RAY (AP) -- Genetics is big business in the cattle industry. So says Ray area farmer Ken Otto.
"We're trying to sell bulls and heifers with predictable genetics that other farmers, ranchers and meat markets are looking for," he said. "We are just going to start embryo transplant work, but we have artificially inseminated for about eight years."
The Ottos note that they are not the only northern Minnesota farmers using the technology, citing farming families in Birchdale, Warroad and Baudette as others who are using the "better genetics."
"A Birchdale farmer bought a cow and calf in a sale down south about two or three years ago and paid $10,500 for the pair," Otto said. "Now his bull calf is so good they are collecting semen and selling it all over the country."
A cow watched over her resting calf at Frostbite Farm in Ray.
Otto said his family's goal for its herd is to obtain that same quality using embryo transfer and artificial insemination.
"We're taking strides to run with the big boys while farming up north," he said.
Although other northern farmers are using the technology, it isn't used highly in this area of Minnesota.
Animal scientist Cliff Lamb of the Outreach and Research arm of the University of Minnesota said less than 1 percent use embryo transplants (ET), but artificial insemination (AI) is a little more widespread.
"Not many farmers in northern Minnesota use ET. It is usually just used in purebred or seed-stock operations. AI is used a little more extensively -- probably in about 5 percent of operations and is a good tool even for commercial operations," said Lamb. "AI has been around for 50 years, whereas nonsurgical ET has been around for about 20-25 years."
Though this is the Ottos' first year using the ET technology, some members of their herd are the result of genetic advancement.
"We have two cows and one bull here who were embryo transplant babies," Otto said. "Eight of this year's calves are AI babies. Of the rest of the herd about one-third are AI products."
In past years, the Ottos have used bulls from other herds in the artificial insemination process.
"It costs anywhere from $10 a 'straw' to $40," Otto said. "Sometimes after you buy it, it goes up in value if it is a really popular bull and he has died."
Otto, along with his wife, Diane, will medicate donor cows Frannie and Sharon to release more eggs than normal and complete the artificial insemination.
According to Diane Otto, several of the herd cows will be medicated at the same time so they are ready recipients of the embryos.
Lamb will be working with the Ottos to improve their herd by performing the embryo transfer.
"After we medicate and inseminate the cow, Dr. Lamb comes up six days later and flushes the embryos and transfers them to readied cows," Diane Otto said. "The embryos are examined under a microscope and counted. Some will be placed in surrogate cows and some will be frozen. It's all in the timing."
Ken Otto said embryos can be sold for a steep price. "The last show I was at they were selling embryos for $800 each. That's the highest price I've seen them," he said, adding they normally price at about $500. "The downside is they only guarantee two out of five embryos. Because we are not buying embryos we are working to have good stock so that people want to buy ours."
A heifer purchased last year may be their ticket to getting started, he said.
"During AI and ET you can get anywhere from 5-25 embryos from a cow," he said. "We are hoping that Frannie will follow her mother who produced 125 eggs in 5 flushes. Then we can start selling embryos and get our money back."
Otto admitted the cost may seem high to bring this technology to northern farms. "The expense is there, but the profitability is better," he said. "That is the reason we are using the technology."
Cattle farmers also need to look at breeds to find the bestsellers on the market.
"We are trying to make a perfect mix of Simmental and Angus breeds to make uniform and high quality steak," Diane Otto said. "Those in the market look for more internal marbling of fat and less fat surrounding the carcass which is what the mixing of those two breeds does. It makes a leaner tastier beef."
The American Simmental Association said in its latest magazine article that mixing the breeds adds 38 percent greater cow longevity and 18 percent more pounds of the calf at weaning period.
"In layman's terms that means almost 50 pounds added to the calf," Ken Otto said. "For example, if your mixed breed calf weighed 600 pounds you would actually be paid the same amount as would be given to a normal 650-pound calf."
Not only are the cattle worth more, but the Simmental/Angus cross takes the best of both breeds -- producing a leaner, tastier beef in a hardier animal.
Ken Otto said meat market advertisers have also been playing power games -- giving a better price for solid-black colored cattle.
"Did you know that black tastes better?" he asked with a smile. "It isn't true, but it is the game they play."
Otto said this myth is partly due to the good advertisement of the black Angus breed.
"I hate to play politics -- which is what the color game is," he said. "But I have to market the animals."
The meat market also demands uniformity, which brings in other forms of technology.
Ultrasound is not only used to check the size and sex of the calf, or fat content of the cow, but to see how big the rib-eye area is going to be.
"One thing they push is consistency," Diane Otto said. "Cause at a restaurant, everyone wants the same size steaks."
The Ottos plan to advertise the herd.
"Our son Caleb has been a Simmental Grand Champion six years in a row," Ken Otto said. "Part of the reason we are showing them is to make people aware of what we have."
Caleb, who said showing the animals is both hard work and fun, has participated and received blue ribbons at the Simmental Junior show for the last three years.
The Otto's daughter Bethany has also shown some of the herd at local 4-H competitions.
In addition to showing the cattle, the Ottos want to set up their own Web page where people can view pictures of the cattle as well as information on the animals' background.
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