7/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Carolyn N. Moyer Northern Pa. Correspondent
ROME, Pa. — In a quest to help farmers increase the genetic potential of their cattle, the Endless Mountains Veterinary Center has begun offering one of the newest tools in bovine reproduction — in-vitro fertilization.
The center, formerly known as the Rome Veterinary Center, has been a fixture in this corner of Bradford County for nearly 100 years. Founded by Dr. I.V. Stoll, the clinic is now owned and operated by Dr. Donn Laudermilch and his sons, Dr. Ben Laudermilch and Dr. Stephen Laudermilch.
Donn Laudermilch’s career as a veterinarian began when he was hired as an associate at the clinic in 1979 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1981, he bought into the practice.
“When I went into vet school, I wanted to get into embryo transfer,” he said. “But, when I got out here, we were just so busy. I either had to be an embryo transfer vet or a vet who was going around to farms, so I decided to do (farm work). When this opportunity came up, we took it. This is sort of the next thing past conventional embryo transfer.”
When Laudermilch’s son Ben graduated from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007, he came home to join the practice.
Another son, Stephen, graduated from Cornell as a veterinarian in 2011 and also returned to the practice. With several new associates joining them, the Laudermilchs thought that the timing was right to delve into reproductive work as a full-time venture.
They built a curtain-sided specialized barn for 40 donor cows with four rows of box stalls equipped with a milk pipeline, vacuum line and milk house.
They also created a separate area in the back of the existing clinic where the oocytes can be collected from the donor dam. The collection site is next to a small laboratory where a technician can sort the oocytes to prepare them for shipment.
Local farmers can bring their animals in for the day while the oocytes are collected and then take their animals home. For those who don’t live close or who wish to bring their animals to the facility for the duration of the process, the barn is an asset.
“For people who are a little bit farther away, it makes a lot more sense to house the cow here for three weeks or however long they want to keep her here,” Ben Laudermilch said. “Our goal is to fill them up with more embryos than they want as quickly as possible.”
One collection cycle takes about three weeks, and the procedure can be performed on pregnant cows through about the first half of their pregnancies or on young heifers that are cycling.
In addition to the veterinarians and their families, key players in the process are Lydia Sherman, who searches for the viable oocytes and prepares them for shipment; Parker Mathers, who brings years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry to the mix; and Jonathan Laudermilch, who works as the barn manager.
Even Ben Laudermilch’s daughters, Gracelyn, 7, and Janna, 3, eagerly help when they can.
The practice also includes veterinarians Jennifer Olmstead, Elena Helmerick, Nicolette Harris, Andrea Watson, Jesse Robinson and Meghan Fowler to staff satellite clinics and for farm calls, plus numerous staff members. The coverage area extends from northeast Pennsylvania into a couple of counties in New York.
“We have good relationships with the local vets that we border,” Ben Laudermilch said. “They can send the cows here. We can send them a lot of embryos, and that can benefit the producer.”
In 2011, the center began superovulating and collecting oocytes from donors on a limited basis. Early results were sometimes disappointing, but staff members forged ahead fine-tuning their methods and searching for a laboratory that would give them more consistent results. They started slowly, using their own cattle.
“That was a validation process,” Donn Laudermilch said.
In the beginning, they were achieving only a 10 to 15 percent embryo development rate. That wasn’t even close to the rate that they were striving to reach.
“We have to get a good oocyte to embryo development rate,” Donn Laudermilch said.
Today, they work with Boviteq, a Canadian-based company that has established an in-vitro fertilization laboratory in Wisconsin.
Oocytes are sent via overnight delivery to the lab. After embryonic viability has been established, some are frozen while fresh ones are shipped back to the clinic and can then be implanted.
“I pushed for them to have a lab in the United States,” Donn Laudermilch said.
Boviteq promised better results, and the Laudermilchs were eager to make this new venture work.
“In April (2013), we began sending oocytes to Boviteq. We had 35 recipients at the time, and they said they could fill us up in one session. We said we’ll believe it when we see it, and they did,” Ben Laudermilch said.
At that time, the Laudermilchs wanted to go public with the service, but Boviteq wanted them to establish a validation process too.
“They wanted a validation phase until we could prove our embryo development and prove our success and the new (Boviteq) lab’s success,” Ben Laudermilch said.
After gathering pregnancy data and embryo development data proving the success of both the new Boviteq laboratory and the collection process, they were ready to offer their services to the public.
At the time of this interview, they were preparing to implant embryos from their most recent session with a success rate of 13 oocytes per donor with a 70 percent embryo development rate.
“Last week, we aspirated two donors, sent 26 oocytes, and we got back 18 embryos,” Ben Laudermilch said.
The previous two sessions yielded 49 and 47 percent embryo development rates.
“What I expect is a 50 percent embryo development rate and a 50 percent pregnancy rate off of the embryos that we put in on average overall,” Ben Laudermilch said.
As with any new development in reproductive technologies, in-vitro fertilization has its champions and its critics. Early failures coupled with the expense can discourage farmers from making that investment.
Through their work, the Laudermilchs are trying to change farmers’ perceptions. As they continue to study their embryo development and pregnancy rates, they are also looking at the economic data.
Their cost analysis shows that compared with conventional embryo transfer, in-vitro work can be more expensive on a per embryo basis but equal or less expensive on a per heifer calf rate.
They are also using less follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH, compared with conventional embryo transfer, and the donor cows can maintain a 13-month calving interval.
“If it’s economically viable for the producer, they will continue to do it,” Ben Laudermilch said.
In April, Endless Mountains Veterinary Center held an open house to show off the new facility. The center is open to both dairy and beef breeds in an effort to increase profitability.
“At the open house, some people really didn’t believe our results,” Ben Laudermilch said. “We’d been trying to focus on quality and worked on it in-house until we had something that we could present to the local dairymen. We’ve validated it, and now it has to work for the commercial guy.”
As the technology continues to change, the veterinarians and technicians have adjusted their techniques. Embryos can now be frozen and thawed for direct transfer with one step instead of several.
Embryos are being tested for their genetic potential in as few as 14 to 21 days, and embryo development rates continue to climb.
The future holds many unknowns, but the Laudermilchs view the new technology as a way to increase cattle numbers efficiently.
“Our basis for this is to try to provide food for the world,” Donn Laudermilch said.
“We’re using cows that have type and have production,” Ben Laudermilch said. “If they have better type, they will live longer and we have the production numbers.
“We’re then being better environmental stewards because we’re using fewer environmental resources and leaving less of a carbon footprint,” he said. “Basically, you’re getting a more efficient cow. It makes sense on all levels, and we get to work with cows — animals that we love to work with every day.”