Reyher family from left to right: Son Austin Reyher and wife Callan, Jeanne and Mark, Daughter Sierra and husband Austin Barstow

When it comes to technology in agriculture it is easy to think about farming. Advancements in GPS and insight analytics are just some examples of how technology has pushed agriculture into the modern day. Turning to animal agriculture, technology may be easier to overlook, but it is there, especially when it comes to reproduction.

The science behind embryo transfer and In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in bovine is absolutely fascinating. With aspects like fetal genomic testing and sexing of embryos, producers now have the ability to precisely select for desirable traits, EPD’s and sex of a calf before it is even born.

These advancements in reproductive science have done wonders to escalate the quality of the cattle industry by in large. Although the aspects and nuances behind the practice may seem overwhelming, when broken down into layman’s terms the concept is easier to comprehend.

Jeanne Reyher, embryologist and co-owner of Reyher Embryonics, emphasizes embryo transfer offers benefits for all kinds of beef and dairy producers, both seedstock and commercial.

“We have commercial clients that produce club calves or they have genetics within their herd they want to retain, so we will flush that cow. We also work with commercial producers through our cooperative recipient program because we transfer the registered embryos into commercial cattle and then pay those producers a premium to raise that calf,” Reyher explained.

Reyher went on to say, no matter what a producer’s reproductive goals might be, they need not be intimidated by the process.

There are two ways to gather embryos from a cow. One way is done through flushing, which is also called In-Vitro Production. First, the cow is treated with hormones to stimulate ovulation and express oocytes. The cow is then either inseminated or bred by a bull. Once the oocyte is fertilized by the semen, an embryo is formed. Seven days after conception the embryos are flushed from the donor cow. At that time they can either be transferred fresh or they can be frozen.

Because the cow is stimulated with hormones, she can produce several embryos. Reyher says the specific number of embryos really varies from cow to cow with some producing upwards of 20 embryos per flush.

The other embryo transfer method is IVF. In this process, oocytes are aspirated from the ovaries, collected and then taken to a lab. At the lab, the oocytes are fertilized in a petri dish to again form an embryo. The embryos grow for seven days in an incubator before being transferred, froze or biopsied.   

Embryos from open cows can be flushed all year long, but through the IVF method, oocytes can be flushed from a cow even when they are pregnant. This allows the donor cow to still produce a calf herself and oocytes can be collected until the fetus is about 100 days old.

“Some people call embryos clones, but they are not. Embryos from the same flush are actually siblings,” Reyher pointed out.

Reyher and her husband Mark have ran Reyher Embryonics since 1986. Reyher herself does most of the arm work on the cows, while Mark does most of the lab work. Recently, the couple’s youngest son, Austin, has become a certified embryologist in the state of Montana, so he too will join the family business.

Like any ag industry, embryo transfer has its seasons. Cattle are flushed at certain times of the year depending on if they are spring or fall calvers. In the case of Reyher Embryonics, the business also has a mobile lab so cattle can either be flushed on-site or they can be brought to the Reyher’s facility, located in Belgrade, Mont.

Reyher Embryonics deals with clients all over the United States and they have exported embryos to other countries. Embryos can be frozen and shipped as some producers want to place them in recipient cows closer to home. The other option is to have the embryos transferred into recipient cows in Montana. The Reyher’s offer a cooperative recipient herd program so producers that do embryo transfer can either buy the pregnant recipient cow or they can only purchase the calf back after weaning.

Certified embryologists in Montana are licensed to work on bovine, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t variety in the job. Reyher says she has worked on everything from English breeds and continental breeds to Belted Galloway, bucking stock, dairy cows and even Longhorns.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with some really phenomenal cattle of all breeds,” Reyher said.

Boiled down, flushing and embryo transfer is to cows what semen collection and AI’ing is to bulls. By proliferating a superior dam, her entire lifetime of production can essentially be done in one flush. Embryo transfer is a great option for cattle producers wishing to improve or maintain the quality and consistency of their herd.