Health & Biotech

Improving bovine fertility

health-biotech
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Dairy cows often experience a high rate of embryonic loss in the crucial first weeks of pregnancy—while 80 percent to 90 percent of cows have a fertilised oocyte (eggs) following insemination, almost a third of these fertilised oocytes are not viable seven days later. Early stage pregnancy relies on nutrient stores within the oocyte to support early development, which is why oocyte quality is key to the survival of the embryo.

Dairy cows worldwide have become less fertile, in part due to being selectively bred for the high yields of milk they produce. Producing milk is incredibly energy intensive and the cows are put under huge nutritional stress which impacts the quality of their eggs. 

Janet Pitman, Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is leading research into how different tissues in the ovaries work together to make good oocytes to improve the egg quality and conception rates in dairy herds. In particular, she is investigating the pathways between eggs and their associated cells, as well as understanding the follicular microenvironment which results in a good egg, to improve the rate of fertility in dairy cows. 

Peter Pfeffer, Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is also leading a team looking at the next stage in bovine IVF technology, extended blastocyst development. This work allows his team to efficiently study genetic traits and health of the blastocyst prior to implantation to ensure only the best examples are implanted.

Together these teams are working to improve conception rates and genetic health of the global dairy herd through advances in IVF technologies, with the support of Wellington UniVentures to get their idea to market

Features & benefits

Economic sustainability

The dairy industry contributes around $20M in export revenue per year so improving the fertility of dairy cows is important for the country’s economic sustainability. The use of IVF is on the increase around the globe to ensure high genetic quality of milk production herds. Technology that can improve the outcomes from this costly process are much sort after by the industry.

Research extends beyond fertility

While research is currently focused on improving conception rates, there is potential opportunity for the research to extend to improving calf quality measures such as birth weight and genetic health. Especially in Europe there are issues with calves born via IVF not being as healthy as naturally conceived animals. It is thought that this is primarily driven by epigenetic changes that happen during oocyte development. This work could provide a solution to combat this poorly understood phenomena.

Next steps

Currently working with a commercial partner to trial IVF technology in dairy herds to validate and quantify the improvements we can achieve in terms of conception success and calf health.