It’s a dry and dusty mid-June morning when a group of university students assembles at the 4S backgrounding lot near Wheatland, Wyo., to breed several hundred heifers from Silver Spur Ranches. They’ve been at it every day for two weeks, checking heat, synchronizing, sorting, AI-breeding and recording data on heifers, often starting and finishing in darkness under the supervision of University of Wyoming animal scientist Scott Lake, PhD, and Cheramie Viator with Silver Spur.

The group inseminated about 1,500 heifers during their stay at Wheatland, but those numbers represent just a portion of the cattle included in a multi-generation, multi-location, multi-disciplinary research and demonstration project involving universities, industry and commercial ranches.

Pfizer Animal Health technical services veterinarian John Rodgers says the project began with a discussion he had with George Perry, an animal scientist at South Dakota State University. The initial goals Rodgers and Perry discussed were to explore, demonstrate and implement ways to effectively use estrus synchronization and AI in a variety of commercial ranch settings. The project would measure biological and economic factors in evaluating the impacts of these technologies on ranch productivity and profitability. Initially the program focused on comparing AI with natural-service offspring in terms of heifer calves retained in the herd and steer calf performance through harvest, but then expanded to include genomic evaluation of cows, bulls and calves.

The project grew to include researchers at the Universities of Wyoming and Minnesota and Purdue University, several commercial ranches including Silver Spur, and additional experts from Pfizer Animal Beef Technical Services, Pfizer Animal Health Outcomes Research and Pfizer Animal Genetics. The study includes cattle in 15 locations in seven states. By the end of 2013, the fifth year of the project, researchers will have collected data on approximately 17,000 cattle.

Early payoffs

Once the researchers complete the study and analyze the data, they expect to learn a great deal about the biological and economic impacts of using AI in multiple generations of females in commercial herds. They’ll evaluate correlations between genomic predictions, EPDs and actual performance of heifer and steer progeny for an array of traits. Lake says the data potentially could help identify genetic markers for fertility or AI pregnancy rates in replacement heifers.

We’ll have to wait for those final results, but participants say the project already has yielded valuable information and practical benefits, particularly from the educational components.

Ground-level research

Learning on the job

Lake says that while data analysis is pending, the project already has provided a unique and effective educational experience for all participants. In each of the project’s four years, undergraduate and graduate students from multiple universities have signed on to spend part of their summer working cattle. It’s a unique opportunity, Lake says, for students to gain hands-on experience working and breeding 2,500 to 3,000 heifers in a real-world, commercial environment, while learning proper cattle-handling techniques, recordkeeping and other valuable skills.

One of those students, Ricardo Arias, has been involved with the project since its inception in 2008, working with Lake at Purdue University when he was a faculty member there. Since then, Arias, a native of Honduras, followed Lake to the University of Wyoming to pursue a master’s degree in animal science. He now helps supervise the students and manages data collection. He says he typically works with a crew of about six students each year. This year’s group included students from Wyoming, Virginia Tech and Purdue. He says the students learn to take initiative and gain management responsibilities while learning to handle, sort, vaccinate, heat-check and inseminate heifers. They also learn to use the “Archer” hand-held electronic tag reader and data-collection device. Some students have prior experience with handling cattle and some do not, but over the course of the breeding season, most become quite skilled.

Another UW student, Chance Marshall, says participating in the project as an undergraduate helped inspire him to enter a graduate program studying ruminant nutrition. He says students learn about estrus synchronization in class and from textbooks but few have the opportunity to gain first-hand experience working with large numbers of cattle. The project helped him direct his academic goals, and he looks forward to applying his skills in a career in cattle nutrition and reproduction.

“From an educational standpoint,” Lake says, “I think one of the neatest aspects is to watch the students who have been with us for several years — watch them grow. Ricardo — it’s become his project. He runs the show.” Other students have participated in the project for several years, and Lake says, it has been gratifying to watch them develop leadership skills and take on more responsibility each year.

Ground-level researchSilver Spur’s Viator says the passion and motivation the students bring to the project have helped it succeed. “I believe a person has to have a real passion to want to breed heifers in this kind of AI project. The students who have helped in this project are typically out and going at daylight and still at the pens at dark, just like most ranchers. Keeping a group of college students motivated to do this day after day isn’t hard when they are passionate about wanting to be a part of the beef industry. We have had a great group of young people to work with.” Rodgers says that across four years at all the study locations, over 100 students have participated in the project.

Managing the moving parts

The learning experiences throughout the project have not been limited to students, Viator and Lake say. The logistics of synchronizing and breeding 2,500 heifers, in three states, using the right semen at the right time, collecting DNA samples and maintaining all the right records takes a lot of planning, communication and a little luck.

“It has been vital to communicate with UW, the Pfizer team, ranch managers and feedyard managers on everything from schedules to food,” Viator says, “especially since some of the locations we work at aren’t exactly a five-minute drive  to town.” Typically the team begins planning a couple of months ahead. For the Silver Spur cattle, Lake pulls together the research pieces, working with Pfizer to arrange the CIDRs and other supplies, and manages the students. Viator arranges to deliver the semen to each Silver Spur location and keeps the crews fed and housed. “At the 4S yard in Wheatland, the owner, Marty Shepard, and his sister Deb have been awesome to work with,” she says. “They typically have several AI projects going in addition to ours, and it’s been good for the students to learn about being respectful of what all is going on at such a location.”

After each location and AI season, the team trades ideas on how to improve the process. “It has been important to listen to the students and gather their suggestions for improvements,” she adds.

Applied genetics

From the perspective of participating ranches, a primary goal of the project is to improve cow herd genetics by using proven AI sires on multiple generations of replacement heifers. Viator says Silver Spur hopes to increase consistency in its herds through more half-sib females while using genomic testing to help identify and propagate genetics that can survive in the operation’s challenging environments, including high-elevation locations and desert, and a minimal-input management program. Through this process, they hope to eliminate the bottom one-third of the cow herd based on production targets, and genomic testing potentially can accelerate progress.

Rather than specifying estrus-synchronization protocols, Lake says, the research team leaves that decision up to the participating ranches based on their production systems. The Silver Spur heifers the group bred in Wheatland, for example, would return to the company’s expansive ranch near Walden, Colo., shortly after breeding, where it would be impractical, if not impossible, to check each one for pregnancy 35 days later. So Silver Spur chooses to use a seven-day co-synch program with CIDRs, checking heat up to 60 hours and followed by timed AI at 72 hours for those not in heat. Upon return to the ranch, cleanup bulls are turned in with the heifers.

The group collects DNA samples from every AI sire and cleanup bull used in the study, so the genomic parentage tests on calves will determine the percentage of calves resulting from AI breeding versus natural service, while also allowing researchers to correlate progeny performance with genomic predictions.

Already, Viator says, Silver Spur has begun to use project data to identify sires that work and don’t work based on conception rates, altitude tolerance, calving ease and daughters returning to production. In 2012, the fourth year of the project, the team began breeding daughters of females from the study’s first year, providing a look at the impact of using AI on multiple generations of heifers.

But perhaps the biggest reward, she says, is students who want to come back and help. “It is also fun to see them go forward and implement what they have learned, either in their own family operations or in their careers in the beef industry.”