9 July 1999

Now on-farm epidurals are OK under licence

By Jessica Buss

DIY embryo transfer on farm has up until now been thwarted by regulations concerning the epidural required before carrying it. But MAFF and the Royal College of Vet Surgeons recently agreed that farmers and technicians could be trained and licenced to carry out epidurals in the UK.

A group of farmers and technicians recently completed the first three day epidural course at the University of Bristol vet school. The course was sponsored by Avoncroft, Holstein UK and Ireland and Ultimate Plus.

An epidural anaesthetic is an injection in the head of the tail, says Avoncroft vet adviser Ian Cummings. It is used to relax the cow, making transfer easier for the operator and more comfortable for the cow or heifer.

The epidural space around the spinal nerves extends down the tail, but no there is no spinal cord at the tail head. It is, therefore, different to the human lower spine, so giving epidurals to cattle is safer and easier than it is in people.

"When you position the needle correctly the anaesthetic goes in easily and the tail quickly goes limp."

Following success in written and oral exams taken at the end of the course participants can practice the epidural technique, initially in a vets presence, explains Mr Cummings.

Once course participants have completed 50 epidurals with direct vet supervision they can take a further practical test that will licence them to give epidurals on their own farms.

That is on the condition of finding a vet willing to act as your ET Team Leader. All vets performing ET or agreeing to supervise others must be licenced by MAFF as an ET Team Leader, but that vet neednt be present for each embryo transfer, he explains.

"The epidural is needed before flushing cows for embryos, embryo recovery or transfer. Vets can perform the epidural, but a special order allows technicians to train to give epidural anaesthetics for bovine ET," says Mr Cummings. However, only vets are permitted to flush donor cows.

The embryo transfer technique can be mastered easily by skilled AI operators, he adds. Legally anyone can perform bovine ET, but it is illegal to transfer embryos without an epidural.

"Many experienced DIY AI operators want to do ET. We want to make sure they know what to do and that they comply with MAFF regulations."

Producers who successfully complete epidural training and are licensed will still have to work closely with a vet. But this can be a local vet rather than a specialist ET vet, says Mr Cummings.

A vet still needs to issue a certificate confirming each embryo recipient is suitable and the breed of embryo to be implanted is appropriate.

"He must ensure recipients will take a calf to full term and calve naturally. But certificates are valid for 30 days so can be issued at routine vet visits each month or fortnight," he adds.

Mr Cummings believes that producers using their own vets as ET Team Leader will have advantages. The farms vet knows the herd and any management problems, so can advise accordingly and monitor herd welfare. "Many vets seem keen on becoming Team Leaders to get more involved on farms they work with."