A reproductive soundness exam is a non-invasive examination of the reproductive tract of breeding age female cattle. The exam provides valuable information to help producers make important management decisions for heifers, donors and problem breeders.
Understanding the Reproductive Soundness Exam
About one to two months before breeding heifers for the first time, a reproductive soundness exam can be conducted to estimate sexual maturity and identify heifers with problematic tracts (i.e.: Freemartin, abnormally shaped pelvis, etc.). During the exam, a reproductive tract score is assigned and a pelvic area measurement is made for each heifer to estimate her potential as a replacement heifer.
The reproductive tract score is a subjective assessment of sexual maturity attained by palpation of the reproductive tract through the rectal wall. The technician evaluates the size and tone of the uterus as well as the presence of ovarian structures. A score of 1 through 5 is assigned to each heifer, where a 1 corresponds to a sexually immature heifer and a 5 indicates a cycling heifer.
The pelvic area measurement approximates the internal dimensions of the pelvis using a sliding caliper device known as a pelvimeter. The internal arms of the pelvimeter are cupped inside the technician’s gloved hand, inserted into the rectum and positioned in the pelvic cavity. The arms of the pelvimeter are opened so that the top arm extends to the sacral vertebrae and the bottom arm rests on the pelvic floor. The measurement indicated on the exterior portion of the pelvimeter corresponds to the height of the pelvic space. The pelvimeter is then repositioned to measure the width of the pelvis at its widest part. The height and width measurements are multiplied together to give an estimation of the total pelvic area.
Prior to beginning superovulatory hormone treatments for conventional embryo transfer, a reproductive exam is useful for determining if a female is a viable candidate for flushing. During this exam, the reproductive tract is palpated per the rectum to verify that all the necessary reproductive organs are intact and the donor is not currently pregnant. Once these are confirmed, the technician will likely use transrectal ultrasound to detect any potential problems (i.e.: ovarian cysts, adhesions, etc.) that would preclude the donor from producing viable embryos. Ultrasonography images of ovarian structures are also used to determine whether the cow is cycling or anestrous. If the cow is cycling, a count of all follicles is made and the presence of any corpora lutea is noted.
There are a host of reasons why a cow might be a problem breeder; however, some of these issues are detectable during a reproductive soundness exam. The entire reproductive tract of the problem breeder is evaluated via palpation per the rectum and/or transrectal ultrasonography to attempt to identify the issue (i.e.: infection, ovarian cysts, adhesions, etc.). If an infection is detected, a uterine swab may be cultured to identify the offending pathogen.
Advantages of the Reproductive Soundness Exam
While neither the reproductive tract score nor the pelvic area measurement can guarantee fertility, they both provide valuable information for producers. Perhaps the most practical use for the reproductive soundness exam in heifers is to identify heifers that are poor candidates for replacement females. For example, heifers identified as sexually immature (tract score 1 or 2) may be unlikely to breed during a defined breeding season. Additionally, the likelihood of calving difficulty is considerably greater for heifers with an abnormally shaped pelvis or small pelvic area when compared to their counterparts with a larger pelvic space. Identifying these heifers can help a producer decide which heifers to breed and which ones to cull.
For heifers selected for breeding, information obtained from the reproductive exam is also beneficial when choosing an estrous synchronization protocol for artificial insemination. Without knowing the cyclicity status of the heifers, a producer may be persuaded to use a progestin-based protocol (i.e.: CIDR or MGA) to induce estrous cycles in potentially prepuberal heifers. If, however, the exam indicates that the vast majority of the heifers are cycling, the producer has more options for estrous synchronization, including the lower-cost and less time-consuming protocols that lack a progestin component.
Flushing a donor cow requires a considerable investment of both labor and financial resources. A reproductive soundness exam can detect issues that may preclude a donor cow from producing viable embryos. Typical issues that hamper a donor’s flush performance include: unrecognized pregnancy, uterine infection, non-cylicity, ovarian cysts and adhesions. Timely identification of treatable conditions allows the problem to be resolved prior to commencing a superovulatory regimen. Identifying untreatable problems prior to flushing can save a considerable amount of time and money.
For donors that successfully pass the pre-flush reproductive exam, the technician can use ovarian structures to determine the timing and protocol for superovulation when a reference heat is not available. The follicular count can also be used as a guide to determine superovulatory dosages of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) for donors that have not been flushed previously.
When a valuable female has difficulty breeding or carrying a calf to term, it can be very frustrating. A reproductive exam can sometimes be used to identify the underlying cause. Frequent issues observed in problematic cows include: non-cyclicity, Freemartins, ovarian cysts, adhesions, scarring, and uterine infections. If a problem is identified, the owner can use the information to decide what to do with the cow.
Important Considerations for the Reproductive Soundness Exam
Fertility/flush performance not guaranteed
As previously mentioned, reproductive tract scores and pelvic measurements do not guarantee fertility or problem-free calving in heifers. Likewise, successful completion of a pre-flush reproductive exam does not guarantee that a donor will produce any viable embryos. For problem breeders, the underlying issue cannot always be diagnosed by a reproductive exam. The reproductive exam is meant only to be a tool to help identify issues that may affect reproductive performance in order to facilitate management decisions.
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