The fertility of dairy cows decreases during the summer and remains low during the cooler autumn although the animals are no longer under heat stress. The aim of this study was to characterize a delayed effect of summer heat stress on oocyte quality in the autumn and to improve oocyte quality by enhanced removal of follicles damaged during the previous summer. Lactating cows (n = 16) were subjected to heat stress during the summer. In autumn, ovarian follicles (3-7 mm in diameter) were aspirated by an ultrasound-guided procedure during four consecutive oestrous cycles. Follicles were aspirated from control cows on day 4 and from treated cows on days 4, 7, 11 and 15 of each oestrous cycle. All cows received PGF(2alpha) and GnRH injections on days 19 and 21, respectively, and maintained cyclicity, as indicated by plasma progesterone concentrations. On day 4 of each cycle, the oocytes recovered were examined morphologically, matured and activated in vitro, and cultured for 8 days. In cycle 1 (early October) both groups showed low percentages of grade 1 oocytes, cleavage, four- and eight-cell embryos, morulae and parthenogenetic blastocysts. Subsequently, the number of grade 1 oocytes increased earlier (cycle 2) in treated than in control cows (cycle 3; P < 0.05). The cleavage rate in the control group remained relatively low throughout (32-58%), whereas in the treated group it increased from 40% (cycle 1) to 75% (cycles 3 and 4; P < 0.05). The number at each stage of embryo development increased slightly but remained low throughout in the control group, whereas in the treated group significant (P < 0.05) increases of all stages were observed in cycles 3 and 4. The results show a delayed effect of summer heat stress on oocyte quality and embryo development in the autumn. Enhanced removal of the impaired cohort of follicles led to earlier emergence of healthy follicles and high quality oocytes in the autumn.
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