“Embryo Transfer and AI work is an opportunity to accelerate your genetic progress,” says Dr. Kory Bigalk, veterinarian and long-time advocate of Simmental genetics. “With the advent of IVF, and other technologies, it allows the beef and dairy industries more opportunity to produce better cattle faster.”
For as long as he remembers, Bigalk has been in the Simmental business. His father started breeding Simmental in the mid-seventies with the guidance of a family friend, Dr. Lynn Aggen, Oak Meadow Farms. After his father passed away and the family farm sold, Bigalk continued the partnership with the Aggens.
Bigalk attended the University of Minnesota studying veterinary medicine. While in veterinary practice, he met his wife, Kareen. “Even before we got married, we agreed that eventually we’d like to own our own farm and raise our children in that environment,” he explains.
Today, Bigalk owns and operates a growing 40-head Simmental operation and diversified donor facility northeast of Rochester, Minnesota, called Diamond K Genetics. From the embryo transfer services to the annual bull sale, Bigalk focuses on improving the customer’s bottom line by helping maximize the genetic potential in their herd. “Within my herd, we collect as much data and do as much genomic testing as possible. For dairy and beef clients, we provide a full line of professional embryo transfer services.”
Building the Donor Business
After completing his veterinarian degree, Bigalk worked in a large animal practice for 12 years while doing embryo transfer (ET) work on the side. Ten years ago, he left general practice and purchased a retiring veterinarian’s ET business and began his own journey into providing donor services to the beef and dairy industries.
For the first few years, a majority of his time was spent traveling and setting up donors right on his client’s farms. The majority of his work was focused on dairy operations, but in the last five years, the dairy and beef work has evened out.
“We did most flush work right on the farm. With many dairy operations calving year-round, they pretty much always had recips to set up. We do a lot of fresh transfers and freeze embryos, and we also travel to do everything right on the farm.”
During a transition period over the past five years, Diamond K Genetics introduced IVF, simultaneously shifting from on-farm work to housing donors. A long time friend Bob Grass, Grass-Lunning Simmental, Leroy, Minnesota, housed donors for Bigalk’s clients. “At first about 10% of my work was completed on Bob’s farm, but I was still doing conventional flush work. When IVF was introduced, we were down there every other week to collect donors.”
Two years ago, Bigalk built a donor housing facility on his farm. The enterprise now completes most donor work on-site. “We collect IVF donors weekly and do in-house conventional flushes once or twice a week. Embryos produced in-house are transported to client’s farms for fresh or frozen transfers. We also have a mobile lab so we can still do on-farm conventional flushes and in-vitro transfers. We are continually adding new services and adapting our current services to the ever-changing beef and dairy industries.”
The busiest time of year for Diamond K Genetics is the spring. In conjunction with calving and breeding his own Simmental cattle, Bigalk also flushes and sets up recipients for beef industry clients.
In addition to himself, Bigalk has one technician who shares the workload with him. He shares, “Nikki Dube has been with me for about five years now. She handles all the paperwork while I handle the cow work. We split lab work like embryo sorting, grading, and freezing.”
Developing the Cattle Operation
After calving from the end of January to mid-March, Bigalk transitions into one of his busiest seasons; simultaneously setting up donors and recipients for his beef clients and for Diamond K. By using high-accuracy AI sires and donor dams for the embryo transfer work, Bigalk hones-in on providing reliable genetics for their commercial customers, “You’ve got more cost involved when you start doing embryo transfer and AI work. But, we make a lot more genetic progress as we continue to collect data. Quality data makes the numbers more accurate, reliable, and consistent.”
From scheduling client work to working and breeding Diamond K cattle, a big part of their philosophy is that herd improvement and efficiency is a work in progress. Bigalk compares his beef selection decisions to that of the dairy industry, “As the dairy industry has shown over the last 10 years, there is a lot more genomic work, revising and editing that they are doing, but their accuracy is much more consistent because of consistent, quality data.”
From April to the end of June each year, half the cow herd is AI bred and put out with a clean up bull and the other half is set up as recipients. In recent years, Diamond K has expanded the bull and heifer offering by using cooperator herds, “I usually keep one or two donors on the farm to flush on my own, along with a few partnership donors. In the past, I've worked with a couple of different cooperators to put in a few embryos. As the interest grows in SimAngus™, so do we.”
When the clean-up bull gets turned out in the beginning of May, the cows are moved to pasture. Bigalk focuses on rotational grazing on their permanent pasture. A portion of their cropland is designated for corn and beans. Most of the corn is turned into silage, and winter hay is purchased. Depending on the year, cows are left out after harvest to graze the corn and beans through December
At weaning time, bull calves are sent to the Aggen family for development, and in February, the yearling bulls are sold in the Oak Meadow Farm’s annual sale. Bred heifers being prepped for the sale are shipped to a partner in northern Minnesota through November for grazing. “We typically get the heifers back the first of November, and we jump into sale photos for both bulls and heifers in December.”
In addition to the partnership sale in February, Bigalk consigns a few heifers to the South Dakota Source Sale and the Minnesota State Sale.
Commercially Focused Genetics
“Our customer base is mostly commercial cattlemen. I’ve always sold my bulls with Oak Meadow Farms, who have a great commercial client base in southeast Minnesota and northeastern Iowa.” Bigalk shares, “We are making strides to ratchet-up our marketing and broaden our client list.”
To ensure that their customers are selecting the right animal for their operation, Bigalk is dedicated to data collection. With the assistance of Leoma Wells from Data Genie, a company designed to help with data management and submission to breed associations, Bigalk collects mature cow weights and body condition scores on the entire cow herd in addition to calf birth weights, weaning weights, and yearling data. “As my business picks up and gets busier, partnering with Leoma helps ensure I am collecting all the data I need to be submitting. For example, I am preparing to collect all udder scores this upcoming calving season. She helps by reminding me of deadlines, what data needs to be collected, and what tools are available to make it the easiest.”
“My herd is also DNA tested,” shares Bigalk, referencing the Cow Herd DNA Roundup, a genomic research project the ASA launched in partnership with Neogen Genomics. “I’m providing parent-confirmed bulls and females in addition to enhanced EPDs.”
When making sale selection decisions, Bigalk focuses on a combination of indexes and phenotype, “We’re trying to sell bulls and females that are phenotypically impressive, have a lot of growth and muscle, but are as problem-free as can be. So we select animals with no holes in their EPD profile. We want to sell a good looking animal that is well above average $API or $TI.”
Bigalk emphasizes the importance of uniformity, “Our clients appreciate the numbers more and more, and feel they are getting a more well-rounded animal. Phenotypically, the bulls are big and stout, but with the calving ease and carcass traits to make them successful additions to our customer’s herds.”
Raising the Legacy
Kory’s wife, Kareen, is a nurse in Rochester and helps with the operation as much as possible. Kareen also grew up in rural, southeast Minnesota and like Kory, wants to provide their children the opportunity to grow up in the agriculture industry.
Their oldest kids, James and Lilla are twins, age nine, and Peyton, the youngest is five. All three have been involved in Cloverbuds, and the oldest has started exhibiting livestock in 4-H and other local events.
“The last two years, they’ve also gone to the Minnesota Beef Expo in October. It’s a really great weekend where kids are involved in events in addition to showing cattle,” Kory shares, referring to the Expo’s Knowledge Bowl, Livestock Judging, and Ambassador competition, not unlike many of the AJSA competitions the kids may get to experience in the future.
“It’s a fun activity to get them outside and get them involved, and they are liking it. We hope to start doing more of it,” he concludes, “It was always our plan to be out in the country, raise our kids with livestock, and provide them the opportunity to take over the operation someday.”
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