For beef cattle producers, maximizing reproductive rates of replacement heifers is critical to the economic sustainability and viability of their farms, as infertility and pregnancy loss are common problems that decrease reproductive efficiency in beef heifers, according to researchers at Virginia Tech.
To combat this issue, researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture & Life Sciences are working on a method to effectively identify which heifers will be able to successfully reproduce, which saves farmers resources, time and money, an announcement said.
They are using big data and cutting-edge analytics to find genetic markers in heifers that have become pregnant -- as well as those that have not -- as the backbone of their research that is driven by machine-learning algorithms, Virginia Tech said. These algorithms were applied on data from two breeding sessions to allow for a significant amount of input data points and a strengthening of the ability to predict those markers associated with pregnancy outcome.
“This will help farmers to adequately allocate resources in their farms and increase the cow/calf production efficiency while minimizing potential loss,” said Fernando Biase, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech department of animal and poultry sciences. “Fifteen percent of heifers that do not get pregnant in their first breeding season cause a considerable amount of financial loss that the producer will not bring back to the farm.”
Biase recently received a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food & Agriculture to conduct the research on how early these genetic markers could be identified and whether there is a means for a farmer to determine early on if that animal is going to produce a calf, the university said.
Farmers spend significant energy and resources to have a potential replacement heifer calf gain enough weight in order to be at a healthy reproduction level in order to produce a calf at around two years of age. Even with their efforts, sometimes that just doesn’t happen.
Many management procedures have been utilized to maximize the reproductive potential of beef heifers, including controlled weight gain, identification of reproductive maturity by physiological and morphological indicators and the implementation of an estrous synchronization program, Biase said.
Biase and the other researchers are working to understand the potential gene transcripts that circulate in the animal’s bloodstream that can potentially predict the likelihood of a pregnancy occurring, with the goal of finding out how early these transcripts can be identified in a heifer calf.
This research opens the door for better resource allocation for farmers. Through a simple blood test, farmers could determine the likely reproductive rate of a heifer.