Background There is a discrepancy in the reproductive performance between different cattle breeds. Using abattoir-derived ovaries and data base information we studied the effects of breed on in vitro fertilization and early embryo development. Methods The in vitro developmental competence of oocytes from cattle (n = 202) of Swedish Red (SR), Swedish Holstein (SH) and mixed beef breeds was compared, retrospectively tracing donors of abattoir-derived ovaries using a combination of the national animal databases and abattoir information. Age was significantly lower and carcass conformation score was higher in the beef breeds than in the dairy breeds. Cumulus oocyte complexes (n = 1351) were aspirated from abattoir-derived ovaries from animals of known breed (visual inspection confirmed through databases), age (databases), and abattoir information. Oocytes were matured, fertilized (frozen semen from two dairy bulls) and cultured according to conventional protocols. On day 8, blastocysts were graded and the number of nuclei determined. Results Cleavage rate was not different between the breeds but was significantly different between bulls. The percentage of blastocysts on day 8 was significantly higher when the oocyte donor’s breed was beef or SR than SH. There was no significant difference in blastocyst grades or stages between the breeds, but the number of nuclei in day 8 blastocysts was significantly lower in SH compared to the beef. Conclusions The use of abattoir-derived ovaries from animals whose background is traceable can be a valuable tool for research. Using this approach in the present study, oocyte donor breed was seen to affect early embryo development during in vitro embryo production, which may be a contributing factor to the declining fertility in some dairy breeds seen today.