Luke Fober grew up on a small dairy in northeast Iowa. He graduated from Iowa State University in 2015 with a degree in dairy science. In 2017, he joined the Trans Ova team as a GAC herdsman. Now, he serves as our dairy donor manager.
What dairy housing and services are available to clients in Iowa?
Right now, our calf program can take in newborn calves and feed them out either for custom raising or even work into our program. Down the road, we also can bring the calves into our older donor housing where we can start working OPUs, IVF, or commercial flushes. That program is usually anywhere from five months of age all the way up to two years, or whenever they decide to get done. The one thing we do not have though is lactating animals because we don’t have the facilities to manage milking donors.
Who makes up the Trans Ova dairy donors team?
For the last five years, for the most part it’s been me up here at the GAC, Micah Schouten and Austin Rohrs, who are all herdsman up here. I work closely with Rhianna Frost, who is an OPU technician. She does most of our dairy donor OPUs and flushes. I have three employees at the calf site that I work really close with: Ross, Allie, and Maddie. We work close with our vet services, too. They help the calf site with any calf health concerns or anything like that.
What types of donors does Trans Ova take care of, and what goals do clients set for their donors?
Most of our donors here are pretty much genomic purposes only. I think it was 2010 when the genomic world really blew up in the dairy industry. So, a lot of clients decided to build off that. It used to be a high type of world, more show cattle, stuff like that. But as times have evolved, we are shifting more toward genomics and working with larger dairies and their elite animals to create elite replacements. We do have a couple export deals that are going on with some clients, so we work with those as well.
What sets Trans Ova’s donor housing program apart from others?
I think for the most part, the big thing is the communication aspect. I know the clients really like how we communicate with them directly. We’ll do it via email, phones – pretty much whatever the client wants and works best for them. I have one client, he goes, “Nope, just don’t waste your time with emails. Send me a text message.” Our clients get the information that they need right away. If there’s any health concerns, they find out right away; there’s no lag.
Also, I know the herdsman all really want to see the client succeed. It doesn’t matter who it is, or what their name is, they’re all equal up here. We see them as an opportunity to help develop the dairy program throughout the country, and we pride ourselves on that.
What are the three keys to success of a dairy IVF program?
Consistency, I’d say is number one – making sure that you’re not changing their environment or nutrition up on a regular basis. Stay consistent with those two things. Consistency on who’s doing OPUs as well. We’ve seen that help pay off a little bit too. Consistency is number one in my opinion.
The next thing is nutrition. Nutrition is what helps drive. If an animal isn’t getting their energy needs, repro is one of the first things to go. So, if you’re not meeting those energy needs, then we will see a decrease in results.
The third part is the client and herdsman relationship we have up here: the communication and the trust that they have in us to do the right things and make the right calls. They know we want what’s best for them, even if it’s not what’s best for Trans Ova. In the end their animal is what helps drive everything.
What are the dos and don’ts of clients involved in a dairy IVF program?
You can have the opportunity to house your donor, especially if you’re going to work them every two weeks, in a donor housing program. You save time when you don’t have to haul them, and it avoids the stress of hauling them. Another big thing is trying to control the environment as much as you can. We’re fortunate here in northwest Iowa, we’re not crazy hot all the time or crazy cold, but we pretty much get ideal weather besides the wind. But we’re fortunate enough to have buildings that are well sheltered and keep our animals covered during those bad storms or anything like that, and it helps reduce environmental stress.
Focus on your nutrition, too. An IVF donor that’s running every two weeks will require just slightly more energy than a heifer that’s just running out in the lot waiting to get bred. You’re having her reproduce follicles every two weeks, and to do that it requires energy. At the same point, you don’t want too much energy where they get too fat on you. Then it makes OPUs difficult to perform due to a fat pad in there. Then can also get what they call a negative energy balance. I’m by no means a scientist, I can’t fully explain that, but it gets to the point where they get too much energy that it goes toward growth rather than repro.
What nutrition advice do you give dairy IVF clients who don’t want to take the donor housing route?
You talk to most of these dairy guys, they’ve been around long enough that they really know what works and what doesn’t. But, if there’s ever any question, I’d say reach out to your nutritionist. They will give you the most accurate answer. For the most part though, they could probably tweak it themselves. And a lot of it’s just look at your results closely. Is your number of oocytes increasing or decreasing? If they’re decreasing and your heifers starting to look a little chunky, then I’d say she’s probably hit that negative energy balance and now she’s starting to regress rather than maintaining what she needs to. And so, at that point then you maybe look at pulling back a little bit of energy and maybe increasing a little bit more hay just so that way she gets full without overdoing her energy intake.
How do you use animal results to tweak protocols and optimize performance?
Just like client-herdsman communication is important, so is herdsman-technician communication. When I’m sorting donors, I’m constantly poking my head in the door, like saying, “Hey, how’s everything looking right now so far? Does the stimulation look good? Does overall follicle population on these heifers match up to what they have been doing?”
Rhianna’s good about communicating that to me right away. And then at the end of the day, I’ll ask: “What did you see at the, for the most part, what do you think is causing maybe some of these changes that you’ve seen?” So, then she’ll say, “Well, I saw this, this, and this,” and I’ll think about what’s changed in the last week or two weeks, then ask if she thinks it correlates with the changes she saw.
It’s important to talk to each other directly after the OPU, so we know everything’s still fresh in our heads. We can start pinpointing down what’s causing the problems and you know, hopefully get that turned around quicker than later. This way we can get that information back to our clients, or to our team, to see what changes we need to make to promote more follicles and higher EDR and more embryos in the end.
What is it like for you to see multiple generations in your program?
Growing up on a small dairy in northeast Iowa, you got to see the next generation nine months later. We weren’t big into IVF, we just did a little bit of flush work on the side. I never saw the generations quite like I do here, where you get to truly see your results from your breeding choices that you make.
Right now, I have up to three generations: the grandma with her daughter and granddaughters – who have maternal sisters. They all have different sires, so you get to see how your sire choices and your breeding program turned out a lot quicker than what you do with your conventional AI. It’s just fascinating to see the how fast you can change the industry with the technology that Trans Ova has.
What would you consider your favorite part of the job?
When proofs come out every four months and you get to see your clients’ animals dominating that list. It’s just a great feeling to see. We get to see those results, how animals sell at the sales, and see who’s the hot ticket item on those sale bills. To me, that’s the highlight of my job. Then I get to talk to the clients about their success and know we helped make that happen.
What advice do you give to someone entering the workforce who wants to stay in the dairy industry?
The nice thing about the dairy industry is that there are so many different opportunities to apply yourself to and still be part of the dairy industry. You could go work on a dairy for example, and or you could work for Midwest Dairy Association where you are helping promote the dairy industry in marketing, etc. Or you can work for someone like Trans Ova or Select Sires that deal with the repro side. There are enough sectors of the dairy industry, you can still have your hands in it, be part of it and feel like you’re still doing your part – even though you might not be directly back at home milking cows.
How did your perception of the company change after you started working here?
For the most part, my opinion of it hasn’t changed. I’ve always thought very highly of Trans Ova. Everyone I’ve talked to always had good comments about them. Our clients are still the same now.
However, before I worked here, I never realized the opportunities Trans Ova has besides IVF and ET. There is so much more to the program than just coming out to your farm and collecting those embryos and freezing them for you and then calling it a day. There’s, there’s way more to it than that. That has been really eye opening to me.
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