Headed for the field: Commercializing a new diagnostic test for cows

Troy Ott, professor of reproductive physiology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is developing a blood test that dairy farmers and livestock veterinarians can use to tell whether a cow failed to conceive after insemination.

Ott’s test -- patented in the United States and nine other countries -- will aim to provide farmers with this important information 18-20 days after a cow has been inseminated, 10-20 days earlier than currently possible.

The simple blood test detects a protein to determine whether a cow is carrying an embryo or whether she has failed to conceive and is “open." Such information can save farmers time and between $1 and $3 per day.

“We have a fairly tight window we target,” said Ott, associate director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “Cows don’t conceive every time we inseminate them, so that’s an issue.” In fact, it takes approximately three inseminations for the average cow to achieve a pregnancy. The average interval between inseminations is dictated by how soon a pregnancy can be detected and is about 40-50 days.

Ott’s test is aimed at cutting that in half.

Ott is working on bringing this test to market with the help of a $75,000 Research Applications for Innovation, or RAIN, grant from the college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. The Penn State Research Foundation contributed $25,000 to the award, which is designed to help researchers commercialize their discoveries.

Ott with cow

Ott and his team do their research on the Penn State dairy farm perfecting the "Open Cow Test," which tells dairy farmers 18-20 days after a cow’s insemination whether she is carrying an embryo or has failed to conceive — a condition known as “open” — and requires re-insemination to become pregnant.

Image: Penn State

Early pregnancy tests, like those available for humans in most drugstores, have eluded the dairy industry.

Traditionally, the test used to detect most cow pregnancies -- called “transrectal palpation” -- is neither easy nor pleasant for dairy farmers and veterinarians. Donning a long glove, they reach shoulder deep inside the cow’s rectum to feel for an embryo inside the uterus.

The test is accurate after 35 days and has many downsides beyond the timing, including shoulder problems for the farmer, noted Ott. There is a blood pregnancy test on the market that is accurate and affordable after 28 days, he says.

The test Ott is working on is the only one that would allow detection of pregnancy status aligned with the 21-day cycle of the cow. This will greatly facilitate getting “open” cows rebred in a timely fashion, he pointed out.

Cows need to calve every year to produce milk and be profitable. Dairy farmers like to have cows give birth every 13 months for optimal milk productivity. The length of a cow pregnancy is about the same as for humans -- nine months.

In the two months following calving, the cow increases milk production to its peak levels of 80-120 pounds per day and continues producing milk for approximately nine months until she is “dried off” to stop milk production and given a two-month hiatus until her next calving.

To maintain the yearly calving interval, cows need to conceive around four months into their lactation.

The longer a cow is not pregnant the more it costs dairy farmers, because  they are feeding her more and she is producing less milk each day. The sooner a farmer can tell if a cow has been successfully inseminated the better it is for the cow and the farmer.

If a cow does not become pregnant within 150-175 days, the cost to keep her can become too high. At that point the farmer has to decide whether to keep her and lose money or cull her from the herd, meaning she will be sold for meat. Failure to conceive is the primary cause for early culling of dairy cows in the United States.

"We do things for a reason in the College of Ag. Our mission in life is to come up with solutions to help agriculture become more profitable, sustainable, and efficient. And so, if we are successful, the students have been part of that, and hopefully they’ll go on and innovate with their careers and develop other technologies that solve problems for agriculture and human food production."

-- Troy Ott

Ott’s “Open Cow Test” would shorten the time to find out if a cow is open from 28 to about 18 days, and is a practically painless procedure for the cows and the farmer or vet.

“This is a test that determines whether the insemination succeeded and whether she [the cow] is pregnant or open [not pregnant],” said Ott.

A small blood sample is taken from the tail vein. Then the sample can be sent to a lab or tested immediately “cow side." The test detects distinct changes in the mother’s proteins in the blood sample that shows she is responding to an active embryo.  

While this test can determine if an embryo is present, it is not a pregnancy test as most embryos are lost in the first four weeks of pregnancy, explained Ott. If an embryo is not present, then the cow needs to be re-inseminated.

“The test will be a tool that a dairy producer can use to manage fertility and help cows calve on a 13-month schedule and avoid early culling,” said Ott.

RAIN grants help the college’s researchers turn their technologies into commercialized products, often by funding additional testing and product development. Since 2013, the RAIN program has awarded a total of $544,000 to 13 projects and discoveries that show commercial promise. This year, RAIN awarded a total of $300,000 -- $168,750 from the college, $112,500 from the Penn State Research Foundation and $18,750 from the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine -- to four projects, including Ott’s diagnostic test.

Ott is using the RAIN award to adapt the blood test for easy national use. To know if this test will work, the test first has to be simplified and adapted for cows, then thousands of cows have to be sampled to establish the median levels of the protein that shows if the cow is pregnant or not.

“When we get to the end of the funding period, we hope to be ready to move out to what would be the last step before we go commercial; that is putting this in the hands of farmers around the country without our supervision to see if it will work,” said Ott.

The RAIN grant also helps Ott to train his graduate students to assist and conduct these trials. They not only get a chance to learn the science but also to understand how one takes an idea from concept to commercialization.

“We do things for a reason in the College of Ag. Our mission in life is to come up with solutions to help agriculture become more profitable, sustainable, and efficient,” said Ott. “And so, if we are successful, the students have been part of that, and hopefully they’ll go on and innovate with their careers and develop other technologies that solve problems for agriculture and human food production.”

 

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Last Updated November 12, 2015