows, with high economic value, provide the embryos placed in commercial cheaper cows.

“Let that cheaper cow raise a valuable calf,” he said in an interview. “The challenge is finding cows under good management and having producers willing to work with you to put the embryos in.

“In this part of the country, breeding season is in the spring, when farmers are more concerned with planting corn. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity for guys with commercial cows if they’re willing to take time to work with a seedstock producer willing to pay a premium to get those calves back at weaning time,” Pope said.

The purebred herd owners don’t have room for commercial cows and want to keep the nice registered cattle around, he said.

“The donor cows last a lot longer,” Pope said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s common in both the beef and dairy industries. With schools like the one I went to, it’s not easy to learn but a guy with extra training could learn to do his own.”

While the approach seems sound, there are no guarantees.

“We’re assuming the cows being flushed are truly superior cows,” Gosey said. “Just because someone thinks they’re superior doesn’t mean they are.” Johnson called it “perceived value.”

“An ET calf is no greater than a natural service calf,” she said. “An ET calf can be a dud just like anything else. A lot of people have the concept that just because it’s ET, it’s better. Quality is strictly based on our ability to put the right genetics together and then what you actually get.”

Pope said ET, someday, will be as common as AI is now. At 55 percent, its success rate is only slightly below AI conception rates, he said.

“You can already order female Holstein embryos right from a catalog,” he said. “It’s going to start happening in the beef industry, too, as the cost goes down. But there’s certainly not enough technicians in the state to carry the industry forward to where it needs to go.”

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