Photo credit: Just Shoot Me by Tammy--
The team at BovaGen. Marty Jensen, manager, and Miles Morris and Lucas Cutler are Embryo Technicians.
Photo credit: Just Shoot Me by Tammy-- The team at BovaGen. Marty Jensen, manager, and Miles Morris and Lucas Cutler are Embryo Technicians.

Skill and controlled temperature are critical factors in performing cutting-edge technology in cattle reproduction. At a new facility just north of Britton, S.D. a veterinarian from Pennsylvania is teaching those needed skills to the team at the BovaGen clinic. 

And within the walls of the structure, Dr. Boyd Bien works with Lucas Cutler and Miles Morris to learn from Dr. Bill Croushore about ovum pick-up (OPUs) for in vitro fertilization (IVF). 

These progressive procedures offer a way for owners to generate the highest quality cattle herd from the genetics of their animals. Bien said a limited number of cattle producers will use IVF. 

Because there is an increased demand for the technology, he offers IVF along with the on-farm services, in-clinic services, donor and recipient boarding, superovulation and collection of donors, embryo implantation, embryo freezing, artificial insemination and ultrasound. Marty Jensen handles the feeding and care of all donor cows and heifers at BovaGen and setting up and AI’ing the donors.

Bien, DVM and founder of BovaGen, began on-farm embryo transfer (ET) services in 1983 in Texas. In 2011, he returned to South Dakota to live in the area where he grew up around Lake City and establish his business.

There are more elements to control in IVF versus conventional embryo transfer. Bien said the difference between ET and IVF is in the embryo/oocyte collection method. The skilled technician uses an ultrasound guided needle to aspirate the cow’s ovary through the vaginal wall to collect the oocytes or unfertilized eggs. Once retrieved, the trained technicians count and grade the oocytes. The same day, the specimens ship to the Boviteq lab in Madison, Wis., where selected semen fertilizes them and then they mature for seven days before being placed in recipient animals or frozen for transfer at a later date. 

Distance learning

The specialized process needs expert training. For now, Dr. Croushore travels from his home in Pennsylvania to the Britton facility every four weeks. He performs the aspiration of the ovaries of the designated animals and trains Bien, Cutler and Morris. 

The ability to determine the sex of the embryo fuels the demand. Bien said in this area of the country, they work mostly with beef animals with the majority coming from Angus herds and those raising club calves. 

Controlled temperature around 80 degrees is critical to the IVF procedure, Bien said. He built a 

new structure that allows for an optimum working environment. Once the oocytes are taken from the cows, the temperature has to stay constant during the examination of the specimens, and when they are washed and put in growing medium similar to a cow’s uterus. The trays travel in incubators during their overnight trip to the Bovateq lab in Wisconsin.  


Benefits of genetics

Faster genetic progress is possible with IVF. Bien said the advantages for the producers are:  *The procedure can be done on heifers before they reach puberty, at around seven months. 

•It can be performed on cows that are pregnant up to 100 days of pregnancy and on those cows that have fertility problems. 

•This can be repeated every 2 weeks on cows, rather than every 35 days. 

• It takes less semen. Bien said they use sorted (reversed sexed) semen to determine male calves In this area. One straw of valuable semen can fertilize multiple donors. Success rates are improving but it is not quite as high as conventional. 

Once the oocytes are flushed from the animal, Cutler uses a microscope to identify the viable specimens and prepares them for shipment.  He and Morris handle most aspects of embryo handling, inventories, and record keeping, as well as assisting in the procedures. 

Cutler said he has had a passion for improving cattle genetics for as long as he can remember, and he has gained a great appreciation for good genetic selection in the seed stock industry. He grew up in a family with a commercial beef operation. 

Starting in 2014, Cutler helped Bien with calving in his commercial cow herd. Bien invited him to work with him at Bovagen. 

“The procedures always interested me,” Cutler said. “I went to AI (artificial insemination) school in 2011, and enjoy learning. The work Dr. Bien has spurred me to learn more.”  

Morris said the best learning comes from working with Croushore and Bien to understand the process.  Morris grew up in Missouri and did an AI internship near Redfield after college. Not coming from a traditional farm or ranch background, he said he’s always been interested has always been in reproduction of beef cattle. 

The work is satisfying for Morris. He said, “You get to help so many ranchers increase their genetics. There is a lot of work but a lot of satisfaction.”

While the staff is learning these procedures, it will not be the right choice for every customer. Bien invites cattle producers to talk to him and his staff to determine how they can help. The other services they offer are important tools in producing the large number of calves on the ground from genetically superior herds.  Check out http://www.bovagen.com/ or call (605)237-0385. 


Connie Sieh Groop is a freelance ag journalist. Contact her at conniegroop19@gmail.com or 605-329-7177.